Michael Ignatieff: “The judgement of the Supreme Court will not be the end”

Professor Ignatieff stresses the urgent need for a dialogue based on the Canadian experience

Based in Canada, Michael Ignatieff boasts forty years of study and observation of the "national question” —a classic term that the professor uses to refer to nationalism—, which does not detract from his enthusiasm, albeit dotted with concern, when discussing Catalonia and Spain. Michael Ignatieff (Toronto, 1947) traveled to Croatia, Kurdistan, Serbia, Germany, Ukraine, Quebec and Northern Ireland with a BBC team to explore the maze of “nationalism”, the subject of a documentary and a book, Blood and Belonging. Now he exudes the utmost respect for the treatment of identity and the national question. The grandson of a Russian landowner from Ukraine and the son of a Canadian diplomat, Ignatieff is a cosmopolitan intellectual and a liberal politician who insists on what he regards as the main teaching from Quebec and Canada: dialogue, dialogue and dialogue. He believes that “atomic bombs” or verdicts such as the one that the Spanish Supreme Court will announce in the first half of October [in the case of the 2017 Catalan independence bid] will not put the issue to rest. “Those who prosecuted [the Catalan independence leaders] expect the trial to be the end of something, but this has no end. Both parties have to recognize that. The Catalans say that this will end only with national independence. It won't be like that. Because independence will never be recognized. That is not the end. On the side of the Spanish Government and the Spanish political parties, they expect the end to be a firm judicial punishment for the nationalists that would put an end to the situation. Both parties are wrong. This is not the end of everything. What can end this situation, although nothing ever ends, is a permanent political dialogue of some kind: under the table, in silence, or with a walk in the woods, as we say in English”

Professor Ignatieff, currently the rector of the University of Central Europe (CEU) in Budapest, met ARA for an interview. Michael Ignatieff, who plans to travel to Barcelona in middle of October, asked the first question: When will the Spanish Supreme Court give the judgment about the Catalan case and what is expected?

In the first fortnight of October. I think the verdict will describe a rebellion of sorts, perhaps a conspiracy for rebellion. But it will not be, I believe, a conviction for a major, full-scale rebellion, as the Prosecutor's Office qualifies for the events of September and October 2017, with prison sentences of up to 25 years for former Vice President of the Catalan government Oriol Junqueras, for example. But it will be harsh. It will fall on Catalonia like an atomic bomb.

I feel ambiguous about commenting on a volatile situation and I don't want to make the situation worse by saying something stupid. But I feel there is a story of missed opportunities here. As you said, the forthcoming judgment may be an atomic bomb that may blow up Spain and might blow up Catalonia, blow up both. I worry about the anger that may follow the judgement of the Spanish court. It may inflame an already difficult situation pushing both sides towards an outcome that, in the end, is no good for either them. That's my chief fear.

You see the situation through the prism of Canada. What is the view of a Canadian who has explored many nationalist experiences?

I see everything through the lens of Canada. So when I talk about Catalonia and Spain I always think about Quebec and Canada. And so that gives me an external prospect, but also limits my perspective. It means I don’t share the passionate emotions on both sides in the Spanish-Catalonia battle. But what Canadians see is that countries are held together because they avoid the use of atomic weapons. They don’t do unilateral referenda and they don’t use the law to resolve issues like this. They solve them politically by sitting down and talking and talking and talking and talking. And they do so not because they like each other, but because it is the only solution.

The  word 'dialogue' is often a slogan, but it seems that it is actually only invoked as a cover or mere propaganda.

Where is Catalonia suppose to go? It has been part of the Spanish peninsula forever. Europe will never accept the establishment of an independent Catalan state as a member of the European Union. Not just because Spain won’t let it happen, but because no other state can afford to let it happen, as it opens the door to secessionist movements across Europe. This is fact number one: independence will not be recognized. Secondly, Spain has to respect that Catalonia is different and it must to find a way to do that without blowing up Spain. And, yes, this means recognizing other people’s differences, too. Twenty-first century countries can't survive unless they recognize each other’s internal differences. There is no way back to the unitary Spanish nationalism of the Franco period.    Catalan distinctiveness is a fact, it's not some fantasy. Just as the Catalans must recognize that there is not viable path to a fully independent national state, the Spanish need to understand that there is no way back to a unitary Spanish nationalism. Spain and Catalonia have to face facts.

You have warned that this issue should be left outside the scope of judges and media. Can we say it’s an impossible mission?

Yes, this is also a fact. And what I regret about the judicialization of this is that it makes it appear as if political, historical, cultural problems can be resolved by force of law. This is not just a story of Quebec and Canada, it's also the story of Northern Ireland. In the 1990’s people's careers could be destroyed by talking to the other side. But people did talk, secretly, quietly, and in the end there has been a peace accord in Northern Ireland for 20 years. Thanks to politics, people are not dying anymore in Northern Ireland. I have been in rooms in Madrid where Catalan politicians do talk to Spanish politicians. It's difficult for both sides to do it, but they must. What I fear is that the judgement in October may make further political contact impossible.

You often separate what is the agenda of politicians and their parties from what happens to people in the street or at home...

Yes, an important issue is that many people who live in Catalonia do not want to be forced to choose between Catalonia and Spain. And I always argued that it is a cardinal sin in politics to force people to make choices they do not want to make. And yes, these choices are in the interests of politicians, but they are not in the interest of ordinary people. These forced choices split families and neighbors apart, make friends and enemies. It's a catastrophe at the micro-level. I never will be condescending and dismissive toward nationalism. It is one of the most positives forces in the world of today. But don't force people to make choices that they don't want to make. Find a nationalism where you can be proud of your Catalan identity, but you don't need to create enemies of anybody around you. You have to share the land with people who don't agree with you. Politics is about living with people you don't agree with. That's the reality of modern life. 

In Spain, what politics is about is precisely the opposite. It is a permanent polarization induced by the parties. And that regional polarization, in the Basque Country before and now in Catalonia, provides votes in the rest of Spain. And also, it has deep  roots in the Spain’s history that you already know very well.

You need to share, because there is one thing worse than that, and that's civil war. I’m aware —and among my Spanish friends— that there is a deep hardening of opinion, the development of a far-right party, the hardening of the national question. That means that the political space for my kind of argument is disappearing. Those who judicialized this process will hope that the judgement will be the end of something, but there is no end to this. Both sides have to acknowledge that. There is no end. Catalans say “this will end only with our national independence”. There is no end there because the independence will not be recognized. The Spanish side of the story is that this will end with a firm judicial punishment for the nationalists and that would bring this to an end. Both sides are wrong. This is not the end of everything. What ends, and nothing ever ends, is a permanent ongoing political dialogue. A constant political process is needed to restart somehow slowly and it will take a very long time to define the constitutional form that allows Spain to accomplish one task: to maintain a form of Spain that respects the national identities of peoples and regions. Spanish conservatives will say: How can you say this? It’s scandalous! Come on, relax! You want to go back to Franco? Biggest mistake they could make. It's ridiculous. Spain today needn’t be the future Spain. History is not a prison.

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