Ever since Thomas Jefferson’s eloquent Declaration of Independence from England and the war that followed, U.S. citizens have had a simplistic conception of how independence movements form and proceed. According to the American mythos, independence movements arise when an oppressive state tyrannizes a population, leading to the Lockean obligation for that group of people to revolt against their oppressors and form their own government.
The reality of most independence movements is much more complicated, a hard truth recently on display in the semi-autonomous Spanish region of Catalonia. For many years, a sizable number of Catalan citizens have been clamoring for independence from the centralized Spanish government. To that end, disgruntled voters in the 2015 elections empowered a number of small, pro-independence parties that formed a minority governing coalition promising to hold an independence referendum.
On Sept. 6, the Catalan regional government officially called the referendum, provoking the ire of the Spanish central government and a number of pro-unity Catalans. The government was more than annoyed, however. After the Spanish Constitutional Court declared the vote illegal, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy sent national and regional police numbering 16,000 into Catalonia to arrest referendum organizers and confiscate ballots, a move that provoked massive protests and widespread furor.
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont was adamant that the vote would be held, and on Oct. 1, an overwhelming 92 percent of voters declared their support for independence. Skeptics of the vote immediately raised objections questioning the vote’s legitimacy. Indeed, the Catalan government’s hamstrung electoral operation did lead to voting irregularities and procedural problems, and the referendum’s turnout was fairly low due to the massive police presence and high abstention among opponents of the referendum.
While the pro-independence faction won the vote, Puigdemont worried about a vicious Spanish crackdown if he declared independence. As such, he chose ambiguity over audacity, proclaiming that Catalonia had the right to declare independence, but would delay doing so in favor of a negotiated solution with the central government. Rajoy rejected this proposal and declared on Oct. 21 that he would initiate the process of dissolving Catalonia’s parliament and holding new elections.
The situation in Catalonia is tense, complex and morally disorienting. On the one hand, a fractured Spain would certainly be detrimental to European stability and economic growth. Businesses in Catalonia have already begun relocating due to the wild political vicissitudes ailing the region. These businesses located in Catalonia based on sound economic reasoning, yet they are now forced to move to less-profitable locales in the face of Catalonia’s uncertain future. An independent Catalonia may also face tariffs and economic isolation from an unhappy Spain and her allies, many eager to quash their own regional independence movements (see: Scotland, Lombardy, Wales, Flanders, Quebec …).
Beyond the economic repercussions, forming a new nation is inherently destabilizing. A sovereign Catalonia would face the monumental challenge of transforming their regional government into a national one, and would face the always-thorny tasks of negotiating trade agreements and diplomatic ties.
Catalonia is not a conventionally sympathetic candidate for independence either. As mentioned earlier, Americans typically imagine independence movements as black-and-white struggles of oppressors versus the oppressed, a narrative conducive to the many anti-colonialist revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet Catalonia is far from a persecuted colonial holding, with a vibrant economy and a fair degree of political control. Their only claim to independence seems to lie in their tax burden, in which they provide 21 percent of Spain’s tax revenue despite accounting for 16 percent of its population. However, Catalonia’s tax complaint is both selfish and irrational: Catalonia is only paying more in taxes because of their high levels of wealth, not because of anti-Catalan fiscal policy. Pro-independence activists also emphasize Catalonia’s distinct history and cultural identity, yet their current semi-autonomous status renders these arguments toothless. Spain is not hindering their cultural expression in any discernible way.
On the other hand, the Catalan independence referendum does raise a legitimate moral question: to whom does self-determination apply? According the the United Nations charter, self-determination is the right of a people to choose their sovereignty and political status without interference. Under this doctrine, if a majority of Catalans favored independence, they would be morally justified in seceding from Spain.
However, the right of a nation to sovereignty is another moral principle, one that can conflict with self-determination. The principle of sovereignty posits that states have the right to self-governance and territorial integrity, yet self-determination may entail the violation of a state’s territorial integrity if a certain population wants to declare independence and secede.
These two moral principles are based on the idea that people and nations ought to rule themselves as they best see fit, yet these views can and do conflict. In Catalonia’s case, the Spanish central government sees Catalan independence as detrimental to Spain’s prosperity by robbing them of tax revenue, degrading the rule of law and weakening their overall economy and national reputation. Conversely, Catalans view independence as an economic boon and a guarantor of cultural vitality and political autonomy.
While Catalans do not have legitimate grievances, they ought to have the right to at least negotiate with the Spanish government through a third-party arbitrator. In light of competing moral principles, a negotiated compromise seems to be the only viable solution. Above all else, Mariano Rajoy must reign in his dictatorial impulses and respect Catalonia’s right to self-determination. Meanwhile, Catalans must acknowledge how brazenly illegal and self-interested their independence movement is, and should prepare themselves psychologically for a final political status short of independence.