What does Catalonia's story tell us, Hungarians?
The printed version of this article was published in daily Magyar Nemzet. Date of publication: October 21, 2017
Catalonia has voted for its independence in an officially unrecognized referendum. Now it is considering the options for its independent statehood while the Spanish state is doing all it can to preserve its unity. Encouraged by the example, Italy’s northern provinces are thinking about separation as well. But what does all this mean for us, Hungarians?
Europe is in motion again – this is how we can acknowledge these recent events with a contentment in many aspects. In addition to the predominant ideas of a federal European Union, more and more alternatives are now making it to the political mainstream. Brexit and the migration crisis have reopened debates that seem to have been closed for decades in our continent. Community, identity, the relations to European values – these are the issues dominating our discourse today. As members of the Hungarian nation that has been unable to moderate the challenge posed by its historical split into many pieces, we may view the assertive stance of other peoples as a positive example. If they can think as a unit, we might, too, some of us may perhaps conclude. We could not be more wrong at times.
As the foundation of Western European thinking, liberalism is still at work underneath the independence movements of many regions demanding full sovereignty. While many people expected the increasing role of communities to lead us back to the more glorious eras of Europe, we are sad to see that the principle of the self-determination of communities is often presented along such left-wing, or even anarchistic principles which disintegrated the states that once had made Europe great. Including Hungary.
The independence movements now keeping Europe agitated are not driven by some national feelings but the calculation of some political lobby groups and a considerable amount of populism. As an entity having thus far enjoyed an exemplary autonomy and now entertaining separatist objectives, Catalonia is a clear example of the above.
Ever since the Treaty of Trianon, Hungarian politics has been unable to achieve lasting success in terms of improving the situation of our fellow-Hungarian communities ending up on the other side of our borders. Even though protecting the rights of the Hungarian communities living in the territories torn away from us has remained a key issue for our diplomacy, the right path just seems to be lost in fog. The division in Hungarian domestic politics has affected our national policy as well. Just like so many other areas, it is also characterized by opposing leftist and rightist approaches, the conflict and cyclical alternation of which have blocked any strategic planning.
While the left has never been able to surpass the idea of internationalism and considered the issue of ethnic Hungarian communities as a problem that would be solved by itself (or by “historical progression”), the national side got stuck in a state of convulsive denial. It meant the inability to accept that the Hungarian nation ended up in a new situation and the foundation for reaching a solution must be a realistic assessment of facts. The political right, which had ignored the factors posing a threat to our statehood, kept refusing to face the difficulties later as well. Instead, it escaped into its own dreams.
The common features of these two approaches are the complete lack of realism, an expectation of a miracle as well as a bitter disappointment after facing the reality. Neither internationalism, nor European integration could make up for what the Hungarian nation had failed to do. The utter inflexibility of the national side was no help, either. The left failed to utilize even the available options while the right missed the target due to its unrealistic ideas. Both led to the same outcome: disappointment and demoralization. In the meantime, the constantly diminishing ethnic Hungarian communities have become an unsolvable burden for our governments. In an atmosphere like this, no wonder that our national policy has become a series of failures; being unable, even in a European Union so sensitive to the discrimination against minorities, to achieve successful diplomatic measures against such blatantly discriminative legislations as the Benes Decrees, the language acts and the citizenship laws adopted in our neighbouring countries. The latest example of which is Ukraine’s education act. None of these issues could gain the attention of the international community, something which Hungary’s diplomacy is solely responsible for. This is how ethnic Hungarians feel, too. Some of them yielded to dead-end ideological daydreaming, while the larger share of them turned away from the weakening motherland.
So it is high time for the Hungarian national policy to finally abandon wishful thinking by setting more realistic and feasible goals and developing action plans justifiable and executable based on international law in order to protect the rights of ethnic Hungarian communities, thus winning the international public for our cause. However, the reactions to the current Catalonian situation seem to suggest that Hungary’s discourse has not been able to step over its own shadow. While the laconically reserved statements by Hungary’s official diplomacy referred to the Catalonian referendum as Spain’s internal affair, the Internet is flooded with homespun argumentations for Catalonia’s independence. As some sort of a special Hungarian feature, such different groups as liberals viewing the events as nothing but Spanish police brutality and violation of human rights, extreme-leftists ideologically sympathizing with left-wing Catalonian separatist efforts and the national camp nurturing the idea of irredentism and thus looking to Catalonian separatism as an example have all found each other. It is inevitable for Hungary’s foreign affairs leadership to re-evaluate our situation and draw the necessary conclusions, too.
