In Catalonia’s latest stance on its independence move, the political leadership in Catalonia has demonstrated admirable maturity in dealing with the Spanish central government’s opposition to Catalonia’s demand for independence. Catalonia’s parliament in its specially convened session on October 10 put on formal record that the referendum on independence organised by Catalonia’s government on October 1 had 93% of voters voting for independence. The President of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont declared on that basis that Catalonia was an independent and sovereign state but then displayed remarkable political skill in not opting for immediate implementation of that declaration of independence. Instead, it opted for moving further with dialogue, deescalating tension and building consensus. In making this move, it scored a moral victory over Spain’s central leadership which had chosen the path of confrontation by using heavy handed methods in opposing the referendum vote on October 1 and still failing to prevent the vote.
Catalonia morally right
If the Spanish government now retaliates by removing the existing regional autonomy of Catalonia and putting it directly under Spanish central rule, it will further weaken its moral case, even if it is formally right in legal and constitutional terms. Politically, such retaliation would prove even more costly because it will push even the reluctant nationalists among Catalonians in the camp of committed Catalan nationalism.
The sober and dialogue seeking decision by the Catalan leadership to put on hold its independence agenda, even if temporary, may disappoint some impatient elements in the independence movement but it is in tune with the growing global trend of resolving secessionist disputes through democratic means in the current era of democracy.
Conflicts in nations cause of new states
Many of the nation states in the developing world are products of the termination of European colonial empires after the World War II, but the new nation states that are emerging or are struggling to emerge both within the developing world and the developed world are now the products of nationalist conflicts within the existing nation states. In some cases, the boundaries of the existing nation states that were drawn by the retreating colonial powers were extremely unfair to some nationalist identities.
The Kurdish people splintered into four nation states — Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey — constitute perhaps the most unfortunate nation as a result ofthe arbitrary division of the Middle East by colonial powers. The Kurdish people have been waging armed struggle to carve up a unified Kurdish nation state for several decades but they are now moving towards a strategy of making use of democratic methods. The recent independence referendum organised by the administration in the Kurdish controlled region in Iraq is a clear step in that direction of seeking democratic legitimacy for their nationalist aspiration.
Movements for independence
The wider politico-economic macro environment that has given push to the movements for independence is paradoxically the result of globalisation which in the context of Europe manifests itself in the widening of the European Union. The economic dimension of globalisation and Europeanisation is the weakening of the geographical barriers of nation states in the unhindered pursuit of the mobility of capital, labour, technology, commodities and life styles. This process of globalisation may be viewed, legitimately to some extent, as leading to internationalisation and weakening of appeal to nationalism.
However, this process also carries within it the threat of global homogenisation which is perceived and experienced as a threat by minority cultures and identities. This threat, in turn, provides impetus to the strengthening of aspirations for national sovereignty to protect minority nationalist identities. The globalisation of economic transactions and the development of information technologyprovidefurther strength to smaller geographical spaces as nations because the economic viability in the global economic arena is no longer dependent on the geographical or population size of a nation state. For example, Scotland by withdrawing from the union with the UK or Catalan by seceding from Spain can still be a part of the European Union and thus remain economically viable.
Referendums settling disputes
What has dramatically changed the political landscape for independence movements is the method followed in the French-speaking Quebec province’s aspiration for independence from Canada and Scotland’s aspiration for independence from England. In both cases, the central government reached an agreement with the regional government to hold a referendum to settle the dispute about whether that region would gain independence or remain a part of the larger union. In both cases, the respective governments agreed to abide by the result of the referendum. In both cases, the vote went by a small margin against secession. The regional governments and political parties accepted the verdict and, in turn, the central governments in both cases did not insist that there could not be future referendum vote which might go in favour of secession. What was remarkable was the consensus that any such dispute need to be resolved through the democratic means of a vote and not either by armed rebellion by the independentists against the central governmentor by armed suppression of the independentists by the centralists.
The Catalan’s regional government seems to have realised that there was one serious flaw with their referendum vote on October 1 in spite of massive support in Catalan for the right to vote which was endorsed even by those who were opposed to Catalan’s independence from Spain.
This flaw was that this referendum vote was not organised by mutual consultation and agreement with the central government in Madrid. As a result, this did not have legal legitimacy. The Spanishgovernment too erred in not taking a lesson from the Canadian and British experience of following the consensual path and used repressive methods to thwart the vote. Those methods, or even more brutal than those, which are commonly used by most governments in the developing world are not compatible with the developed democratic culture of Europe with higher standards of human rights. That has landed the Spanish government in a weak spot- morally and politically. It will weaken itself further if it now spurns the Catalan offer of dialogue and abrogates the current autonomy Catalan enjoys by imposing central rule there.
Given the present impasse, the mediation by European Union is the only way forward to agree the negotiated path to resolve this dispute. The resolution may turn out to be neither complete independence for Catalan nor more centralised control from Madrid, but converting Spain into a confederation with increased internal economic, political and cultural autonomy to Catalan and perhaps to other regions too such as Basque and Galicia. The manner in which this conflict is resolved or not resolved is likely to be of significance far beyond Spain and Europe.
The writer is Professor of Economics at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford