On Sunday Catalan voters are going to the polls for an independence referendum. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont told a closing rally in Barcelona on Friday night that Catalonia is taking its first steps as a sovereign nation.
The Spanish Government has a very different view. It says the referendum is illegal and is trying to block it. Spanish police have raided offices and seized ballot papers. Apparently under pressure, Google has deleted an app used to direct voters to polling stations.
On the one hand, the US does not want to be seen to support a potential repression of democratic freedoms. On the other, it does not want to say anything that could contradict the government of Spain, a NATO ally.
So what is Washington to do?
This was the vexing question for State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert (pictured) on Tuesday at her press briefing, a day after Donald Trump — standing alongside Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy — said the referendum was a “mistake” and — explaining that the issue has “been unfolding for centuries” — asserted, “Spain Is a great country and it should remain united.”
A journalist asked Nauert, “[This] suggests to me that you guys…don’t support the Catalonia referendum. Is that correct?”
The spokeswoman tried to just play back Trump’s words — “great country”, “tremendous ally”, “remain united”, “close US partner” — but the reporter pressed, “I understand that, but my question is about – specifically about whether or not you support the Catalan people having a referendum on independence.”
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Nauert finally had to navigate between US support of the “people” and support of Madrid:
We certainly understand that some in Spain might want to hold a referendum. I get that. Other countries have done that as well. We would regard that, though, as an internal matter that’s up for the people to decide, but overall we support a unified Spain.
After a long and generally fruitless journey about any comparison between Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan, which held its own independence referendum on Monday, the journalist tried once more, “You’re going to say whether or not you think that Catalonia should have a referendum or not?…Does the administration believe that the people of Catalonia should be able to express their opinion?”
Nauert then made her key distinction: “I think that is an internal matter for the people of Spain [emphasis added] to decide.
Not the people “of Catalonia”. The people “of Spain”, 84% of whom do not live in the Catalan region.
The spokesperson then finally took one side over the other: “We support the Government of Spain. We support a unified Spain.”