On Sunday, more than 2 million Catalans voted in a referendum on the question:
Should Catalonia become an independent state?
The vote was a milestone in the century-long struggle for self-determination in Catalonia, a region in northeast Spain. The claim for independence, though, was again met with opposition by the Spanish government, with Spanish police seizing polling stations and beating would-be voters.
Further reading: Catalonians and Kurds have a long battle ahead for true independence
Catalonia’s claim for independence
Catalonian President Carles Puigdemont said on Monday that Catalan “citizens have earned the right to [be] an independent state”. Puigdemont sees the 90% referendum win as a self-evident claim for independence.
Catalonia’s claim to independence is historical. It has always considered itself a distinct entity. While Catalonia has co-existed with Spain for centuries, the 1979 Statute of Autonomy under the 1978 Spanish Constitution permitted Catalonia some autonomy, with self-government of education, health care and welfare.
Catalonia has also maintained a culture and language distinct from its Spanish neighbours. For Catalans, strong national identity has been demonstrated through resistance of repressive expressions of Spanish influence – notably the Franco dictatorship’s attempts to suppress Catalan culture and language.
As one of the strongest and most productive economic regions in Spain, the perception among Catalans is that they give more in tax than they receive in state benefits. In 2015, 20% of Spain’s total GDP came from Catalonia, while the state budget for Catalonia received a 6.5% decrease from 2003.
The current Catalan claim for independence has been energised by the perceived economic and political repression of the region by the central government in recent years. Many Catalans believe Catalonia would be more successful if it could self-rule.
Parallel to inequitable economic treatment, the Spanish government has also moved recently to tightly constrain Catalan autonomy. In 2010, the Spanish Constitutional Court struck down an expanded version of the Statute of Autonomy that granted Catalonia the title of a “nation”.
In March 2017, former Catalan leader Artur Mas was banned from holding public office after being found guilty of disobeying the Constitutional Court by holding a symbolic referendum in 2014. Such aggressive responses by Spain to the idea of secession have driven increasing numbers of Catalonians toward the independence movement.
In the context of Sunday’s referendum, Puigdemont argued that his people’s sovereignty lies with the Catalan parliament, and that no other court or political power could ban or suspend the vote.
The referendum’s legality is certainly contentious, notably because it did not adhere to democratic conventions like the requirement for a minimum threshold of votes. Regardless, Puigdemont is looking to make a declaration of independence in the coming days.
Why does the Spanish government oppose Catalonian independence?
While Catalans claim independence, Madrid refuses to recognise the referendum’s legitimacy at all. According to Spanish President Mariano Rajoy:
There has not been a self-determination referendum in Catalonia.
Rajoy labelled the referendum as a “constitutional and democratic atrocity” and slammed the Catalan leaders for creating “serious damage to co-existence” between Spain and Catalonia.
In line with the 2010 Constitutional Court decision, the Spanish government opposes Catalan independence on the grounds of constitutional invalidity. The 1978 Spanish Constitution denies the independence of Catalonia, declaring the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”.
Madrid argues there is no provision in the Spanish Constitution for self-determination, and that a unilateral vote of independence is at odds with Article 155’s requirement for democratic participation of all Spaniards. On these grounds, the Constitutional Court banned the referendum – which nevertheless proceeded on Sunday.
What happened during the referendum on Sunday?
Sunday’s referendum was marred by violence and repression. Spanish national police forcibly blocked voting, seizing ballot boxes and voting papers, physically removing voters from polling stations, and attacking civilians with batons and rubber bullets.
Catalan emergency officials say that 761 Catalan civilians and 12 police were injured during the police actions in Barcelona and Girona.
Catalan and Spanish leaders blame each other for the violence. Rajoy condemned the Catalans for their “radicalism and disobedience”, praising the Spanish police for their “firmness and serenity” in response.
This response sits uncomfortably with images of voters being removed from polling stations by their hair and attacked with batons while raising their hands in peaceful protest.
