Long live Catalonia!
By Ben Quainton
On October 1, Catalonia held a landmark vote for its independence from Spain. Denouncing the referendum as illegal, the Spanish government immediately intervened, sending in heavily armed riot troops that brutally attacked peaceful protesters, blocked access to polling stations, confiscated ballot slips, and did everything in their power to suppress the referendum. Despite the efforts of the Spanish government, over 90 percent of the participating Catalans voted for independence. Almost a month ago, the Catalan Parliament officially declared independence from its mother country. In response, the Spanish government struck back hard, unilaterally dissolving the Catalan Parliament, arresting twelve members on charges of rebellion carrying thirty year prison terms, and issuing a European Arrest Warrant for the Catalan President-in-exile who had fled to Brussels. They disrupted Internet communications, and even went as far as to arrest teachers on hate crime charges for discussing independence in the classroom.
This all seems very sudden. The budding Catalan independence movement was something completely off my radar a few months ago. So, how did this happen, and what is going on?Catalonia is an autonomous region in the northeastern corner of Spain that accounts for 20 percent of the nation’s GDP. The modern Catalonian independence movement started in 2010, when the Spanish government declared parts of Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy unconstitutional. Fast forward seven years from that point, through dozens of protests and many non-binding referenda, all of which supported the cause of Catalan independence, to our current situation — a justifiably angry population, with a long history of being oppressed and disparaged, peacefully seeking independence, now being silenced by a government that, in its brutality towards Catalan nationalism, has come to resemble the military dictatorship of Francisco Franco that systematically suppressed Catalan autonomy. And no matter how you spin it, the violence perpetrated by the Spanish government is indefensible — images of men and women being beat on, stomped on, and thrown down a flight of stairs have widely circulated — and all for what? To stop a peaceful vote? To prevent a people from exercising a fundamental right to self-determination?
And yet, there seems to be near unanimity in the international community that Spain’s actions have been justified. What could explain this? The principal argument advanced in halls of power around the world is that the existence of the European Union hinges on Catalonia staying within Spain; that if one independence-seeking group within a European power decides to leave, then so will all others: Scotland and Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, Corsica within France, and Flanders within Belgium. This argument carries great weight with those who believe that the strength and stability of the European Union have been critical to restoring a region ravaged by two world wars in the worst slaughter humanity has ever seen.
Still, no matter how important the European Union may have been or may be, when the means are this violent and oppressive, the ends simply cannot be justified. People have a right to vote peacefully on their own future and no government can endure if it is based on the denial of fundamental rights. Power is not legitimacy. Ultimately, no matter how many troops the Spanish government throws at Catalonia, no matter how violent the repression, if the Catalan people stand firm in their quest for self-determination and independence, their day will come — just as it has for every country that has stood firm for justice, democracy, and liberty.
Union, now and forever
On October 27, 2017, a little more than half of the members of the Catalan parliament ratified a declaration of independence from Spain with the support of a narrow majority (70 of 135). The legitimacy for an action that upended almost 550 years of Spanish sovereignty over the region was derived from a controversial referendum vote on October 1, where a measly 43 percent of eligible voters declared their support for independence by a seemingly wide margin. The illegitimacy of the decision aside, Catalonia should clearly not be an independent and sovereign nation.While a majority of Catalans are clearly not in favor of independence, perhaps the reasons for independence are noble enough in their own right. Economically, the pro-independence parties of Catalonia are unhappy that as one of the more prosperous regions of Spain, they pay more in tax dollars to the Spanish federal government than they receive back in government spending. This argument is ludicrous and selfish. In consideration of how poorly Spain’s economy has rebounded from the global recession in 2008, Catalonia’s argument that their tax dollars should be reciprocated back proportionately in spending on their region is like Princeton complaining when its state taxes are spent in Trenton. This same reasoning could be used in every town, city, state, or region of the world that is disproportionately wealthy within its country. This logic would lead to a world made up of independent towns and cities, where poorer places are in deeper poverty.
The second argument for independence is that Catalonia’s unique language and culture merit the existence of a nation-state. But if Catalan language makes it separate enough from Spain to justify its own government, then the northern region of Spain known as Basque Country, with its unique language, must too be allowed to leave — a prospect over which Basque nationalist terrorists fought Spanish troops for almost 50 years, disarming only in April of this year. Spain is historically merely a collection of various kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula, all with distinct cultures, united in the 15th century by Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon. Since modern Spanish regions have roots in these independent kingdoms with distinct cultures, should the Spanish state cease to exist? The answer is no. Spain wasn’t carelessly formed without concern for identity. Spain was unified gradually and naturally, and has existed as a unified state for over 500 years. Barcelona, a quintessential Spanish city, hosts some of the most significant pieces of Spanish art and architecture, renowned throughout the world. So despite certain regional differences, there is clearly enough of a national identity that justifies a united Spain.
So what would Catalan independence actually do? As Spain’s economic powerhouse, it would significantly harm an already weak economy, putting the fiscal standing of the rest of the country in shambles and decreasing the living standard of the average Spaniard. And at a time when the liberal world order is increasingly threatened by destabilizing forces, it would only add fuel to the fire of a fragmenting Europe.
Regardless of whether a popular majority is sufficient grounds for secession or not, there is no popular majority. Could the Spanish government have handled the referendum vote better? Yes. Should violent police officers be punished? Absolutely. Is Catalonia entitled to compromises that grant it more regional autonomy? Possibly. But if we are concerned for the welfare of the Spanish people, it’s clear that the union must be preserved.