Catalonia is claiming self-determination in the form of independence from Spain. This assertion of independence has implications for the integrity of the Spanish state. Unsurprisingly, Spain’s response has been resistant and repressive. The Catalan case also raises concern around Europe regarding the potential precedent effect for other secessionist movements.
Catalonia’s Push for Self-determination
On 1 October 2017, the Catalan regional government held a referendum on independence. The referendum seemed to point to majority Catalonian support for self-determination in the form of secession from Spain. Forty per cent, or over two million eligible Catalans, voted, with 90% of voters supporting independence.
Yet the significance of this result is contested. The referendum was marred by violence and repression. Catalan emergency officials estimated that 761 Catalan civilians and 12 police were injured during the referendum, during which Spanish police forcibly obstructed voting and attacked civilians with batons and rubber bullets. The shocking scenes may have discouraged some Catalans from attempting to vote.
On the other hand, six of ten eligible Catalan voters abstained from participating in the referendum. An alternative reading of this low turnout is that many regarded the referendum as a stunt, and ignored it in preference to remaining within Spain.
The validity of the referendum has also been brought into question. The vote did not adhere to democratic conventions, such as the requirement for a minimum threshold of votes. Further, there have been accusations of voter fraud following evidence that some Catalans cast multiple votes.
Regardless, it is apparent that the Spanish state was determined to suppress the referendum, and Spanish authorities used excessive force to disrupt the vote. In defiance of Madrid, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont proceeded to declare independence on 19 October. The Spanish central government responded by stating its intention to invoke article 155 of the Constitution.1 That move, while unprecedented, would suspend Catalonia’s autonomy and give full governance power to the central authority in Madrid.
The Drive for Independence and Spain’s Response
For Puigdemont, the referendum signalled that Catalans
have sent a message to the world: we have the right to decide our future, we have the right to be free and we want to live in peace.2
Catalonia has historically maintained a distinct cultural and political identity from Spain. Many Catalans identify as Catalonian rather than Spanish. In a 2013 poll, the Catalan Center for Opinion Studies found that approximately 60% of Catalans felt distinctly separate from Spain and wanted independence.3 Catalans have maintained their culture, language and identity, despite pressure from Spain to integrate, especially during the Franco dictatorship.
Despite co-existing with Spain for centuries, Catalonia has retained autonomous control over various aspects of public life. The 1979 Statute of Autonomy, formed under the 1978 post-Franco Spanish Constitution, formalised this arrangement by permitting Catalonia devolved government in the areas of education, welfare and health care.
It is arguable that recent efforts by Madrid to centralise control, curtail regional autonomy and capitalise on the strength of Catalonia’s economy gave renewed impetus to the Catalan separatist movement. For example, the state budget for Catalonia was reduced by 6.5% between 2003 and 2015, with 20% of Spain’s total GDP coming from Catalonia in 2015.4 Meanwhile, in 2010, the Spanish Constitutional Court struck down an expanded version of the Statute of Autonomy that gave Catalonia greater autonomy and granted it the title of a “nation”.5
In this context, it is clear that Spain’s response to the 1 October referendum was not an isolated instance of state opposition to Catalonia’s secessionist movement. Indeed, in March 2017, the then Catalan leader, Artur Mas, was found guilty of disobeying the Constitutional Court by holding a symbolic referendum in 2014. Mas was banned from holding public office for two years.
In response to the current referendum, Madrid has dissolved the Catalan government and sacked Puigdemont. Madrid claims that Puigdemont could run for re-election on 21 December. However, if Spanish prosecutors succeed in charging him with rebellion, an offence punishable with imprisonment, Puigdemont may not be free to run. The Court has already called for the arrest of two pro-independence leaders, Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart, for alleged sedition. Catalans have condemned Spain for taking “political prisoners”.
Madrid’s position is that the pro-independence leaders have overstepped the democratic boundaries of the constitution that permits Catalan autonomy within the Spanish state. Madrid argues that a unilateral vote of independence is at odds with the requirement for democratic participation of all Spaniards in decision-making regarding constitutional change. This was emphasised by a 2010 Constitutional Court decision, which upheld the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”. The Constitutional Court has declared the 1 October referendum illegal.
Catalonia as a Potential Precedent
While Catalonia’s fate is uncertain, the future of the European Union (EU) is also in turmoil. EU member states are watching anxiously, fearing Catalan independence will inspire other separatist movements. This concern was apparent in the EU’s muted response to the voter intimidation and abuse meted out to Catalans by the Spanish police in October.