The UN has criticised Madrid for its disproportionate and violent response to a peaceful attempt at self-determination. Human Rights Watch has condemned the Spanish government for violating Catalans’ civil right to peaceful assembly and free expression.
In contrast, the European Union regards the vote as illegal but has called for unity and peaceful relations between Spain and Catalonia.
As Catalans call for a national strike in response to Madrid’s repressive actions, the world waits to see whether this act of protest will be met with greater repression. Madrid could use emergency powers to take full administrative control of Catalonia.
Catalonia and the struggle for self-determination
On Monday, Puigdemont said the Catalan people:
… 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.
Catalonia is effectively asserting the right of its people to self-determination. This is a collective human right, enshrined in common Article 1(1) of the twin human rights covenants – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
In voting at a referendum and preparing for a declaration of independence, Catalonia is following a similar contested path to the emerging state of Kosovo. In 2010, the International Court of Justice found that Kosovo’s declaration of independence did not violate international law.
Spain is the only major country in Western Europe to refuse recognition to Kosovo as an independent country. Spain’s insistence that unilateral secession cannot be permitted for Kosovo is intertwined with its determination not to lose Catalonia.
Self-determination can be realised in a range of ways, including through forms of autonomy within a nation-state. It may be that a negotiated arrangement that would preserve Spain’s sovereignty over Catalonia would still be possible.
However, by meeting Sunday’s assertion of self-determination with repression, Spain has undoubtedly fuelled Catalonia’s determination to establish an independent state.
Other EU member nations, including the UK, will be watching with concern that Catalonia may inspire separatist movements in Scotland, Bavaria and Flanders.
Secession movements come not in ones but twos, it seems. In the space of a week, two regions in which national groups have chafed at central government diktat have voted overwhelmingly for independence.
In both cases, these protest votes are having ramifications far beyond the nationalist movements that have been agitating for a separation from the states in which they reside.
In each case, central government resistance risks further upheaval, even civil conflict in the case of the Iraqi Kurds, whose cause is threatened not simply by the Iraqi government in Baghdad but by surrounding states.
Meanwhile, there was confirmation overnight of overwhelming support in a referendum in the Catalan region of Spain for independence from Madrid.
Of the 2.26 million who cast ballots, more than 90% voted “yes”. However, a significant number of Catalans opposed to separation from Madrid simply did not vote.
After threatening to declare independence within four days, the Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont is now calling for European Union mediation, indicating that he recognises limitations on the validity of the poll. He said:
It is not a domestic matter. We don’t want a traumatic break … We want a new understanding with the Spanish state.
Under Spain’s 1978 Constitution, which ended decades of Franco-led fascist rule, the country’s Constitutional Court declared the Catalan poll had no legal status and so its results were invalid.
On the other hand, Spain’s beleaguered leadership can hardly ignore the Catalan plebiscite. Resorting to force in which scores have been injured over recent days in clashes between police and nationalists is clearly not the answer to this rupture in the country’s unity.
The best case for Spain and European amity would seem to lie in agreement on greater autonomy for Catalonia, Spain’s wealthiest region wedged in its north-east on the Mediterranean coast by a mountainous border with France.
A week ago, in a far more troubled corner of the world, Iraqi Kurds voted overwhelmingly for separation from Baghdad. Of those who cast ballots, 93% voted “yes”.
Commentators were quick to hail the vote as an “irreversible step toward independence”, in the words of Peter Galbraith, a former American diplomat and longstanding advocate for Kurdish separateness.
But that early optimism among supporters of Kurdish independence may prove to be misplaced, given forces arrayed against such an outcome.
The Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad threatened force to prevent oil-rich Kurdistan’s separation, and other players in the neighbourhood have made their opposition clear.
Iran, with a sizeable Kurdish minority of its own living in areas contiguous with Iraqi Kurdistan, closed its borders and made threatening noises if the Kurds persisted.
