Opinion: Catalan farmers are embroiled in this dangerous political stand-off


Sacked Catalan President Carles Puigdemont. Photo: REUTERS
Sacked Catalan President Carles Puigdemont. Photo: REUTERS
John Downing

John Downing

When Catalan farmers drove a tractorcade into Barcelona last month they were not protesting against falling farm incomes, or increasing pressure on government over some burning issue like the glyphosate ban.

They were backing the holding of that ill-starred independence referendum which kicked off a huge chain reaction of conflict. By now this one is as big an EU headache as Brexit, and like Brexit, it will absorb a lot of energy merely to minimise harm.

Like much of the developed world, Catalan farmers are not a numerous grouping. Of the 7.5m people there are just 59,000 farms and numbers directly working in Catalan agriculture are put at just 45,000 people.

But against that, like many other parts of Europe in particular, farmers punch way above their weight politically. Farmland occupies one third of Catalonia's landmass and agriculture produce makes up one seventh of its overall exports.

And just like most every place else, there is a harking back among many urbanites to their family's rural origins, which helps keep farming and rural life notionally special. That's a sentiment pithily summed up by the writer Brendan Behan's adage: "A 'culchie' is a Dubliner's father."

But Catalan farmers are as deeply caught up in the latest farrago as any other group. It is likely that they are proportionately affected by the dramatic swing in national sentiment about Catalan independence which has occurred in the past decade.

In 2006 little more than one in eight people backed independence - now it is almost one in three. A third of people could have lived with Catalonia as a Spanish province - now that is just one in five. Four out of 10 people thought more autonomy was the solution but now that is down to one in three.

That, however, is another way of saying that Catalonia is now deeply divided on the issue. Last Sunday some 300,000 people marched in Barcelona - this time for Catalonia to remain with Spain. In fact, the split is now deemed to be close to 50:50, a very dangerous divisive line-up.

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Ireland and the other EU states are in a pretty tight straitjacket on this one. Many EU member states have incipient "regional problems" which have threatened to become problematic in the past and could do so again.

In recent decades France had problems in Corsica and Brittany. In recent weeks, Italy had two referendums on independence in regions in the north of that country. There are many linguistic minorities with grievances. Belgium, riven periodically by Flemish and French speakers' divisions, lives with a frequent threat of splitting in two.

All the EU governments, including Ireland, are obliged to stand with Madrid. The mantra is simple: the October 1 Catalan independence referendum was illegal. Spain is not to be divided.

A little political vignette which occurred over the weekend shows just how tightly wound this one really is from a mainland European point of view.

A political incident in Belgium told a lot. The Belgian migration minister, Theo Francken, also an outspoken Flemish nationalist, said the ousted Catalan President, Charles Puigemont, could be offered asylum in Belgium.

The comments were instantly deemed "unnecessary" by his Belgian government colleagues. That's a straight "shut up" injunction.

But this one is being allowed drift dangerously onwards. Even recognising the EU's rather invidious position, the Barcelona-Madrid stand-off is crying out for mediation and Brussels must find a way.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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