Of all the options available for Hungary at the moment, the only way to deal with the issue is to achieve regional autonomy for the Hungarian community living in a block and cultural autonomy for those living in diaspora. Despite being something less than independence, autonomy is still the only option justifiable and executable on the grounds of international law. This is the only way to accomplish our primary objective, which is to preserve the identity, language and national symbols of the Hungarian communities. The opportunities offered by a functional regional autonomy are almost limitless. In such a framework, the Hungarian community living in one block could have its own government, a local parliament, public administration, taxation, even police. This system has examples in the EU: this is how South Tyrol and Catalonia works, too.
However, in order for achieving this goal, Budapest and the local communities must cooperate. Unfortunately, none of the Hungarian governments so far have been able to treat ethnic Hungarian groups as partners. Either they completely abandoned them or they wanted to exercise total control over them, using their communities for building political and economic clientèle or for cheap vote collection. This process has particularly intensified since 2010.
Catalonia’s case will likely be an example. The question is: will it be a positive or a negative one?
Since medieval times, Catalonia has formed a part of the Spanish Kingdom. Its first attempts at autonomy surfaced in the 20th century, closely associated with anti-monarchical left-wing agendas. During the civil war, Catalonia was a stronghold of the republican left attracted by the idea of Communism. No wonder the concepts of leftist dictatorship and separatism were linked together for long in so many Spanish minds. Neither is it a wonder that Franco’s post-civil-war regime limited the rights of the Catalonian province. Although Franco’s system ended in 1975 and Catalonia was granted a wide autonomy again, the power of the left increased nonetheless.
Having received full autonomy within the decentralized Spanish state, Catalonia has had its own parliament, public administration, education, healthcare and police force. It has become one of Spain’s richest but also most indebted provinces. On the other hand, Madrid provided a guarantee for the increasing debts of Catalonia, a province categorized as speculative by credit rating institutions. Considering the above, why was it necessary to hold an independence referendum and disrupt a functional system?
Mostly to promote the agenda of certain extreme left and anarchistic political forces externally supporting and also blackmailing Catalonia’s minority government. There is no other, real argument for Catalonia’s independence. The region achieved its economic success with the help of Madrid, with Spanish enterprises and within the framework of the European Union. After becoming independent, Catalonia would have to stand on its own with an independent territorial defence, judicial, taxation and legal system, things that have been provided by Madrid so far.
Irresponsibly enough, Catalonia’s leadership lulled its voters into the illusion that an independent Catalonia would remain part of the EU as a viable state. By holding this referendum, they have upset a functional system, jeopardizing Catalonia’s obtained rights, which is a highly risky move. As Hungarians, we must not ignore the aspect that the separation would have the same consequences for Spain as the Treaty of Trianon had for the Hungarian Kingdom. It would be a dangerous political message suggesting that a separatist movement, if carried out with a sufficiently aggressive attitude, may achieve its goal. At a time when Europe is threatened by the migrant crisis, there is no question how dangerous it is to destabilize the continent and incite people with fine-sounding yet ill-considered slogans. Neither is it a question what effect the potential failure of the Catalonian independence movement may have on all other self-determination efforts. An independence attempt gone awry will obviously help the cause of those leading Slovakian, Ukrainian or Romanian politicians who keep trying to identify Hungarian autonomy efforts with separatism.
International law declares the right of self-determination but it also protects national sovereignty. It comes as no surprise that each European government has taken Madrid’s side, which is an important indication of Europe’s predominant position in terms of separatist agendas. In contrast, autonomy has many positive examples. While the first objective is not feasible at present, the latter is. The path that we Hungarians need to take is not that of Catalonia. Instead, we must set realistic and feasible goals, the achievement of which could provide an experience of success for ethnic Hungarian communities threatened by brain drain and assimilation. In conclusion, autonomy is the objective that we must persistently pursue in terms of the Hungarian communities. This is the European, 21st-century solution for a diplomacy aiming to promote national interests.