Turkey, which has its own Kurdish separatist problem that has cost something like 40,000 lives, has warned that it is considering closing border crossings into Kurdistan, thus strangling lifelines to the outside world.
Implied in Ankara’s response to the Kurdish vote is a threat to stop oil shipments via a pipeline across its territory from Kirkuk, stifling struggling Kurdistan’s main source of income.
A decline in oil prices has brought the local economy to its knees.
At the same time, Iraq, Turkey and Iran are planning joint military manoeuvres aimed at further isolating the beleaguered and seemingly friendless Kurds.
Baghdad has stopped flights from its territory to the two Kurdish international airports.
In civil-war scarred Damascus, Syria has also voice its opposition to Kurdish independence, in acknowledgement of its own Kurdish separatist problem.
In Washington, the administration poured cold water on Kurdish aspirations, thereby acknowledging that further destabilisation of a volatile region represents a threat to US interests. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said:
The United States does not recognize the Kurdistan Regional Government’s unilateral referendum held on Monday. The vote and results lack legitimacy and we continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq.
Reactions of the putative state of Kurdistan’s neighbours is hardly surprising given the region’s brutal realpolitik. But this does little to disguise the fact that a post-first world war construct in the Middle East is under siege.
In the wash-up of the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the redrawing the region’s boundaries under a secret colonial-era accord between Britain and France, the Kurds can consider themselves hard done-by not to have been given their own state.
A century later, the Iran-backed and Shiite-dominated Iraqi state is under enormous stress, having ousted Islamic State from most of its strongholds in bloody conflict backed by the US and its allies, including Australia.
A sullen and disenfranchised Sunni minority, who had lent their support to a murderous IS, is a residue of longstanding tribal conflicts and tensions across Iraq.
The Kurds have effectively gone their own way since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. But they have found that attachment to a corrupt Shiite-dominated regime in Baghdad has been a drag on their national aspirations.
At the heart of difficulties between the Kurds and Iran-backed rulers in Baghdad is money. The Kurds can legitimately claim they are not receiving their fair share of oil revenues.
This is not to say the Kurds are blameless in the conduct of their affairs. A Barzani political fiefdom led by Maassoud Barzani has its share of critics, not least those who question its democratic credentials.
Barzani himself remains in power two years after his term as president has expired. The Kurdish parliament is virtually defunct, and members of the Barzani family occupy many of the government’s leading posts.
In all of this, it is reasonable to speculate what might have been if a push in 2006 for a separation of Iraq into Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite enclaves had been countenanced.
This was a solution proposed by then Senator, later Vice President Joe Biden. Indeed, back then the Senate passed a resolution supporting the Biden proposal.
A re-emergence of Kurdish separatist demands is merely one consequence of upheavals that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. It was an adventure that has cost the American taxpayer upwards of a trillion dollars and contributed to the de-stabilisation of the entire region.
In their separate bids for independence – or greater autonomy – the Kurds and the Catalans are facing gale-force headwinds.
Neither case has international support – although both the Kurds and the Catalans have their sympathisers. The Scots, for example, have expressed support for Catalan aspirations.
The two also have to reckon with resistance more generally to secessionist movements.
The last nation to win independence was landlocked South Sudan in 2011, with the backing of the international community. In that case, the independence referendum grew out of an internationally brokered peace agreement that ended Sudan’s long-running civil war.
Kosovo is another example of national aspirations that enjoyed widespread international support. Its declaration of independence from Serbia had the backing of the US and its European allies, but was opposed by the Serbian and Russians government.
While Kosovo is recognised by more than 100 countries, it has still not been admitted to the United Nations due to a Russian veto.
The Catalans and the Kurds have some way to go before they realise their aspirations. It is not clear that independence plebiscites shorn of international legitimacy will yield what some believe is their just rewards.
The link below is to an article that reports on a rising radical Islam in the Spanish region of Catalonia.