In Catalonia, We Should All Be Careful What We Wish For

The day I left Barcelona an open letter appeared hundreds of miles away, in a central European republic, calling on the local government to condemn the Spanish authorities’ violence in Catalonia. The letter – which also demanded the European Union recognise the outcome of Sunday’s vote – appeared in a nation all too familiar with the challenge of starting a new state: Slovenia.

The first signature on the Slovene letter was a telling one: Milan Kučan. In January 1990, Kučan effectively ended Yugoslavia’s federal system when he led his Slovene communists out of the Party Congress. Multi-party elections swiftly followed. On 25 June, 1991 Kučan announced Slovenia’s independence unilaterally – despite not having the backing of a major international power.

Slovenia’s story is often repeated in the bars and cafes of small states seeking independence. The day after Kučan’s declaration, the Yugoslav army began troop movements on the Slovene border. But out war was avoided. Almost three decades later, Slovenia is a peaceful, reasonably prosperous EU state.

That Slovenia managed to escape from the collapsing Yugoslavia relatively unscathed has been adduced by some who say that Catalonia should just declare independence. Surely after the brutal violence meted out by the Spanish police the Catalan government has no option but to breakaway from Madrid, unilaterally if necessary?

That view is gaining traction, in Barcelona and beyond. On Thursday, Spain’s constitutional court suspended a Catalan parliament session planned for Monday for fear that Catalan president Carles Puigdemont might issue a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI).

Madrid, of course, has refused to allow a legal Catalan referendum. Last weekend, I met elderly people effectively locked inside polling stations waiting to vote who visibly trembled with fear as images of the Spanish police brutality circulated on mobile phones.

Since them Spain has doubled down. Catalan demands for mediation have been rejected out of hand. On Sunday, Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy, having delivered on his promise to disrupt a referendum vote deemed unconstitutional by the courts, praised the police and talked high-mindedly about defending democracy.

The narrative that Spanish authorities were simply defending the integrity of their laws and constitution is popular with many Spaniards outside Catalonia. During the week King Felipe in a rare televised address. told Spaniards that the Catalan leaders had showed their “disrespect to the powers of the state”.

But states, as Benedict Anderson pointed out, are “imagined communities” that exist more by legitimacy than through their laws. It is not the legislation in the books at Westminster that wills the United Kingdom into being afresh each day, it is a popular belief that is the legitimate government (a claim, of course, that is contested in Scotland and elsewgere). In using brute force to disrupt a visibly non-violent vote – even one banned by the courts – Madrid lost its legitimacy to speak on Catalonia’s behalf.

What can Catalans do now? Under legislation introduced before Sunday’s vote, the Barcelona parliament can recognise the massive ‘yes’ result as binding. Many, including many Scottish independence supports, feel that a Catalan UDI is now morally justified. But there are reasons for Catalonia – and anyone else – to be very wary of unilateral declarations of independence.

Let’s go back to Slovenia. In late June 1991, a conflict did begin between Ljubliana and Belgrade. Troops were killed on both sides. The stage seemed set for a full blown war between a breakaway nation and the Yugoslav federation, one of the world’s largest militaries at the time.

But major war was avoided. The then European Community brokered a ceasefire but it was never enacted: within barely a week Yugoslav army forces had effectively withdrawn. Slovenia was free.

But it wasn’t the international community that permitted Slovenia to secede – it was the far darker forces brewing in Belgrade. In 1991, Slobodan Milosevic was concerned with one thing – creating a Greater Serbia. Slovenia had almost no Serbs and huge internal support for independence. Better to let Slovenia go and assert control in Croatia and Bosnia, Milosevic wagered. Slovenia got its independence and within months the Balkans was plunged into an orgy of violence unseen in Europe since the Second World War.

Unlike in Slovenia there seems little prospect of central authorities in Madrid allowing Catalan to just go its own way. Catalonia occupies a far more important place in the Spanish state than the Slovenes did in the Yugoslav federation. Not only is Catalonia a significant net contributor to Spain’s budget but keeping Catalonia Spanish is an integral part of Madrid’s image of itself.

Unionism is a fundamental tenet of the ruling Popular Party. The president’s hardline position – aided by a partisan media – chimes with a hardening of attitudes towards Catalonia among many in other parts of Spain. The images from Sunday have doubtless damaged Rajoy’s international reputation but might actually improve his standing at home. The Spanish flags that appeared in the windows of homes across Madrid this week were not planted by the Guardia Civil.

In issuing a UDI the Catalan government would instantly lose the legitimacy for its cause won last Sunday. Support for Catalan independence is far from universal. A few weeks ago, polls conducted by the Catalan government itself gave the union a narrow lead. That may have evaporated after Sunday but there is unlikely to be the kind of overwhelming support for secession that there was in the new states born in the Balkans and the Baltic. Against this backdrop, independence will need some form of democratic process beyond Sunday’s chaotic poll.

But democracy alone is not sufficient for independence. New states only survive by international recognition. After a UDI Catalonia would likely find itself outside the European Union if is declares independence, and with a hostile neighbour on its border. Kosovo had the same situation in 2008 – and still does – but unlike the Kosovans, Barcelona would not have the United States, or anyone else, as a sponsor.

Post-UDI everyday life – and business – could become very difficult, very quickly.
Catalan nationalism stretches back centuries but has often struggled for a hearing in Europe’s corridors of power. A relatively wealthy region with a measure of devolution hoping to secede from a poorer nation is not the most endearing tale.

Madrid’s violent response last weekend changed this dynamic, but Barcelona should be very wary of taking that as a basis for a declaration of independence. The road from Catalonia to Slovenia is a long, and winding road.

