Posted on December 14, 2017 by Tia Lalani

A legal referendum on the issue of Catalonian independence is the best option, says Augustana political science professor.

By Shauna Wilton

Courtesy of Núria (Flickr).

Sitting in a café in Barcelona, one block from the Plaça de Catalunya where many of the demonstrations for Catalan independence have been held, I notice that someone has painted a rude slogan about the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy. There are Catalan flags outside some apartments and businesses, and a few Spanish flags too. The other day a group of a hundred or so people marched down the street in front of my hotel protesting the arrest warrants that have been issued for many members of the Catalan government.

Currently, the situation in Barcelona is peaceful: there is a lull in the nationalist activities and people are waiting to see what the abolishment of Catalonia’s self-government by the Spanish government will mean, and how the Catalan leader, Charles Puigdemont, will respond.

The central issue is whether Catalonia has a right to secede from Spain. The Spanish Constitution’s preamble states that it is based “on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards; 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.” This recognition of the right to self-government is effectively outweighed by the “indivisibility” of the Spanish state. The October 1, 2017, referendum on independence was illegal simply because there is no legal constitutional way to divide Spain and secede. This leaves the Catalan nationalists no option other than to break the law if they are to achieve their goals.

Under international law, peoples have the right to self-determination. Are the people of Catalan a distinct “nation”? Many Catalonians believe they are distinct from Spain, with a different language, history and culture. Many still remember the oppression of Catalans under the Franco dictatorship of the mid-twentieth century and the memory of the oppression is kept alive in many ways.

When I visited the fortress on Montjuïc, the exhibit detailed the long history of the city, its people, and their oppression. On one wall there was a quote from General Espartero, following his bombardment of the workers in response their protests in the 1830s, stating that “Barcelona should be bombed every 50 years.” Another wall showed a film about the ill-treatment of the Catalans during the civil war. The social construction of the Catalan nation is alive and ongoing.

Whether or not the Catalan nation is somehow “real” and not “socially constructed” doesn’t matter. Ultimately, belonging to a nation is subjective and a nation exists because people believe it does. This brings us back to the question of whether that nation should have the right to form its own state. The Spanish government says no. They are sticking to the line that the referendum was illegal and that the Catalan leaders broke the law by having it.

Most of the other governments of the world, unsurprisingly, support the Spanish government and its desire for unity. Although the borders of most European countries have changed many times over the centuries, the borders established following the Second World War have come to be seen as permanent and unalterable, largely due to the influence of the European Union and the United Nations and the desire to avoid conflict. The recognition of Catalonia as a new independent state by other governments would threaten this stability and potentially lead to the further fragmentation of Europe.

However, taking away the rights of the province of Catalonia, imprisoning the leaders of the government, and imposing direct rule from Madrid are highly unlikely to abate the popular desire of many for more power and independence for Catalonia. In fact, as the nationalists claim, the central government is further colonizing and oppressing the popular and democratic will of the people here.

Unfortunately, both the Spanish and Catalan governments are entrenched in their positions and it is difficult to see a way forward. Spain has called for new Catalan elections for December. It will be interesting to see how the support for the “yes” and “no” coalitions of parties has been impacted by recent events. Clearly, the governments need to develop an appropriate mechanism for addressing the discontent present in the region and the question of independence.

Creating the possibility for a legal referendum on Catalan independence may be the best road to unity. It would give both sides the opportunity to present their cases to the people and would give the people a chance to be heard. Widespread participation in a referendum, rather than a boycott by those supporting unity, could solve the issue. As we saw in Scotland and Quebec, when faced with the option of leaving, both groups ultimately—if narrowly—chose to stay.

Shauna Wilton, Political Studies, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on November 28, 2017. 

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