Catalonia: How not to handle secession

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“What the hell were they thinking?”

Clearly I’m not the only person who watched with bemusement and disgust at the Spanish Government’s actions in Catalonia as the nation held an unofficial independence referendum on October 1st; actions that resembled a banana republic, not a 21st Century democracy.

True, you could argue that if California did the same thing, Trump would send in the National Guard, or if Scotland did the same thing, riot police would be sent to Glasgow. Nevertheless, it would be equally dumb.

While Catalonia has, at time of posting, enacted a (largely symbolic and unrecognised) independence declaration, the Spanish state has irreparably damaged relations with the Catalans to the point where “proper” independence seems an inevitability if still some way off.

Though it has to be said that the Catalans have made things a lot harder for themselves than it needed to be.

The Constitutional Crisis

The Constitution of Spain (pdf) specifically rules out a federal system of government (Part VIII, Chapter 3, Section 145.2), though autonomous communities (analogous to devolved administrations in the UK) are allowed to draft and pass Statutes of Autonomy which act as de facto constitutions for policy areas under their own control.

Spain also operates a system of reserved powers similar to the UK (Part VIII, Chapter 3, Section 149), meaning the Spanish state retains control over areas – including the constitution.

What’s happened in Catalonia is analogous to – as Borthlas pointed out – a Welsh or Scottish government seeking an independence referendum without prior permission from Westminister.

However, unlike the UK the Constitution of Spain explicitly bans autonomous communities from seeking independence ever, as the “Spanish Nation is in indissoluble unity” (Section 2).

While this goes against the spirit of “self-determination” as outlined in the UN Charter, many unitary nation-states have got around this by offering stateless nations self-government in order to maintain their own territorial integrity (in line with the Helsinki Accords – pdf).

So the Spanish Government’s opposition to the referendum taking place was constitutionally justified but, as we’ve all seen, their reaction to it has all but legitimised the referendum by making it appear as though the Catalans are being subjugated (even if they’ve enjoyed far more autonomy than Wales ever has and probably ever will within the UK).

What should the Spanish Government have done?

Let the referendum take place peacefully, then ignore the result as “unconstitutional” and/or take whatever legal action they see fit. As simple as that.

It may have prompted a wider constitutional convention which could, at some point in the future, open the doors to further powers (a la the Basque Country) or even a legal independence referendum; that’s not what the Catalan Government (Generalitat) wanted but it would’ve cooled things down and let them save face instead of escalating a tit-for-tat squabble with Madrid.

As Catalonia and Kurdistan are finding out, declaring independence doesn’t make it so.

Independence is only legitimised when internationally recognised and while some nations have “expressed concerns” over the use of force, nobody has yet stepped forward to recognise either of them. I’m not expecting anyone to do so either for the foreseeable future, though there has been support from political elements in Slovenia and Finland are reportedly considering a parliamentary vote on recognition.

So the referendum was never a threat. The threat only emerged after the Spanish state decided to go all Stan Kowalski and prove to the world that the Catalans are in an abusive relationship.

If the Spanish Government believe in the value of their unitary state they should’ve had the confidence to allow an official independence referendum – as the UK Government did in Scotland and Canada has done twice with Quebec.

Why has this gone wrong?

Many people reading this will disagree, but the blame lies on both sides.

However, that blame comes down more heavily on Madrid because their actions in the weeks prior to the referendum amounted to nothing more than cack-handed thuggery – and they seem keen to continue that path.

Let’s look at what the Catalans did wrong first.

Catalonia has a right to self-determination – regardless of what the Spanish Constitution says – but there’s still a right way to attain it and the Generalitat haven’t pursued it.

The legislation in the Catalan Parliament which paved the way for the referendum to take place didn’t follow standard parliamentary procedures and was rushed through as an emergency law. Members from the opposition unionist parties walked out and the law was passed only a few weeks before the referendum was to take place. This is “highly unusual” to put it mildly.

While the Generalitat has published a lightweight white paper on how they would create an independent state – dated 2014 (pdf) – they seem to have completely ignored the transitional arrangements and negotiations that would be required and gave the Catalan people unrealistic expections on things like EU membership and how long it would all take; Scotland’s transition might’ve taken up to two years.

Declaring independence “in 48 hours” was quickly backtracked upon after Carles Puigdemont (the Catalan equivalent of the First Minister) signed, then subsequently stayed, the post-referendum independence declaration. The declaration only went through as soon as Spain made moves to strip Catalonia of its autonomy.

As for Spain, they’ll clearly win the battle to keep Catalonia for the immediate future, but may still lose the war after sending in thugs disguised as police and getting Felipe VI to make a (clearly government-authored) public statement which resulted in the Catalans digging their heels in.

As for the validity of the referendum result, despite the low turnout and polling “irregularities” (mainly down to the Guardia Civil’s actions on the day), the Yes vote was passed by a similar proportion of the electorate as Brexit. It would take pretty much every single person who didn’t turn out on the day to vote No in order for the referendum to have failed. In raw mathematical and probability terms, it was a convincing vote for independence despite the dubious constitutional legality.

There’s no excuse for using violence against peaceful civilians, who wanted to do nothing more than put a bit of paper in a plastic box; such use of violence may well have turned fence-sitters into independence supporters.

In the end, the Generalitat is fortunate to have opponents as idiotic as Mariano Rajoy, who played right into their hands.

