Some brief thoughts on Catalonian independence

A few weeks ago, the Spanish region of Catalonia held an independence referendum. The region’s distinct language and culture, as well as its prosperity relative to the rest of Spain, has made independence an enticing prospect for centuries. Moreover, the repression of the Catalan way of life under Franco has only increased animosity against the Spanish government in recent decades.

The problem was, the referendum was illegal. Spain’s constitution declares the country to be an indivisible whole. Spain’s courts and government thereby view any attempt to be independent as totally illegitimate. But even though the referendum itself was illegal, the way in which the Spanish government tried to suppress the referendum was particularly brutal, with many voters being beaten by police simply for trying to vote.

I’m very torn on the subject. On the one hand, I don’t believe in breaking the law unless you are living under tyranny. Spain may be a somewhat corrupt and highly inefficient state, but it is not a repressive one. So breaking laws which have democratic legitimacy isn’t the right course of action. The Catalonian government called the referendum, knowing it would provoke a backlash and Madrid would try to prevent it using force- making the international community more sympathetic to their cause. The sensible thing to do would be to play the long game- wait until there is a left-wing government in Madrid which recognises the right of the Catalonians to a referendum, as the leftist PODEMOS party does. Calling a referendum which unionists inevitably boycotted for being illegal carries no democratic legitimacy, and is little more than a publicity stunt in my view.

Having said that, the Spanish government’s response plays into the separatists’ hands. By being so thuggish in their (failed) attempt to stop the referendum, the independence movement can now deploy a victimhood narrative, using recent events to demonstrate how authoritarian modern Spain is. What also doesn’t help is that a notable minority of unionist protestors in the aftermath of the referendum were giving fascist salutes (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4959952/Spain-supporters-fascist-salutes-independence-demo.html).

Overall, I agree with PODEMOS. I don’t believe in Catalonian independence. Most of the separatists’ grievances could be addressed though further devolution, without the economic shock and downturn leaving Spain would cause. More importantly, Spain could veto an independent Catalonia’s EU membership, bringing further harm to the region. It simply isn’t worth that risk. However, all people have a right to self determination, the Catalonians included. If they wish to hold a referendum on independence, then that is their choice. If Spain were a truly free country as the unionists claim, then it would respect that right. Furthermore, I don’t believe it is the role of the EU to adjudicate this dispute. EU neutrality is the only way to prevent more Euroscepticism from arising. However badly the Spanish government has behaved here, EU intervention would be seen as a violation of Spain’s right to determine its own affairs. We must only hope  peace and common sense prevail in the end.

  • Carmen

    Thanks, Owen, for offering an inclusive framework through which to analyze the separatist issues. The basic problem that reappears in these confrontations seems to be over the “right of self-determination.” Historically, how has that worked? .

    Did the Confederate States in the American South, have that right? Scotland? Palestine? Catalonia, Quebec? Jefferson Davis was at least blunt in explaining the movement for southern secession: “to escape majority rule.” Maybe the inescapable fundamental fact is that you can secede but the independence will only last if you can defend it militarily. What do you think?

    • Owen Bell

      In an uncivilised and anarchic world, the traditional realist view of independence as a condition achievable only through force is the most accurate one. It’s certainly true that smaller nations with aspirations for statehood cannot survive if their larger adversaries are opposed to them; Athens’ attack on Melos during the Peloponnesian war being a case in point.

      But in a world which at least in theory, adheres to an international rules-based system, sheer military might needn’t be a pre-requisite for national self-determination. The international community has a responsibility to ensure that the right of national self-determination is upheld. It’s why the UN encouraged the nations of Europe to relinquish their colonies after WW2. It’s also why the UN holds aspirations for an independent Palestine- it’s clearly what the people of Palestine want. So in the case of your other contemporary examples- Scotland, Catalonia, Quebec- they all have a right to secede if the majority of their people express a desire to in a free and fair referendum.

      The Confederate States are a different matter. Here we had a polity that while in theory had the right to secede, but in practice its main reason to secede was to deny many of its own people basic human rights. If a hypothetical independent state’s raison d’etre is based on slavery and institutional racism, then the international community has a responsibility to ensure those statehood aspirations are never realised. In this case, the United States government had a responsibility to prevent the Confederacy from seceding so as to uphold the rights of black people living in the South.

      • Carmen

        A universal “right” to demand political independence may exist but historically, if that “right” is not enforceable. the situation will not change day-to-day life. In American history, that “right” was denied to any political group that rejected U.S. sovereignty. What saddens us on this side of the Atlantic is that in practice, particularly in the last few decades, the U.S. violated international law with impunity.

        I think that your qualifier– “at least in theory”– there is adherence to rules-based systems, is key. If it’s Grotius’ system of international law we’re working with, the defining aspect of state sovereignty is that a system of power based on territory rests on the ability to keep order within and repel attacks from outside force.

        Actually , I was not thinking of contemporary conditions when I spoke of Scotland, rather the 18th Century when the British defeated the Scots by force. The British, similarly, prevailed in French Canada.

        That touches me directly 🙂 “From 1763 until the Canadian Citizenship Act came into force on January 1, 1947, people born in Canada were all British subjects.” 🙂
        http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/immigration/citizenship-naturalization-records/Pages/introduction.aspx.