David Ramos/Getty Images

Why Catalonia’s Independence Bid Is Failing

What frequently seals the fate of independence movements is the response of third countries. And it is all but unimaginable that any European country would see any political advantage in facilitating Catalonia’s independence, which would alienate a key EU member and boost myriad nationalist movements across the EU and in nearby states.

BARCELONA – In the confusing aftermath of Catalonia’s messy independence referendum, the Catalan regional government’s president, Carles Puigdemont, has wanted to have his cake and eat it. His long-awaited speech to the regional parliament, in which he had promised to declare independence from Spain, ended up being a muddled effort to placate his radical nationalist allies, the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), without further alienating the central government in Madrid. He achieved neither objective.

Puigdemont did declare a Catalan state “in the form of a republic.” But he immediately “suspended” the declaration to allow for negotiations with the Spanish government. To the Spanish government, Puigdemont’s address was an implicit declaration of independence, and to the impatient CUP, it was a moment of inadmissible betrayal. It is now highly probable that the central government will invoke Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which allows it to take direct control of Catalonia, a step that would undoubtedly provoke more civil unrest throughout the region.

Historically, national independence has usually been achieved through violent, even cataclysmic processes of decolonization. New states have almost invariably been born in blood, sacrifice, and deprivation. In the case of the former Yugoslavia, independent states emerged out of civil war and even genocide. Enslaved nations have also recovered sovereignty through state failure and imperial collapse. Amicable breakups, like that of Czechoslovakia, or of Norway and Sweden, are a historical rarity, however laudable.

Catalonia’s bid for independence, as Puigdemont probably knows, lacks the compelling revolutionary élan that has characterized struggling national movements throughout history. Real, and sometimes imagined, grievances can explain the recent nationalist tide in Catalonia. But the independence project mainly reflects Catalan elites’ extravagant dreams of grandeur and condescension toward the supposedly inferior Spaniards. Those elites should now ask themselves whether their middle-class constituency is capable of enduring blockades, massive capital flight (which is already happening), a collapsing standard of living, and the enmity of both Spain and Europe.

In Iraq, the Kurds base their demand for independence on the claim that the Iraqi state is oppressive and failing. But Catalonia is not an oppressed nation, and Spain is not a failed state. Invoking Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s long dictatorship now four decades in the past – is a feeble attempt to disguise the separatists’ economic pretensions and overblown sense of cultural superiority.

The West does not support Kurdish independence for the same reason it would not support Catalan independence. Just as Spain is not an occupying power in Catalonia, the West does not regard the countries seeking to prevent Kurdish independence – Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran – as true colonial powers. Conversely, the cause of Palestinian independence is supported worldwide precisely because Israel is perceived as the last Western colonial power in Arab lands.

The World’s Opinion Page

Help support Project Syndicate’s mission

subscribe now

Such perceptions matter, because what frequently seals the fate of independence movements is the response of third countries. And it is all but unimaginable that any European country would see any political advantage in facilitating Catalonia’s independence, which would alienate a key member of the European Union and boost myriad nationalist movements across the EU and in nearby states.

Catalonia does have a legitimate dispute with the Spanish government over finances and the attributes of autonomy. But while the government in Madrid could have managed the Catalan conflict more wisely by addressing it politically, not just legally, the dispute comes nowhere near the threshold of justifying independence.

The “Catalan differential fact” is a historical reality; and it deserves to be addressed properly. Yet the persistent move toward independence appears to be driven mostly by the excitement and kneejerk responses of some of Catalonia’s leaders. At no point before or since the independence referendum have any of them offered an articulate explanation of why a separate Catalan state is necessary or what it would look like.

Would the Republic of Catalonia have its own armed forces? Would its own national currency replace the euro? How could it possibly persuade Spain and other EU member states not to veto its accession to the bloc? Which countries would risk alienating Spain by recognizing an isolated Catalan state?

