Catalonia: Folks Don’t Understand How Serious the Debate Over Sovereignty Is

by Benjamin Studebaker

About 92% of Catalans who voted in the recent referendum backed independence, on a turnout of just 42%. The thing is, if you’re against Catalan independence, it would be odd to participate in this referendum because the Spanish state–the entity you recognize as sovereign–declared the referendum illegal. An independence referendum that has the backing of the regional authority but not the national authority can only deliver a divisive result. Much of the international media has put the blame for this on the Spanish–why wouldn’t Spain just recognize the right of the Catalans to self-determination and permit the referendum, like the UK did for Scotland? But these arguments make a lot of assumptions about self-determination that build in pro-independence biases. If Spain were to allow a Catalan independence referendum even though in the view of the Spanish government such a referendum is against the interests of the Spanish people as a whole, Spain would already be effectively conceding the question about which the referendum is meant to decide.

See, to exercise a right of self-determination, we need to know who the “self” is that is entitled to this right. If you are a Spanish unionist, then you think that Spain is sovereign, that within Spain it is the Spanish people and their state which is the “self” that has the right to determine things. And if you are a Catalan secessionist, you think that Catalonia is sovereign, that within Catalonia it is the Catalan people and their state which is the “self” that has the right to determine things, and that this Catalan entity is not bound by the determinations of Spain. So the question of whether to hold an independence referendum which Spain and Catalonia disagree about is itself subject to the very disagreement about which the referendum was proposed as a solution. Catalonia believes a referendum is a good way to determine whether Catalonia should be a self-determining sovereign entity and Spain does not. It is clear that if Catalonia and Spain do not agree about whether a referendum should decide this question, a referendum cannot decide this question. Catalonia went ahead with the referendum in spite of Spanish objections because it doesn’t think Spain can legitimately block it from doing things. Spain used the police force to demonstrate its position that Catalonia cannot hold referendums that Spain disagrees with, no matter the result. In other words, Catalonia held the referendum because no matter what the result, Catalonia already regards itself as sovereign, and Spain blocked the referendum because, no matter what the result, Spain already regards Catalonia as not sovereign. Neither Catalonia nor Spain was really looking to decide this question with a referendum–the referendum itself and the response to it each were expressions of pre-existing positions.

By holding a referendum which Spain did not recognize as legitimate, Catalonia took this debate outside of normal, legal politics. Spain was put in an awful position where, if Spain allows Catalonia to take action it regards as illegal, its sovereignty is undermined, and it can only prevent Catalonia from taking this illegal action by using force. Once Spain said that the referendum was illegal, it was trapped. If Catalonia went through with it, all Spain could do was treat it as illegal, which means using its coercive instruments.

So why not just allow it in the first place? Because the Spanish government really does not believe Catalonia is sovereign, it does not believe the Catalan people is a distinct self which ought to determine independent from the Spanish people. There is fundamental disagreement about who is included in the category of “the Spanish”. A referendum held in Catalonia which only Catalans can vote in does not include all the Spanish, and if you think that Catalonia is as Spanish as Andalusia (and that is Madrid’s position) then a regional referendum makes no sense.

Those who tell Spain to legalize the referendum in spite of this or to not enforce its legal position are asking Spain to act as if it were pro-independence. There have been times when national governments have allowed these questions to be decided with regional referendums, like the Scottish referendum in 2014 or the Quebecois referendum in 1995. In these situations the national governments engaged in cynical behavior. Even though they don’t believe that these regions are or ought to be sovereign, they permitted them to hold these referendums because they believed that the independence faction would lose. They were gambling. Of course in all seriousness no self-respecting unionist can approve of an independence referendum which excludes the participation of most of the union as a fair procedure for deciding an independence question. But Britain and Canada did not decide to hold referendums because they viewed them as fair procedures, they decided to hold referendums because in those cases they were an expedient way to non-violently crush the independence movements. If an independence movement thinks a regional referendum is the fair way to decide the question and it can’t even win on its own terms, that independence movement is finished. The Spanish government made the mistake of being honest about its position that Catalonia really can’t use a referendum to secede, instead of cynically manipulating Catalan opinion. Why did it do that? I see three possibilities:

  1. The Spanish government is too honest for its own good. It wouldn’t back down on unionist principles for short-term political gains.
  2. The Spanish government is too stupid for its own good. It couldn’t see the advantage in acting cynically.
  3. The Spanish government is risk-averse. It wasn’t confident it would win a regional referendum.

Whatever its reasons, Spain has done us the service of reminding us that a referendum isn’t an automatic easy fix for an independence question. If you want to peacefully secede from a union, that union has to allow that secession even though secession contravenes the first principle of unionism, which is that the entire union is sovereign. Not part of the union, but the whole thing. It is for this reason that secessionist movements so often lead to civil war. The question of “who is the sovereign people” is a question that can never be resolved in a way that seems equally fair to both unionists and secessionists, because the unionists want to include in the decision the very people that the secessionists are determined to exclude. A peaceful resolution only occurs when somebody deviates from principle. Either the secessionists let the union decide (which means they lose) or the unionists gamble and have to live with the results.

But if you’re really committed to unionism as a principle, you don’t gamble. And if the unionists won’t gamble and the secessionists won’t back down, the only possible outcome is violence. Is it worth it?