Is Cataluña the Next Crimea?

Nothing spells political desperation like the frantic search for metaphors. Just look at speeches that mention blitzkrieg, Sudetenland, or Hitler: usually the referents are trivial and unequal to the famous terms associated with the lead-up to the Second World War. But no matter: politicians are not frequently blessed with a firm grasp of history nor a great capacity to cobble together accurate metaphors. Just this tendency was on display last week when José Manuel García-Margallo, the Foreign Minister of Spain's conservative Popular Party, compared the fraudulent ballot in Crimea to his own government's fight against Cataluña's bid for independence. The gall of the Rajoy government to use this analogy says far more about the theater that has replaced politics in Spain, where unemployment and political disfunction are rife, rather than anything meaningful about Cataluña's desire for autonomy.

Even those in Spain who do not support Catalan independence are rightfully concerned with their Foreign Minister's thoughtless and opportunistic comparison. In the past week, many European pundits have combed through recent history in order to find an analogy for events in Crimea: Georgia and Kosovo have been thrown about the most liberally but nothing seems to have staying power. This is probably because convenient historical comparisons are just that: convenient, and they often elide the particularities that politicians should be focused on if they ever hope to craft meaningful foreign policy. Yet, the governing party of Spain has been particularly liberal in its use of current events. For those concerned with how NATO or the EU deal with the crisis, this kind of heedless outburst should be concerning.

Cataluña has had an independence movement for generations and, since the death of Franco in 1975, separatists have always worked within the law to fight for independence. Spain's political class is rightfully fretful of separatist movements after decades of fighting the militant Basque group ETA but rumblings from Barcelona have never bore any resemblance to the car bombs and assassinations of the previous era. Nor does Cataluña have a troubling relationship with a neighboring regional power that has a history of human rights abuses and impromptu invasions of neighboring states (unless of course you count all those French people who come in August for beaches, paella, and sangria). Finally, Cataluña has a distinct language and culture suppressed under Franco. Unlike Crimea, this is true secession rather than incorporation into another state with irrendentist ambitions.

Spain's governing party must moderate its zeal for false metaphors if they wish to take a seat at the EU foreign policy table as adults rather than petulant children who are myopically focused on their own internal disputes rather than geopolitics. Not only do these outbursts undermine more sound arguments against Catalan independence but they demean the audacity and illegality of Russia's Crimean invasion. Not all independence is the same: recent demonstrations in Barcelona drew millions of people to the streets in order to start a judicial and legislative process, recent events in Crimea brought masked paramilitaries into the streets of Simferopol to hold an election at gunpoint. Seasoned politicians like García-Margallo should take a deep breath and calculate the price of their politically opportunistic analogizing before their credibility and influence become as worthless as a peseta.