Seemingly right off the heels of the successful Kurdish independence referendum, Catalan leaders have declared that Catalonia has ‘won the right to statehood’ through the referendum on independence held on October 1st. Just like the result of the Kurdish referendum, this has been somewhat controversial as the Constitutional court declared the referendum to be illegal based on the country’s 1978 constitution, which recognises only the ‘indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation’. This means that the results of the referendum, while 89% in favour of independence, are non-binding.
The referendum was unique both in terms of levels of associated violence, and in terms of the lack of recognition from the international community. Both the period preceding the vote, and the day of the vote itself, were marred by clashes between the police and referendum supports, resulting in the injury of more than 750 people. Tear gas was widely used on voters, with images of the police striking an elderly woman becoming widely distributed on the internet. This has been described by some as the greatest challenge to democracy since the end of the Franco dictatorship.
Interestingly, both sides of the debate have claimed to be protecting democracy, suggesting that the other presents an existential threat to it. Speaking to the BBC, the Spanish Prime Minister has called the referendum a ‘mockery of democracy’, even stating that there ‘has not been a referendum on self – determination in Catalonia’. Supporters of this viewpoint have cited the relatively low turnout, the dubious impartiality of those tasked with verifying the votes and the problems that many in Catalonia experienced when trying to access the polls. Conversely, those in support of Catalonian independence have also presented this referendum as protecting democracy, allowing the region, which has long been controlled by Spain, the self-determination it has lacked. They have also deplored the heavy-handed tactics that the government used in an attempt to prevent the referendum, suggesting that government has attempted to prevent democracy from taking place.
This is an important moment for the idea of self-determination which, at its most basic level, is the free determination of statehood. The right to self-determination is enshrined in the UN charter, but there has been controversy surrounding it in the post-colonial era, both in terms of when it can be claimed and what needs to happen in order for it to be fulfilled. The Catalans are primarily arguing for self – determination on the basis of cultural distinctiveness and the possibility for economic autonomy. Unfortunately for their claim, Spain is able to argue that the Catalans already have significant autonomy within the nation, and that this autonomy is enough to satisfy the right to self-determination.
While Spain is clearly motivated by wishing to maintain its territorial integrity, there is some level of truth in their claim that self-determination has already been satisfied. The Catalans, unlike the Kurds, have faced little discrimination and repression in recent years, and have in fact been accorded high levels of autonomy within Spain. Catalonia’s parliament has been accorded power over a variety of areas such as education, justice and health, which essentially allows it to carry out the functions of self-governance in conjunction with the Spanish state. In fact, until the violence committed against the Catalans in the run up to the election and Madrid’s declaration that they may rescind autonomy, it can be argued that the Catalans did not have a compelling case for demanding independence, both due to these factors and the illegal status of any succession attempts under Spain’s constitution.
Despite this, support for independence is widespread amongst Catalans, existing among all social groups, not just those that might be expected to support independence. There seems to be support for independence on both ends of the political spectrum, with even some among the older generation supporting the movement due to their experience of life under a tyrannical and repressive state during Franco’s dictatorship. With this level of support across the region, Spain’s actions during the referendum are potentially dangerous, as they have only given the movement greater legitimacy.
European leaders, including the former prime minister of Italy Enrico Letta, have stressed that this issue must be swiftly resolved, as, in Letta’s words, ‘chaos can be a virus. “There seems to be a widespread view that this is an extremely turbulent time in European politics – due to the Brexit talks and a series of divisive elections – and that a constitutional crisis of this nature has the potential to further exacerbate this, plunging the region into political chaos. The vast majority of European leaders, while condemning the violence committed by the state, have backed the Spanish government on this issue – clearly motivated at least in part by the fact that many of them have separatist movements in their own countries.
At this point in the progression of events, it difficult to predict what turn this crisis is going to take in the coming days and weeks. Both the Spanish government and the supporters of Catalonia’s independence seem prepared to firmly stand their ground, with there being very little suggestion that a compromise is forthcoming. What is clear, is that Spain’s deplorable attempts to prevent and delegitimize the referendum have only given the separatists greater momentum, adding fuel to the proverbial fire. If the Spanish government wishes to maintain their territorial integrity, then they are going to have to find a method of dealing with the situation that does not include violence against people only wishing to assert the right to self-determination that they believe they are entitled to.