If the Guardia Civil were never sent into Catalonia, the egg would now be on Catalan faces. As it stands, the Catalans have earned the right in blood, bruises and broken bones to a sovereign country – but that’s easier said than done.

Although active repression is one of the unofficial justifications for a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI), because Spain is still, in relative terms, a “Great Power” the chance anyone in The West will recognise it in the manner it’s now being pursued is zilch. Things are going to get ugly.

It’s a complete mess. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Catalan people have been let down by their own government and parliament, who’ve been deliberately provocative, while the Spanish Government are hiding behind the constitution in order to settle old scores at the end of police batons.

Of course, politicians still face the threat of arrest and imprisonment, but they won’t be the ones getting the stuffing beat out of them by Madrid’s goons; ordinary Catalans will and that’s why it was hard not to sorry for all those celebrating last Friday because it feels as though they’ve been led up the garden path.

Where next for Catalonia?

The Spanish Government have dismissed the Generalitat, taken direct control of the country and are ordering fresh elections, reportedly for 21st December 2017.

Unless Spain is also planning to imprison the ringleaders of the referendum and/or ban pro-independence parties from standing (Spain has a history of doing this – see more at Syniadau), there’s still a chance it could turn into an indirect second referendum on independence; the declaration remaining “in force” if a pro-independence majority is returned.

In those circumstances, everyone goes back to square one. If, however, the Unionist parties win in December that’s probably it for any idea of a peaceful, uncomplicated Catalan independence.

One way the Catalans could seize the initiative would be to immediately apply for membership of the UN and other international bodies. But as the UN Security Council possesses a blocking vote – the UK and US have said they’ll refuse to recognise Catalonia and would veto the idea; the French certainly would too – that’s a non-starter and would be nothing more than a symbolic gesture.

The best course of action (for both sides) is to lay the groundwork for an official, legally-binding independence referendum to be held early in 2018 – regardless of what the Spanish Constitution says or the result of the December election.

International mediation and monitoring wouldn’t go amiss either, but that’s unlikely to come from the EU due to their latent support for the Spanish Government. A neutral party which doesn’t have a serious secessionist movement (like Switzerland) would be the best bet.

If the Spanish Government shows contrition (a senior resignation or two wouldn’t go amiss) there’s still a chance that in a properly organised peaceful referendum the Catalans could vote to remain in a union with Spain, as Unionists would no longer feel a need to boycott a vote. As things stand, that’s looking unlikely.

The worst case scenario is further street violence, the radicalisation of the Catalan independence movement and possibly even military involvement.

What does this mean for the #IndyWales movement?

At the moment, not much – but there are lessons to take from this, few of them positive.

Firstly, there’s not going to be a “domino effect”.

I get a sense many Welsh nationalists are hoping this is going to be the start of a new “Spring of Nations” similar to that at the end of the Cold War with the Basque Country, Scotland, Flanders, Wales etc. following in the Catalan’s footsteps.

It’ll only happen if Catalonia becomes independent peacefully, is internationally recognised and actually makes a success of independence. As things stand, none of those things will happen because Spain is doing its best to frustrate the creation of a viable state, and if the IndyWales movement is seen to have held Catalonia up as an example to follow, it could sink everything. A “breach birth” by Catalonia might make Scots think twice about voting Yes in any future IndyRef2 as well.

That’s why I’m being careful about “expressing solidarity” with Catalonia. The referendum was illegal (independence itself isn’t) by the letter of Spanish constitutional law which the Catalans approved in 1978, regardless of how we might feel about the Spanish state’s reaction to it. The people deserve our support, but their government can go swizzle.

Secondly, the events in Catalonia prove that when it comes to independence we’re on our own.

The EU won’t help us (and would consider Welsh independence a headache, not that we’ll be in the EU anyway), neither will any other stateless nation. If/when Catalonia becomes independent they’ll be subject to the same realpolitik as the rest of the world’s sovereign states and we shouldn’t expect much support from them either.

Look at how Ireland reacted, even though they became independent under similar circumstances, ditto Croatia and Lithuania. We need to know who our friends are of course, but we need to start thinking about what we can do for ourselves instead of trying to “build alliances” with people who aren’t necessarily going to be in a position to help us when the time comes. The Welsh independence movement shouldn’t be used for PR purposes or window dressing and should demand something concrete in return for its support; it’s a diversion from its own work.

Thirdly, the EU will have to take a back seat role in civic nationalism from now on.

The EU has destroyed the “Europe of the Regions” myth and is only active on issues of sovereignty for stateless nations when it serves their interests (like Kosovo). The EU could have at least outright condemned the use of force by Spain but pussyfooted around it. If the situation in Catalonia escalates, the EU will have had a part to play in it by doing and saying nothing as a senior member state takes actions that go against the very things the EU is supposed to stand for.

Any sensible person would have realised by now that a newly-independent Wales would not be able to join the EU automatically anyway, as the door will shut on the easier Article 48 route (more here) after Brexit. The route will also be difficult for Catalonia because of the “constitutional illegality” of the referendum – which gives member states an excuse to veto membership.

Due to a Spanish veto alone, it’s likely Catalonia would have to go down the EFTA membership route and would probably never be able to fully join the EU (“The Norwegian Option” in terms of Brexit), which isn’t quite as dependent on the EU and would retain access to the single market (EEA).

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