A child wearing a Catalan flag on his back SOPA Images/Getty Images

Preserving Spain

Catalonia's proposed independence referendum on October 1 threatens to mire Spain in a constitutional crisis, and could give added momentum to the wave of ethno-nationalism and nativism sweeping Europe and North America. Spain's next move could decide the fate of its own democratic system, as well as others across the Western world.

MADRID – Nothing brings concerned friends out of the woodwork like a crisis. That has certainly been the case with the current situation in Spain, where Catalonia has called a referendum on independence for October 1. Among the many messages of support I have received in recent weeks, there have been more than a few inquiries as to why Spain does not simply allow the referendum to play out. But that is not an option.

The idea that Catalonia should be able to hold its referendum, under the principle of the “right to decide” (derecho a decidir), has been raised in the international press, and even gained traction among some segments within Spain. Many have cited former British Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to allow Scotland’s independence referendum to take place in 2014.

But such a process is illegal under the Spanish constitution of 1978. That constitution marked the country’s passage from dictatorship to democracy and provides the framework for Spain’s rule-of-law system. And, as it explicitly states, it is “based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation,” with sovereignty belonging “to the Spanish people.”

In short, Spain is one nation, indivisible. As such, a referendum on secession cannot legally proceed without crippling the constitutional order that the country has built over the last 40 years, since the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

It must be emphasized, however, that the principle that Spain is and must remain one unified country does not in any way preclude the existence of individual or group identities. On the contrary, the constitution’s preamble includes a pledge to protect the human rights, culture, traditions, languages, and institutions of the “peoples of Spain.”

From this pledge has developed a complex body of law granting regional autonomy, including, in particular, for Catalonia, with significant powers having been transferred to the Catalonian regional government. The calibration of this relationship among group, region, and nation is a difficult and ongoing process, but it is occurring within the context of an overarching constitutional system. A referendum on independence would shatter that system.

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Some claim that the answer is to change the constitution to allow for such an independence referendum. But, though calls for such a change will surely grow louder, it would be sheer folly to heed them. Doing so would not only defy the will of an overwhelming majority of Spanish citizens; it could also strike a fatal blow to Spanish democracy itself.

The democratic Spanish state, based on the idea of one Spanish nation comprising all of Spain’s peoples, is modern, pluralistic, and flexible. It has strengthened an interdependence stemming from our collective experience and shared history. Facilitating the divisibility of this idea of Spain will hasten the advance of the type of nationalism and nativism that has been on the rise elsewhere in Europe and North America. Permitting votes on secession is not a democratic act; it is an attack on democracy.

But preventing an unconstitutional referendum is only the first step toward protecting Spanish democracy; Spain must also determine how to move forward from October 1. The choices it makes will not only determine its future democratic vibrancy; they will also provide an indication of how other liberal democracies, faced with many of the same forces that are at play on the streets of Barcelona (Catalonia’s regional capital), may proceed.

If Spain is to remain one nation, that nation must be manifest throughout Spanish society. And, here, there is much work to be done.

One of the consequences of Catalonia’s growing autonomy, and the misuse of that autonomy by identitarian separatists in the regional government, has been the withdrawal of the Spanish state from the region. The connections between state and citizen have become increasingly distant, leading to the loosening of the social bonds that hold the nation together.

A similar phenomenon has occurred in the rest of Spain and, indeed, across the West. This is not due to regional separatism, but rather to citizens’ growing sense of disconnection from the functioning of the state. The relationship between people and their government has taken on a dynamic that increasingly resembles that of customers and service providers.

What is needed in Spain today is a concerted effort to reengage society – particularly younger generations – with the project of government. My generation came of age during the transition to democracy (La Transición), a process to which one could not help but feel tied.

La Transición, however, has in some ways become a victim of its own success, as that era and those who lived through it have continued to dominate Spain’s political consciousness. This has created a generational cleavage that can be seen in the Catalonia debate within the Spanish Socialist Party: while the old guard staunchly defends Spain’s constitutional order, the party’s younger members have taken a more ambiguous position. It is crucial to connect with this new generation in a process that is not passive, but instead involves daily engagement.

Throughout its history, Spain has vacillated between leading and lagging. Sometimes what happens in Spain presages developments elsewhere; other times, Spain merely feels the aftershocks of faraway events. The situation in Catalonia, needless to say, fits into the former category.

The challenge of deepening the connections among citizens, states, and society is universal. And, given the temptation to revert to ethno-nationalism or tribalism – which, as we have lately seen in mature democracies, directly threatens liberalism and the rule of law – it is also urgent.

In Spain, we have our work cut out for us. But if we can get this right, our country – and democracy more generally – will be the better for it.


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