A Few Thoughts on the Catalan Independence Referendum

A mixed bag in Spain.


Having observed the buildup to and consequences of the legal and peaceful dissolution of my native land of Czechoslovakia in 1993 into two separate countries, I have developed an open mind about separatist arguments. Since their separation, tensions between Czechs and Slovaks have disappeared and the two are, once again, the very best of friends. The Czechs no longer subsidize their poorer cousins in the east, while Slovaks no longer blame their problems on their "big brother" in the west. Everyone has won.

As such, I have kept an open mind about Scottish independence. Many Scots resented their bigger neighbor to the south and wished to regain the statehood they lost with the creation of Great Britain in 1707. Scots, ultimately, balked at going it alone – a decision partly influenced by the large financial subsidies that Caledonia receives from England. The Brits handled the question of the referendum in a typically cool-headed fashion. Unencumbered by a "written Constitution," a simple agreement between David Cameron, the British Prime Minister and Alex Salmond, the Scottish First Minister, paved the way for a vote north of the Hadrian's Wall, with 55 percent of the Scots opting for the status quo.

Spain, alas, has a Constitution, which was adopted in 1978 by 92 percent of the Spanish voters, including 95 percent of the voters in Catalonia. The document does not provide for independence referenda and specifically refers to the indivisibility of the Kingdom of Spain. Consequently, the Spanish Supreme Court ruled that the Catalan independence referendum was unconstitutional and should not take place. The Catalan government ignored the Court's ruling and decided to hold the plebiscite anyway. The Spanish government responded by sending in the national police and the referendum was, for all practical purposes, derailed – amid some violence.

With regard to the crackdown, a couple of things should be kept in mind. First, nobody died, which is a bit of a miracle, considering the red-hot passion on the Catalan side. From the film footage I saw, it seemed to me that the Spanish police were remarkably restrained and only responded with batons and rubber bullets when under physical threat from the pro-independence protesters. Second, given the Supreme Court ruling, the Spanish government was obliged to enforce the rule of law and should not be unduly blamed for the unpleasantness that followed.

That said, Madrid's approach, while legal and proportionate, seems to me politically unwise. The only way that the Catalans could have held the vote legally was through constitutional change, which is impossible, because the Spanish Parliament is filled with unionists opposed to Catalan independence. The crackdown leaves the Catalans with no recourse to rectify their grievances and could lead to increased support for independence and, even, occasion a rise of more extreme forms of Catalan resistance to the central authorities.

For most Europeans, Spain without Catalonia is as strange of a concept as the United Kingdom without Scotland. But, independence can be a good way to lower tensions between peoples who no longer wish to remain a part of the same political entity and an excellent way to increase inter-jurisdictional competition, thereby allowing for greater institutional experimentation.

Prior to the rise of the European nation states in the 16th and 17th centuries, Europe was sub-divided into hundreds of different states and statelets. Germany alone consisted of over 300 different political entities prior to Napoleon's consolidation of the territories in 1806.

These states offered their residents different sets of rights and responsibilities. They competed with one another in terms of policies, including religious tolerance and taxation. In fact, it was this territorial disunity that, scholars argue, enabled Europe to zoom past heavily centralized China to become the world's leading economy.

Today, Europe is in a bit of a funk. Perhaps an injection of greater jurisdictional competition is just what the old world needs to take it out of its morass and reinvigorate it once more.