Testing the limits of self-determination in Catalonia

“Stop this escalation of radicalism and disobedience once and for all.”

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“Stop this escalation of radicalism and disobedience once and for all.”
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to Catalan pro-independence protesters

While it hasn’t received much coverage in the mainstream North American press, the regional government of Catalonia in northeastern Spain with its capital in Barcelona has called an independence vote for Sunday, October 1st. If the referendum does take place, it will be despite heavy handed actions taken by the Spanish government and the country’s highest court to prevent it.

Madrid has gone so far as to arrest at least 14 local officials and has seized some 10 million ballots to try and stop the plebiscite from happening. It’s even taken the unusual step of taking control of the region’s local police forces and has rushed in national “paramilitary” police from the Guardia Civil and officers from other regions to Catalonia.

Spanish authorities have also blocked a number of web-sites related to the referendum, a step that has put them in pretty bad company as far as freedom of expression is concerned.

“What they’re doing by blocking domain name servers is doing what Turkey does and what China does and what North Korea does,” a spokesman for the Catalan regional government explained a few days before the proposed vote, “No western democracy does that, The internet is the kingdom of freedom.”

So far, the result has been peaceful, if sometimes angry, protest on the part of many Catalans. 

A clear majority of the 7.5 million citizens of Catalonia support the idea of having the referendum itself, which the region’s parliament, currently controlled by pro-independence parties, went ahead with on its own after years of vainly petitioning the central government to allow it. 

As the region’s President, Carles Puigdemont, wrote in an editorial in the UK Guardian a week and change before the proposed referendum, “We have arrived at this unacceptable situation after asking Madrid for political dialogue dozens of times, and each time being rejected by the Spanish executive, which has consistently refused to discuss Catalonia’s future.”

Early polling suggested that the “No” side held a slim majority and that Catalonia would most likely remain in the country. If this is true, the vote is simply a matter of principle and the Spanish government risks doing more damage to it’s future relations with the region through its overreaction to the yearning of most Catalans to have the referendum and (hopefully) settle the issue of independence once and for all. 

The conservative Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy has behaved in a manner that seems almost sure to raise the ire of the many Catalans who were wavering or mildly supportive of remaining in the country. Alfonso Dastis, the Spanish Foreign Minister, even made the hilarious claim that, rather than demonstrating the popular will, “referendums are a weapon of choice of dictators.”

This opinion would be poorly received by many states that achieved independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union and later joined the E.U. as full members; as Vincent Partal, founder of the online Spanish newspaper Vilaweb, recently explained, “These 7 European Union member states that were not independent in 1991 (Croatia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Czech Republic) were all created through unilateral mobilizations, and in 5 of those cases, through the specific modality of unilateral referendum.”

Catalonia goes it alone?

In much earlier times, Catalonia retained some autonomy due to it status as a separate kingdom under the crown of Castile, but the Franco dictatorship that lasted from 1939 until 1979 denied the region this status, with the fascist government going so far as to ban the Catalan language and flag, believed to be one of the oldest in Europe. ()

While this history is an important component of many Catalans’ desire for autonomy, as reported by Yahoo News, more recent events have played a larger role, “…the latest surge of independence essentially began in 2010, when Spain’s Constitutional Court struck down key parts of a ground breaking charter that would have granted Catalonia greater autonomy and recognized it as a nation with Spain.” 

Recognition of Catalonia as a nation would have cost Madrid very little in real terms at that time and it seems short-sighted on the part of the court to have denied it, especially considering how important the region is to the Spanish economy.

According to Reuters, “Each year, it (Catalonia) pays about 10 billion euros ($12 billion) more in taxes to Madrid than it gets back or around 5 percent of regional economic output.”

While much of the international community has sided with Madrid, an understandable reaction as many states worry that a win for independence in Catalonia could spur similar movements within their own borders, the reaction of the European Union, saying it will not try and mediate the dispute, has frustrated many who believe that the region has the right to negotiate its own future. 

For its part, Catalonia’s pro-independence Left Party has argued that the Spanish state is engaging in a “Clear and shameless violation of the Treaty of Lisbon values and principles” by denying the right, “ of the Catalan people to exercise direct democracy.” 

As President Puigdemont recently told Al Jazzera, the region plays an important role in the E.U.’s overall economy that it puts in jeopardy by essentially siding with Madrid, “Catalonia has always been a region that contributes positively to the European Union, not negatively. Catalonia is a region that represents 2 percent of European GDP. It’s dynamic with growth of above 3.5 percent in the last year.”

Russian meddling?

In what is becoming an increasingly common explanation for all the ills of western democracies, some voices are now claiming Russia is trying to manipulate the vote. This, despite the fact that Russian President Putin has publicly condemnedthe plebiscite (lest restive Chechens, Dagestanis or other junior partners in the Russian Federation get any new ideas about leaving). 

One attack in the English language version of the influential Spanish daily, El Pais, is vague on details, mainly focusing on Russia Today’s coverage of the issue and an unfortunate and ill-considered opinion piece from the libertarian web-site Antiwar.com that claimed the vote in Catalonia could turn into the west’s “Tiananmen Square” (where Chinese authorities cracked down on student protesters in 1989, resulting in a large, but unknown number of deaths.

Oddly, the article also dedicates a great deal of space to analyzing the tweets of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, as if their generally favorable view of Catalonia’s democratic referendum is proof of some kind of Russian disinformation campaign .


By actively thwarting the aspiration of Catalans to decide on their own future, Spanish authorities have given away any negotiating power they may have had in terms of helping to set the parameters of the vote. For example, they might have tried to ensure a certain level of voter turnout as a requirement to make it legitimate or negotiated a higher bar than a simple 51% majority to proceed with independence.

Instead, they have taken a position likely to alienate many who were sympathetic to the idea of remaining in the country. While the government has technically followed the letter of the law under Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, the unwillingness to engage in talks seems counterproductive. Barring a vote to secede from Spain, all Madrid has really done is to provide fuel to the independence movement going forward.

This isn’t to imply that independence movements like Catalonia’s always have a positive outcome, as two recent examples, both championed by Western governments, prove. In one, Kosovo, a country has been created that doesn’t seem able to support itself, creating a kind of NATO vassal state. More tragically, the other, South Sudan has been riven by infighting and food insecurity and is well on its way to becoming a completely failed state.

Despite these cautionary tales, international law is quite clear on the right of populations to decide their own destiny for good or ill, something that was first established by the American Revolution, a true political innovation that would inform later struggles against colonialism throughout the world. 

Nonetheless, the crux of the issue, which will likely be an important one in many places in coming years, is the essentially conservative view that established borders are vital to the security and stability of modern nation states and that the right of minority populations within those states to self-determination is often in direct opposition to this. Catalonia’s vote, if it is even able to go ahead as planned, alongside the reaction of the Spanish government, shows how difficult it is to square this circle, even in liberal democracies.

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