Invariably, unless nations march virtually united to independence, they don’t get there. Catalonia is now almost evenly divided over the question, in a manner unseen since the Spanish Civil War. Only 43% of Catalonia’s population voted in the referendum, which even Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, a supporter of statehood, has questioned as a foundation for a unilateral declaration of independence. Any vote not cast can legitimately be construed as a protest against the referendum – and a vote for unity with Spain.

Colau is right. To say that the referendum produced a clear winner, and to base a declaration of independence on that vote, is a travesty of common sense and of democratic norms that would tarnish the nascent state as a grossly illegitimate enterprise. Similar deep internal divisions doomed Quebec’s bid for independence – and Scotland’s as well. Even the Confederate leaders at the time of the American Civil War understood that without a unified people fully behind their bid for independence, their slave-owner’s republic was doomed.

A shakeup of Spain’s political and constitutional status quo is long overdue, and the entire country could emerge stronger if the reforms enacted in response to the Catalonia crisis help unleash the energies of one of Europe’s most diverse nations. But this is no time for petty minds and narrow visions. The malignant effects of today’s identity politics should not be allowed to tear Spanish society apart in the way that ideological politics did 80 years ago.

  1. Television sets showing a news report on Xi Jinping's speech Anthony Wallace/Getty Images

    Empowering China’s New Miracle Workers

    China’s success in the next five years will depend largely on how well the government manages the tensions underlying its complex agenda. In particular, China’s leaders will need to balance a muscular Communist Party, setting standards and protecting the public interest, with an empowered market, driving the economy into the future.

  2. United States Supreme Court Hisham Ibrahim/Getty Images

    The Sovereignty that Really Matters

    The preference of some countries to isolate themselves within their borders is anachronistic and self-defeating, but it would be a serious mistake for others, fearing contagion, to respond by imposing strict isolation. Even in states that have succumbed to reductionist discourses, much of the population has not.

  3.  The price of Euro and US dollars Daniel Leal Olivas/Getty Images

    Resurrecting Creditor Adjustment

    When the Bretton Woods Agreement was hashed out in 1944, it was agreed that countries with current-account deficits should be able to limit temporarily purchases of goods from countries running surpluses. In the ensuing 73 years, the so-called "scarce-currency clause" has been largely forgotten; but it may be time to bring it back.

  4. Leaders of the Russian Revolution in Red Square Keystone France/Getty Images

    Trump’s Republican Collaborators

    Republican leaders have a choice: they can either continue to collaborate with President Donald Trump, thereby courting disaster, or they can renounce him, finally putting their country’s democracy ahead of loyalty to their party tribe. They are hardly the first politicians to face such a decision.

  5. Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron John Thys/Getty Images

    How Money Could Unblock the Brexit Talks

    With talks on the UK's withdrawal from the EU stalled, negotiators should shift to the temporary “transition” Prime Minister Theresa May officially requested last month. Above all, the negotiators should focus immediately on the British budget contributions that will be required to make an orderly transition possible.

  6. Ksenia Sobchak Mladlen Antonov/Getty Images

    Is Vladimir Putin Losing His Grip?

    In recent decades, as President Vladimir Putin has entrenched his authority, Russia has seemed to be moving backward socially and economically. But while the Kremlin knows that it must reverse this trajectory, genuine reform would be incompatible with the kleptocratic character of Putin’s regime.

  7. Right-wing parties hold conference Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

    Rage Against the Elites

    • With the advantage of hindsight, four recent books bring to bear diverse perspectives on the West’s current populist moment. 
    • Taken together, they help us to understand what that moment is and how it arrived, while reminding us that history is contingent, not inevitable

    Global Bookmark

    Distinguished thinkers review the world’s most important new books on politics, economics, and international affairs.

  8. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin Bill Clark/Getty Images

    Don’t Bank on Bankruptcy for Banks

    As a part of their efforts to roll back the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, congressional Republicans have approved a measure that would have courts, rather than regulators, oversee megabank bankruptcies. It is now up to the Trump administration to decide if it wants to set the stage for a repeat of the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008.