In today’s European Union, some parts of existing states have shown the will to become independent. That is the case of Catalonia or the Basque Country in Spain, Wales and Scotland in the United Kingdom or Flanders in Belgium. Each case is specific, and the support for independence is different in each of these regions: from 10% in Wales to 40% in Scotland and Catalonia. But, do they have the right to secede from the existing states and become independent?
The British government has recognized that Scotland can become independent and it will be the Scots who will decide whether they want it or not, in a referendum this September. The same could apply to Wales in the future. In Belgium, the possibility of a breakup is real, and parties on both sides argue about what is best for Belgians and not whether a part of the country can legally secede or not. What about Spain? Do Catalonia or the Basque Country have the right to secede? All nations have the right of self-determination, but are Catalonia and the Basque Country nations?
The Spanish Constitution recognizes Catalonia and the Basque Country as nations. The text says “[Spain] recognizes and guarantees the right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions that are part of Spain”. While the text doesn’t say nations, instead using the term nationalities, all Fathers of the Constitution from existing parties have recognized that nation and nationality mean the same. Thus, Spain is a nation of nations. The difference between nation and region is made in the autonomy status of each part of the state. Spain is now made of 7 nations (Basque Country; Galicia; Andalucia; Canarias; Aragon; Catalonia, Valencian Country and the Balearic Islands), 10 regions and 2 autonomous cities (Ceuta and Melilla).
June 18, 2006. This date is crucial to understand what is going on in Catalonia. On that day, there was a referendum on the Autonomy Statute of Catalonia (l’Estatut) where 74% of the voters approved the text. Two months later, the Popular Party took the Estatut to the Constitutional Court, and only 3 years after there was a verdict. During these 3 years, the Popular Party did an anti-Catalonia campaign all across Spain. The Popular Party actions against the will of the Catalan people and the 3-year waiting for a conclusion of the Constitutional Court created a sense of non-belonging in Catalonia.
In June 2006 opinion polls showed that most Catalans wanted Catalonia to remain an autonomous community of Spain (37%) while a great number wanted Spain to move to a federal state (34%). By then, only 15% wanted independence. By January 2013, when the Catalan Parliament passed a declaration of sovereignty where it started the process that should end on the referendum on independence, the secession from Spain was supported by 46% of the Catalans, while the other two options lost support (22% for federalism and 21% to keep the status quo).
By December 2013 the referendum on independence was scheduled for November 9th. Apart from the Spanish government refusal to negotiate any kind of consultation, I see two problems in the proposed process: a boundary problem and a transparency problem.
If there is a referendum, who should be able to vote? Only the Catalans or all Spaniards? Secession affects all of Spain, yet one does not, in modern times, need one’s spouse’s consent in order to get a divorce. If there was a Spain-wide referendum on the possibility of a Catalan independence, what would happen if the Catalans voted for independence and the rest of Spain voted against it? It should also be noted that a big part of Spain lived under a nationalist dictatorship that had strong impact on how one sees the nationalities that compose the state and how important is the unity of the state over the will of the people. Recent polls show that young Spaniards, who have always lived under the rule of democracy, support the legality of a Catalan referendum.
But, even if we agree that only the Catalans have to be consulted on their collective future, there are still some boundary problems. The Catalan statute of autonomy recognizes the Aranese people as a different reality. Aran is a small portion of Catalonia that is recognized as being part of the larger Occitania that includes most of Southern France. Should the Aranese votes count in a Catalan referendum? And how can we guarantee that the Aranese people have their right to self-determination recognized? The truth is that, if Catalonia becomes independent, the Aranese can either join the Catalan state or stay in Spain, or even join the rest of Occitania in France.
The other problem with the proposed referendum is the question. Or questions, actually. The Catalan government has proposed that the question “Do you want Catalonia to become a State?” should be followed by a 2nd question: “In case of an affirmative response, do you want this State to be independent?”. A No vote would be to keep the status quo, a Yes+No vote would be for a federation of a Catalan state with Spain (how would this happen, if the Spanish government has not approved this referendum?) and finally a Yes+Yes vote would be for independence. Thus, only those who want a state (independent or not) would chose between federalism and independence. A Catalan who wants to keep the status quo, but would not disapprove of a federal state, will not be listened in the second question if he votes to keep the status quo. And what happens if Yes+Yes wins but not with a majority of the votes? For example, the latest poll shows the Yes+Yes option winning with around 40%. If this was the result, what would happen? Would 40% of the voters decide on the future of the nation?
As we have seen before, there are two ways to achieve the legitimate independence: war or democracy. Since ETA stopped trying it through war, the Spanish government has done two things: ban the Catalan referendum (the democratic way, sponsored by parties that have always stood with democracy and against terrorism) and ban those who ended ETA to participate in the democratic system. The Spanish government is effectively telling the pro-independence Basque left that their goal is not possible to attain by democratic ways, which is dangerous. Remember that in Ireland, Sinn Féin is today an important part of Irish politics, both in the Republic of Ireland and in the United Kingdom. All those who have abandoned terrorism and have had to respond to Courts for their crimes, now need to have the possibility to participate in the democratic system.
Finally, what role should the EU play in this? As a union of people, and not only of states, I believe the EU should play a double role:
Guarantee, in Scotland and similar cases, that those states that change their configuration stay in the EU
Guarantee, in Spain and similar cases, that liberty, democracy, human rights and all other EU principles, are not breached.
Today the Scots have European citizenship. Scotland respects all criteria to be a part of the EU. If the yes to independence wins, during some time Scotland will still be a part of the UK (and the EU). During this time the EU should, if that is Scotland’s will, guarantee that the new state can stay in the EU. Some questions should have clear answers such as whether a new Scottish state would retain the British non-euro clause. The European citizenship that the Scots have should not be taken away.
In the case of Spain, and similar cases, the European Union needs to make sure all European principles are not breached: respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.
Personally I don’t think Catalonia would be better off as an independent country. I do believe Catalonia should be leading Spain forward, in a federal Spanish state that could keep the unity of Spain while responding to the legitimate concerns of Catalans and Basques. But ultimately my opinion does not matter, that of the Catalans does.