The Catalan Conundrum

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On October 1st 2017, Catalonia staged an illegal referendum on independence from Spain. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont insisted that regional officials will do their best to hold the vote, but Madrid cracked down on this effort.

Carles Puigdemont

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Carles Puigdemont

The desire to secede from Spain is not a recent trend for Catalonia. In 1976, the region enjoyed a renewed autonomy after the restoration of Spanish democracy. Following this, it went on to exhibit overwhelming levels of support for referendums on the 1978 Constitution, pushing forward the unified State of Spain.

Political turmoil reemerged in 2006 when the law on regional autonomy was amended. Catalans were against these changes, made evident by the low voter turnout - although the referendum still passed with a majority of 74%. This amendment was not enough, however, and tension was exacerbated as a result of the 2008 Spanish economic crisis. Catalonia is one of the wealthiest regions in Spain and is responsible for the hefty donations to other areas in Spain. It is of no surprise, therefore, that the regions had its reservations about Madrid’s handling of the financial crisis.

If Catalonia were to leave Spain, the latter’s economy would surely take a hit; and this is perhaps why Spain is fighting so hard to prevent secession. In recent news, Catalonia’s regional government declared independence from Spain. Meanwhile, the Spanish national government in Madrid is in the process of imposing direct rule on the region. Naturally, protestors took to the streets following the news – the unilateral declaration by the supreme government was not supported by the majority of Catalans. That being said, however, the central Spanish government is legally entitled to proceed with such actions, despite their seemingly strict and dictatorial measures.

Pedro Morenés

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Pedro Morenés

Article 115 of the Spanish Constitution establishes the suspension of Catalonia’s autonomy. Indeed, the Spanish Defence Minister, Pedro Morenes, stated that he is all for “applying the laws if they are disobeyed”. He went on to state that there would be no problems should Catalonians fulfil their duty. Insofar as the rule of law is concerned, Catalonians are still bound by the Spanish Constitution and Catalan politicians, in turn, have committed themselves to its provisions.

Of course, it was inevitable that the illegal referendum would damage the relationship between Spain’s central government and its Catalan counterparts. This brings us to the questio vexata: does Catalonia have the right to secede from Spain?

Ignoring the legal validity of such a conundrum, Catalonians have felt isolated from their Spanish counterparts for generations. Catalans even go as far as proclaiming that “Catalonia is not Spain”. Although the legal obligation to follow the Constitution falls upon the Catalan administration, regional ethical and social values have to be taken into account.

Theories on secession establish the general right of secession for any reason (The Choice Theory), while other theories state that secession should only be considered to rectify grave injustices (The Just Cause Theory). However, even though a list of justifications may be present to support the right to secede, it is often difficult to get the Predecessor State’s government to accept them.

As Kieran Oberman puts it, democracy fails to overcome the ‘symmetry problem’; democracy can be advanced both as an argument in favour of secession and against it. To prove that the secession was carried out with the right intent, one needs to solve the problem of asexuality; that is, why is it that Catalonia, and not Spain as a whole, which has the right to decide?

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The value of self-determination - the notion that a country or nation has a right to determine its own future - comes into play here. Catalan national self-determination rivals Spanish national self-determination. However, one cannot give full autonomy to the other, without limiting one of the parties to the dispute.

Puigdemont, believes that a vote on independence is an “expression of a free democracy”. Taking this into account, Catalans have a right to decide whether or not they want to remain a part of Spanish territory, just as they have a right to decide on any other domestic issue affecting them. However, the problem is whether or not Catalonia has the sufficient constituency to make this decision.

Even if Catalonia decides to declare de facto independence, international recognition by organisations such as the United Nations, and well as other countries is an important factor to determine Statehood. Therefore, it is not just up to Spain to accept Catalonia as an independent nation. The birth of a State, after all, is based on fact, politics, and law.

Written by

Emma Sammut

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