Democracy

Catalonians Declare Independence, But Can They Hold It?

Rights are theoretical unless you can defend them.

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jacilluch/flickr

The Spanish government has moved to impose "direct rule" over Catalonia now that the region has finally declared independence. The maneuver marks a culmination of a years-long political process that hit a climax this month with an independence referendum that the national government claims was illegal. (The Spanish Constitution says it is based on the "indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation.")

The prime minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, insists the separatist efforts are anti-democratic and "contrary to the normal behavior in any democratic country like ours." But self-determination is, or ought to be, a fundamental component of a liberal democracy. And the Spanish constitution pays lip service to that. In Section 2 of the preliminary title, just after the reference to the indissoluble unity, the Constitution says it "recognizes and guarantees the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed and the solidarity among them all."

The right to self-government must include the right to secede, or it is not self-government at all. Solidarity that's not voluntary is just authoritarianism.

The Spanish government and the European Union (E.U.) have taken a hard line against Catalan aspirations for independence, fearing a domino effect. For most of recorded history, after all, Europe was a collection not of modern nation-states but of small sovereign units with strong senses of identity. They were often unwilling to submit to centralized powers without putting up a costly resistance first.

The leaders in Brussels, unsurprisingly, don't want to see a return to that. The E.U. has helped to guarantee, more or less, the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital within its constituent members. Such a regime would be harder to establish in a fragmented Europe. A free trade zone with a larger number of members is possible, but it would require a critical mass the E.U. already provides.

Unfortunately, European bureaucrats have yoked the right of free movement, and other freedoms guaranteed by the E.U., to a slew of artificial privileges and onerous regulations imposed by supra-governmental bureaucracy. This has not secured the European political project but only threatened the rights advanced by it by conflating them with undemocratic institutions.

It's unclear how Catalonia's drive for independence will play out. The Spanish courts are unlikely at this point to change their minds and legitimize Catalan moves. The European courts, vested as they are in the maintenance of the European Union as a definite political association, are unlikely to rule in Catalonia's favor either.

Catalonia, as Laura Williams noted at the Foundation for Economic Education earlier this month, provides a "live social experiment" on the need for individual gun ownership. Spain's restrictive gun laws leave only the authorities armed—and the national government took over the Catalan government's armed agencies as soon as it looked like the regional authorities would be noncompliant. Organized, nonviolent noncooperation can still be effective when the bulk of the population supports it, so perhaps the imbalance of arms ultimately won't matter. Facing an unarmed population, the Spanish government was still unwilling to stop every one of the 2 million plus Catalonians who voted in the October 1 referendum because of the bad publicity that would generate. On the other hand, guns can be a deterrent. An armed populace increases the costs of authoritarian behavior even further.

Catalan leaders have not signaled definitively whether they would seek to join the European Union. Since any member country can object to any new potential member, Spain's displeasure with Catalan independence makes EU membership a nonstarter.

Nevertheless, it is possible for Catalonia to guarantee its citizens' rights without membership in the E.U. What's important is to not mistake the forces of nationalism for the forces of decentralization. A people's right to determine their own future should not include a right to suppress minorities the way the state from which they separated suppressed their own aspirations.

A 2015 study found that despite their strong sense of a cultural identity separate from Spain, Catalonians are largely motivated to support independence due to fiscal grievances: They do not like how the central government spends their money, and they want to devolve that power to themselves. That focus isn't surprising. Since the 1978 Constitution was passed, the Spanish government has generally respected the cultural identities of its various constituent regions. Spain does not particularly rely on ethnonationalism to promote a sense of unity.

The absence of ethnonationalism is a necessary but not sufficient condition to prevent an upswell of desire for self-determination. Responsible spending and limited government might be. Yet despite Madrid's increasing unpopularity in Catalonia—and Brussels' increasing unpopularity in the United Kingdom—using fiscal discipline to preserve a status quo is still a bridge too far. Far easier to deploy economic threats, as in Britain, or police brutality, as in Catalonia.

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  1. Does this make the Catalonians “neo-confederates”?

  2. The subtitle is incorrect

    Rights are real regardless of whether they can be defended or not

    1. Rights exist, regardless of your ability to defend them. However, rights can’t be expressed or practiced without the ability to defend them.

      Hence, 1A and 2A of our own Constitution allow for defenses of our rights through speech, assembly, press, and if it comes to it arms.

    2. Just like laws are laws even when nobody bothers to enforce them.

    3. They’re as real, & as immaterial, as any other thoughts.

    4. So are angels dancing on pinheads.

  3. I’m waiting to see how the rest of Europe responds.

  4. Weren’t the Basques trying to be an independent country not too long ago? I’d have thought they’d have gone first.

  5. The prime minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, insists the separatist efforts are anti-democratic and “contrary to the normal behavior in any democratic country like ours.”

    More like Mariano Killjoy.

  6. Wasn’t Conan a Catalonian?

  7. “”Rights are theoretical unless you can defend them.””

    And that’s why we have the 2nd amendment.

  8. A people’s right to determine their own future should not include a right to suppress minorities the way the state from which they separated suppressed their own aspirations.

    So you’re saying they should take down those Confederate monuments.

    1. Yes, but only the ones in former Confederate states. California can keep all six of theirs.

  9. For most of recorded history, after all, Europe was a collection not of modern nation-states but of small sovereign units with strong senses of identity.

    (…)

    The leaders in Brussels, unsurprisingly, don’t want to see a return to that.

    They do, they just aren’t yet prepared to say it openly.

  10. Is there no way other than gun ownership, to fuck with an oppressive government?

  11. The right to self-government must include the right to secede, or it is not self-government at all.

    Sounds nice, but the devil’s in the details.

    How fine-grained is this right to secede? Can one person secede, decaring himself and his property to be outside the jurisdiction of the former country? If not, then the question of at what level of granularity applies seems pretty fuzzy. You invariably run into contradictions like Virginia claiming it had the inviolable right to secede from the US, while simultaneously claiming its western counties did not have a right to secede from Virginia.

    1. Can one person secede, decaring himself and his property to be outside the jurisdiction of the former country?

      Why not?
      There are a number of people around the world who have done so. Australia seems to be home to quite a surprising few of them.

      Naturally the national governments refuse to recognize them.

    2. I declared my independence years ago. Can’t get the fed go to respect it, though. That says more about them than me.

    3. Exactly the point I was going to make. We fought a war over the right to secede and the outcome was that there isn’t one. Why should Spain be any different?
      As long as there are bad actors out there, unilateral secession is dangerous. Imagine if, say, Wisconsin had seceded and joined the Soviet Union in the 1950’s? Could we have sustained our country if it were a checkerboard of different sovereignties?
      Perhaps the answer it more devolution of power to the states (or simply ceasing the accretion of power to the central government). Limit the central government to what only it can do such as foreign relations and national defense, and prohibit the states from erecting barriers to movement and commerce among themselves and otherwise let them be the “laboratories of democracy” that they can be.

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