Catalonians Declare Independence, But Can They Hold It?

Rights are theoretical unless you can defend them.



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.