Tolerating or even normalising the current Catalan secessionist plan could set a very dangerous precedent in EuropeMàrius Montón

The images were brutal. Anti-riot police fighting demonstrators, evacuating voting centres and confiscating ballot boxes. “The Spanish state has lost”, wrote The Guardian, while The Express highlighted the police’s “brutality”. Hours later, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont announced the referendum’s success. Of the more than two million votes cast, over 90 per cent supported independence. It was, he said, a victory of the people: democracy had triumphed in the face of tyranny. Yet three weeks after the unilateral secession referendum, things have taken a serious turn in Catalonia, with the Spanish government taking control of the region, suspending its leadership, and calling fresh elections.

But what is the current mood among supporters of Catalan independence? In an interview in the Financial Times, Artur Mas, former Catalan president, confessed that he did not yet see Catalonia “ready” for independence, as it lacked “some of the most basic elements” an autonomous state required. Throughout the past two weeks, some of Spain’s largest companies, including Gas Natural and the Sabadell and Caixa banks, have relocated their offices, previously in Catalonia, to other cities across Spain, in a move described by the Spanish press as the Catalan movement’s “Hiroshima” and a “point of inflexion”. Even the most avid supporters of independence, it adds, will rethink their positions when they see their savings threatened.

“A referendum leading to the breakup of Spain would require a major constitutional amendment which would necessarily have to involve the nation as a whole”

Why won’t Spanish courts allow secession? Can Scotland’s example not be followed? The key difference, as Daniel Cetrà of the University of Edinburgh writes in The Scotsman, lies in both countries’ constitutional arrangements. Whereas in the UK, a “nation of nations” with a more flexible constitution, an Act of Parliament sufficed to set up a referendum in which only Scotland voted, Spain possesses a constitution based on the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation” and on a “national sovereignty” which “belongs to the Spanish people”. A referendum leading to the breakup of Spain would require a major constitutional amendment which would necessarily have to involve the nation as a whole. Thus, adds Cetrà, Spain’s constitution disallows independence referendums such as the one held in Scotland.

It is precisely for that reason that many sectors of Spanish society oppose the unilateral secession that the Catalan government has just declared. In a letter published in El País recently, over 70 professors of philosophy of law showed their discontent at the idea of Catalan secession, which “cannot solve the problems many sectors of Catalan society demand solutions to.”

In a similar statement, Spain’s four main judicial associations expressed their discontent: “A civilised society in 21st-century Europe”, they added, “can only be based on respect towards the laws we have given each other democratically, starting with the Constitution”. In fact, the escalation of tension between the Catalan and Spanish governments, as well as the politics behind a polarisation which benefits both governments, have made the dialogue demanded by many very difficult.

As time goes by, the reality of the Catalan crisis is becoming more and more obvious. On the one hand, the Spanish government seems incapable of listening to Catalonia’s demand for a referendum to settle the question of independence, let alone of sitting down and negotiating a solution. On the other hand, the Catalan government, in the name of “democracy”, is putting itself above the Constitution, disobeying Spanish courts and putting the future of Spain at risk. And on top of that, on both ends of the spectrum, there is increasingly aggressive nationalism: raving, quasi-Francoist Spanish jingoism, with shows of flags, anti-Catalan slogans and accusations of “Hispanophobia”, and Catalan anti-Spanish sentiment, one of the most basic forms of “us against them” nationalism Europe faces, pitted against each other.

Yet that does not mean that the international community can perch on the fence. Voting is one of the pillars of democracy, but so is obeying the rule of law. Tolerating or even normalising the current Catalan secessionist plan could set a very dangerous precedent in a Europe already threatened by nationalism.


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After all, if Catalonia can, what stops Bavaria, Padania, Flanders or Scotland from following them? When, as is happening now, the rule of law is not upheld, democracy gives way to tyranny, and it is up the international community to stop it. Time has come for Catalonia, Spain and the EU to move on, de-escalate the situation and negotiate a solution to this crisis while it is still possible

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