Saturday, April 19, 2014

Catalonia from Switzerland


When writing this speech in French before having it translated into English, a language I am not that fluent in, I asked myself two questions:

a)   Would it be right or fair of me to voice opinions here in person in this forum at Utrecht about the Catalonia issue?

b)   How might Switzerland be interested in understanding what the realities are in Catalonia today and could Switzerland’s past and neutrality have something to add to the debate?

It is self-evident that the Catalan origins have something to do with me being here before you today. Over ten years ago, initially through the history of the Barcelona soccer club, I became interested in Barcelona, the city, its history and the history of Catalonia. As for my wife, who cannot stand football, she understood even more clearly the importance of Catalonia’s history through the history of Barcelona’s famous soccer club. The history of Barça is written large in Catalonia’s past. Barça’s past has similarities with Switzerland’s past too. Indeed, Switzerland knows much more about Barça’s past than Catalonia’s. That’s simply because one of the founders of Barça was Swiss, a Swiss-German speaking the local dialect called Hans Gamper whose daughter still lives in the French-speaking region of Switzerland at Nyon. Hans Gamper, known as Joan Gamper in Catalonia, scored a goal in the first ever Barcelona-Real Madrid El Clásico match on 13th May 1902 which Barcelona won 3-1. This Swiss-German also campaigned for Catalonia’s independence, As a result, he was forced into exile. Despite his his enthusiasm for life, because of this exile, he had to suffer a huge depression. As condition for his return to Catalonia, he was obliged to promise not to get involved again with the club he had helped to found. He could not stand the unfairness of this and committed suicide in 1930. The La Vanguardia newspaper of 1st August 1930 reported on the huge crowd that attended Joan Gamper’s funeral. Coincidentally, that also happens to be Switzerland’s National Day. General Franco vehemently objected to the decision to name Barcelona’s stadium after him. Gamper was a foreign national and a Protestant who had committed suicide, and who was a liberal and pro-Catalonian independence. And to add insult to injury in Franco’s eyes, he had changed his Swiss-German first name from Hans to the Catalan Joan. For the Franco regime, Joan Gamper was taboo.

I fervently believe the issue of Catalonia itself must not be treated as a taboo subject neither for Europe nor for Switzerland. Judging by the reactions of Madrid, it is safe to say the Spanish authorities would prefer it if the Catalonia issue were taboo. However, the role of those who want democracy and citizens’ right of free speech to prevail is to do their utmost to ensure these democracy and individuals’ rights of free expression are not just voiced, but real action taken.

The Swiss Federal Charter is considered to have existed since 1291. For historians, unlike the politicians and the general public, it has been clear for some considerable time that the founding of the nation of Switzerland cannot be dated back to the Middle Ages. That is an invention born out of the need to wipe from the memories the troubles of the Sonderbund civil war in the mid-19th century which briefly saw catholic and conservative cantons, including my canton of birth, Valais, clashing with radical, protestant and progressive cantons. Nurturing this myth was vital for the birth of the Swiss nation-state.

The first Swiss Federal Constitution dates back to 1848, but, in effect, what really underpin Swiss constitutional law are the right of referendum, which did not come until 1874, and the right to the popular initiative, introduced in 1891. In 1891, the Swiss celebrated for the very first time, six hundred years on, the original charter dated 1st August 1291. It is easy to see that Switzerland, like Catalonia, is keen on marking those symbolic numbers and dates. It is also clear from this that the establishment of Switzerland as a nation-state does not go that far back in time.

Today, Switzerland’s population is just over 8 million. Under the Federal Constitution, 100,000 Swiss citizens can request complete or partial amendment to the Constitution by submitting a popular initiative. Moreover, Federal legislation and international treaties can be submitted for popular vote, through an optional referendum if 50,000 citizens ask for it. That is what is called direct or semi-direct democracy in Switzerland.

In recognition of Switzerland’s traditions and reputation for diplomacy and mediation, the Palais des Nations was built in Geneva from 1929 to 1936. It is decorated with superb frescoes by the Catalan artist José Maria Sert. These portray the idea of international brotherhood.

Switzerland’s domestic constitutional past and my country’s ability over time to act as an accomplished mediator on the international stage seem to provide, in my view, sound guarantees that Switzerland will not duck the whole debate about Catalonia. I was one of the first in Switzerland to declare that Switzerland should strive to understand what is really at stake in Catalonia and to be involved one day perhaps in its journey to independence. We all know this process of gaining independence will not be exclusively driven domestically, but will also have to be resolved beyond the borders of both Spain and Catalonia.

Switzerland itself had to cope with a process of independence inside its own country. The long path ended on 24 September 1978 when the 26th canton of the Confederation, Jura, was created. Obviously, the creation of a new canton inside a Federal state cannot be compared constitutionally with Catalonia’s desire for an opportunity to vote on becoming an independent state. Nevertheless, I think we can compare the wishes of the Jura inhabitants no longer to form a part of the canton of Berne with the desires of the Catalonians no longer to be part of Spain. It should be remembered that the canton of Berne in the end agreed to conduct a series of popular votes to ascertain what the people of the Jura region really wanted. Those popular votes ended up with the canton of Jura being set up.

The questions to be put to the Catalan people on 9 November 2014 must be equated to that of a popular vote or plebiscite. If we were to make a comparison with Swiss constitutional law, I would say that we are talking more about the rights and law associated with popular initiatives rather than the referendum. That comparison may be splitting hairs somewhat as, in formal terms, the Spanish constitution does not make provision for any right to have a popular vote based on a popular initiative.

When referring to a region in Eastern Europe, Switzerland’s President, Mr Didier Burkhalter recently commented very clearly that, if the people do have to be consulted on an issue about the status of autonomy, it is something that has to be managed carefully. He was specifically referring to the wish to extend the autonomy of a region. In his opinion, it was up to the region to decide on its future. If we paraphrase him, I would say it is up to Catalonia to decide on its future.

This right for Catalonia to follow the path of its independence is, in my view, clearly enshrined in the right to self-determination, the right of people to make decisions for themselves. This right is broadly stated in the United Nations Charter and in the two 1966 international covenants on human rights. The right to self-determination is regarded as a basic human right in international law.

Spain will object to this argument as its constitution prohibits any such split. I would simply remark that, to my knowledge, the introduction of the Statuts of Autonomy recognizes Catalonia as a nation. By virtue of the principle of the primacy of a higher-ranking right, the principle of self-determination of peoples as laid down in international law ranks above Spanish domestic law.

That said, when putting this argument forward, I am not overlooking the fact that laws are only instruments of power, rarely of justice. As a result, all the approaches made by Spain’s leaders to international authorities, neighboring countries, the European Union, its friends and allies, in far-flung corners of the world, will underpin the legal position and reinforce Catalonia’s right of self-determination and eventually persuade Spain, through the power of justice and the principle of self-determination, to negotiate financially Catalonia’s exit.


Failure to talk about the role of the language today would be a mistake, indeed a serious shortcoming. You are probably all aware that, on 9 February 2014, Switzerland voted against mass immigration. This choice made by Swiss voters, by a very slender majority of 50.3%, was widely interpreted throughout Europe as a vote against foreigners. However this is a simple view of the matter. Although the factor of an expanding non-Swiss population in the country obviously did play a part in the electoral decision made by the Swiss people, it should be remembered that the traditional stances of the conservative parties struck a chord with another phenomenon, the large number of Germans living in Switzerland. Germans make up the biggest proportion of foreigners in Switzerland. Moreover, in spring 2013, Germany figured on the list of countries on which the Federal Council had activated an exceptional clause for restricting the free movement of people. This German presence in reality raises a basic cultural issue, the question of language. There is a typically Swiss inferiority complex with regard to speakers of a language that is not really their own. The clash between the pure version of German, ‘Hochdeutsch’, and the dialect of German spoken in the Swiss-German regions, ‘Schwyzerdütsch’, is key. The vote registered in Swiss-German areas, as many commentators have pointed out, harks back to that pact of 1291 and fears about Swiss identity purely and simply disappearing.

I believe that, if there is one country that can understand the position of the German-speaking regions of Switzerland as regards the importance to be given to the language used, it is indeed Catalonia. Respect for the identity of a people is rooted essentially in respect for the language they speak and use.

When almost 80% of the population or of a nation want to vote to determine their futures, Europe and Switzerland, by their common past, their personal histories, their separate histories, cannot really refuse the Catalan people a vote to determine what they want. If they did, they would be denying them their fundamental values, their belief that citizens have the right to choose, that citizens have the right to design their own institutions, that citizens have the right to appoint their leaders and representatives, that citizens have the right to alter the course of their history.


These are the values, the values of freedom and solidarity, which give the right to any citizen of the world, be they Swiss and neutral, from Valais and socialist, to declare here in Utrecht that common sense and justice must direct us to allow Catalonia to relish, in peace, calm and harmony, that historical day to come on 9 November 2014.



Stéphane Riand
Socialist Party Member of the General Council (Sion, Switzerland)
Utrecht, April 8th, 2014

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