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Comments (9)

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  1. DOUGLAS STUART WILSON says:

    It takes an Irishman to understand the powder-keg which is the situation in Spain today. Thanks Peter.

    The appropriate comparison for the situation of Catalonia and Spain is indeed with Yugoslavia – albeit there are no religious differences in Spain, unlike Yugoslavia – much more than they are with Scotland and the UK….

    The Constitution of 1978 is as much a peace treaty as it is a document which legislates for the arrangement of political life in Spain…. Puigdemont and Junqueras have broken that peace treaty.

    Nobody wants to amend the Constitution – except, now, Podemos – because its the only Constitution which Spain has ever had which has actually worked… the First Republic lasted about a year and half. The Second Republic lasted five years…

    I know that Barcelona is a really cool city, but Spanish history is one of division, civil war and bloodshed, an infernal loop of events which repeat themselves every so many decades.

    The Catalan question is one of them. Don’t be fooled by Gaudi and the outdoor cafes and how chic Barcelona is. We’re in dangerous territory here.

    Everything is going according to the plan hatched by Puigdemont and Junqueras and co.

    They knew Madrid would never accept a referendum. They knew that voters who want to remain part of Spain would not come out to vote. They knew that Rajoy would crack down hard, which in turn would generate a response from Catalans. They knew that they would be able to press on with UDI, with little or no regard for democracy and the half of Catalonia which wants to remain part of Spain…

    I understand Catalan frustrations with Rajoy’s PP and the PSOE, I share many of them.

    But they have acted with impatience, with scant regard for democracy, and if they declare UDI next week, with sheer recklessness…

    Manuel Azaña, the President of the Second Republic when the fascists launched their coup in 1936, apparently never took his generals seriously.

    He was a very learned man, a writer, an intellectual, and his generals just seemed like a bunch of clowns to him.

    One of them was Mola, another was Franco…

  2. SleepingDog says:

    “A relatively wealthy region with a measure of devolution hoping to secede from a poorer nation is not the most endearing tale.”

    There is one narrative that springs to mind that could justify a relatively wealthy region splitting off from a larger, poorer state: that if the wealth was created, not by natural resources, but by having more progressive and productive ideas in the region, and poorer rump state being held back economically by backward, superstitious and unproductive ideology. Whether this applies to Spain, I do not know. Obviously a false semblance of wealth can be created by neo-liberal financial vapours, say, but suppose that was substance to the claim: technocratic local government, reduced religious censorship of science, mass literacy, a scientific model of environmental responsibility. Opposed to a rump state clinging to worship of ancient privilege, superstitious authority and encrusted tradition, say.

    Under those (perceived) conditions, tensions may grow as the different regions pull towards incompatible futures. Which might be sustainable, unless one or more parties was seen to be exhibiting hypocrisy (such as the poorer part profiting from practices it theoretically despises), for which states have been criticised through the ages, not least the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and their allies. Christian states condemning usury making use of Jewish money-lenders is an example of such hypocrisy, or states preaching democracy installing dictatorships, or condemning slavery benefiting from forced labour.

    As some economists have lately opined, greater inequality can impoverish a nation; if one region were more ideologically inclined to equality and prospered therefore, should the more unequal parts both benefit and cry foul to an independence movement? Again, whether that narrative can be applied fairly anywhere, I cannot say.

  3. Luboš Motl says:

    I guess that all the nations that successfully separated from another state entity in recent 150 years will have a majority for Catalan independence. Czechoslovakia got split from Austria-Hungary smoothly in 1918, and Slovakia seceded from Czechoslovakia in 1993. Baltic States seceded from USSR where they hadn’t belonged. Slovenia was a complete success story as a separated country from Yugoslavia but Croatia wasn’t much worse. Similar sentiments are like to exist in Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia. Countries that used to be bigger empires, like Serbia and Hungary, could have the opposite feelings. Lots of analogies with the nations’ own historical events play a role. I think that all analogies I can find as a Czech tell me that the separatist Catalan side is the justified one while the pro-union diehards are evil.

    1. Alf Baird says:

      “the pro-union diehards are evil.”

      This is broadly correct, and saw the ending of Yugoslavia and the Soviet union, and it will see the end of other artificial union ‘charades’ such as in Spain and the UK. The SNP should use its Scotland majority of MPs at Westminster to give notice to end the union as far as Scotland is concerned whilst the independence majority at Holyrood should bring forward a ‘Withdrawal from UK Union (Scotland) Bill’ including provision for a further referendum if required, albeit with some sensible controls over open-to-abuse voter registration as in 2014. All of recent history tells us that independence must be taken whenever the opportunity presents itself. However all the SNP seem to be doing is sitting back and taking the unionist shilling.

  4. AndyS says:

    “Pro Union diehards are evil” is precisely the sort of hate filled rhetoric that undermined the concept of a progressive yes vote. Describing opponents as traitors, quislings, not real “insert nationality” is reactionary nonsense and the opposite of forward looking inclusive nation.

    1. Alf Baird says:

      What would you call a rabid national ‘unionism’ (i.e. nationalist/fascist political ideology) that threatens and is content to justify and implement state-sponsored violence and subversion on a people and their land? If this is not “evil” (i.e. ‘profoundly immoral and wicked’) then what is it?

    2. Alf Baird says:

      I would suggest you read Craig Murray’s view on the current situation in Catalonia: https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/

      1. Jo says:

        Already read it Alf. It’s Craig’s opinion, that’s all. His view isn’t more valid than anyone else’s. Andy is entitled to his own view and is right that the hurling of vicious insults, by some, towards others undermined YES badly. It’s still going on.

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