“It is not appropriate to compare the Catalan and Kurdistan cases in relation to the referendum on independence” remarked Mr Juan José Escobar-Stemmann, the recently appointed Ambassador of Spain to Baghdad, during a visit to the Middle East Research Institute (MERI) on 11 June 2017.
Escobar-Stemmann was accompanied by Mr Daniel Losada-Millar, Deputy Head of Mission; Mr Dawood S. Jaff, Honorary Consul of Spain; and Ms Inés Cabrero, Spanish Office Erbil. The purpose of his visit was to discuss with MERI’s President, Prof. Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, the current political dynamics in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and the surrounding region.
The Ambassador emphasised that Spain has no position on Kurdish independence, however he enquired whether now is the best time for the KRI to seek independence, due to the fight against Islamic State leading to Iraq taking centre stage between various geopolitical forces. The reaction of Turkey and Iran to a declaration of independence by the KRI was argued to have a potentially destabilising impact in the region.
Prof. Dlawer Ala’Aldeen gave an overview of the historical developments which led to the current distance between the KRI and Iraq. On both sides, he argued, actors could have invested more in their relationship and stopped “the crack between the two sides widening”. Baghdad was not able to embrace the Kurds or Sunni Arab communities and the Kurds and Sunnis did not go to Baghdad to own the country, he added.
The question now is which territories are included in the KRI’s drive for independence. It was argued that the KRI will not settle for independence without both Kirkuk and other territories in Nineveh which they claim. Baghdad, on the other hand, will not easily let go of these territories. These are real issues that might precipitate further tension.
Discussion then moved to whether any parallels could be drawn with the Catalonia region’s drive for independence, as well as Kosovo independence. These three nations have similarities in terms of the sentimental reasons which underpin the drive for independence, however, three main differences were debated: (a) Catalonia has no colonial past; (b) Catalonia’s status is written into the constitution; and (c) Catalonia has a higher level of freedom. In any case, a simple majority in Catalonia would not be sufficient to break up Spain as a qualified majority would be necessary.
The meeting concluded with a discussion around whether there could be a third way to cater to the desires of Catalonia and the KRI for recognition and increased powers. Both have extensive powers already, either de jure or de facto, and there was a suggestion that perhaps halfway houses could be created which would be mutually satisfying. In the KRI, it was emphasised that actors should focus on strengthening good governance, rule of law and nation-building, which would in turn support their drive for recognition as well as being positive in their own right.