Puigdemont had called for the EU to help mediate the conflict between Spain and Catalonia. However, on 19 October, European Council President, Donald Tusk, ruled out any assistance from the EU in resolving the dispute. Leaders of the EU’s member states, such as Emmanuel Macron of France, declared the referendum illegal and promised support for Spain. Antonio Tajani, head of the European Parliament, further warned that “nobody in the European Union” would recognise Catalonia as a sovereign state if it declared independence.7
Meanwhile, though, a number of burgeoning secessionist movements throughout Europe are closely observing Catalonia’s efforts. Such movements include those in the Basque Country (which spans territory in northern Spain and south-western France), Bavaria (Germany), Scotland (United Kingdom), the Veneto and Lombardy regions (Italy), Corsica (France) and the Faroe Islands (Denmark).
Like Catalonia, many of these regions have distinct histories, culture and political identities. As Stefano Valdegamberi, deputy of the Veneto parliament, said in 2016, Venetians “have a very long history, very important history, identity, and they want it to be recognised”.8 Many of these regions also have a separate language.
Further, many secessionist movements have gained impetus over the past decade following the 2008 global financial crisis. Some of the regions that are home to independence movements, like Catalonia, contribute disproportionately to their state’s GDP. They also economically supported the rest of the country through the financial crisis. For example, the Venetian independence movement argues that the rest of Italy’s debt weighs the Veneto down.
However, secessionist movements across Europe face significant obstacles. Typically, as for Catalonia, dominant states have constructed constitutional frameworks that would invalidate any attempt to exercise self-determination through referenda or unilateral declarations of independence.
One exception is the Faroe Islands, which are planning a valid independence referendum for April 2018. In contrast, the German Supreme Court confirmed in January this year that “there is no room under the constitution for individual states to attempt to secede”. Consequently, a Bavarian declaration of independence is unconstitutional under German law.9
In such circumstances, the onus is on the nation state to reach agreement with the secessionist entity and permit opportunities for the free and fair expression of popular views. This occurred between the United Kingdom and Scotland in the form of the Edinburgh Agreement, which permitted Scotland to undertake its 2014 independence referendum. This agreed solution bypassed the constitutional settings, which prohibit a unilateral declaration of independence by Scotland.
While the 2014 referendum did not deliver the necessary vote in favour of independence, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon regards the question of Scottish self-determination as live and continuing. Sturgeon has said that Catalonia’s agitation for independence and the advent of Brexit give impetus to the Scottish independence movement.10
Legal Considerations for Europe
As a collective right, self-determination empowers a group of people to “freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development”.11 In some cases, a self-determination claimant group will assert the right in the form of secession to form an independent state. The key obstacle in such a case will be resistance from the state that the new entity seeks to separate from.
Such efforts at secession can expose a failure of the nation-state model. As Bavaria Party Leader, Florian Weber, argued, “the larger the political unit, the less chance individuals have of being heard”.12 Where central governments fail in adequately promoting the aspirations of all citizens, especially those of regional minority groups with distinct identities, agitation for secession will sometimes result.
In order to deter secession, states might consider adopting more flexible constitutional arrangements, to promote rather than limit regional autonomy while also building a shared sense of belonging to the nation state. Such an outcome might be on the cards for Lombardy, which held an independence referendum on 22 October. Unlike Catalonia, the Italian region intends to remain within Italy and use the referendum outcome to leverage a better economic deal and greater autonomy from Rome.
In the wake of Catalonia’s referendum, it is clear that force and suppression are never the answer. Madrid’s repressive response will entrench opposition to the centralisation of power and generate social division. It is clear that negotiation and respect for the right to self-determination are essential to ensure a peaceful resolution.
Featured Image: Pro-independence supporters hold a European Union flag during a rally in Spain © Francisco Seco AP
About the Author
Georgia Monaghan has a Bachelor of Business (Distinction)/Bachelor of Laws (Hons Class I) from the University of Newcastle, Australia. Georgia is a Research Assistant in the University of Newcastle Law School, specialising in human rights law. Her interests include international human rights, ethical value chain governance (particularly in the area of ethical fashion) and international labour law.
Dr. Amy Maguire is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Newcastle Law School. Amy’s research and teaching span a range of topics in public international legal scholarship, including self-determination, climate change and human rights, indigenous rights, the rights of refugees, capital punishment and international criminal law. She is a featured columnist for The Conversation.
1. Spanish Constitution 1978.
11. UN General Assembly, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 16 December 1966, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 999; UN General Assembly, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 16 December 1966, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 993.