Does Catalonia Have a Right to Secede?

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By Kieran Oberman, a Chancellor’s Fellow at Edinburgh University.  His work has appeared in a range of journals including Ethics, Political Studies and Res Publica.  His forthcoming article, “Immigration as a Human Right“, and other pre-publications, are available on his academia.edu page.  He is a member of the Just World Institute and a regular contributor to the JWI blog. Originally published at openDemocracy

Catalonia’s 1 October referendum produced some shocking images: polling stations stormed, elderly voters with bloodied faces, fire fighters (of all people) beaten by police. Coverage in the press and widespread sharing on social media ensured a PR disaster for Spain. Catalonia’s separatists, for a moment at least, have gained the world’s attention and a share of its sympathy. But how far should that sympathy extend?

One can condemn the violence and leave it there (as, for instance, Belgium did). But the more fundamental question is whether Catalonia has a right to secession. That is not just a question about the recent poll. Even if one rejects the legitimacy of that poll, one still faces the question of whether another should be held. There is no reason why Catalonia could not hold an orderly referendum of the Quebec and Scotland kind. What has been stopping it so far is Spanish opposition. So, must Spain give way?

That is not an easy question to answer because it is far from clear what would give any region a right to secede. The public debate – in Catalonia, Spain and elsewhere – is not much help. People tend to decide these issues on grounds of loyalty and emotion. There is a lot flag waving; much less reasoned argument.

For my own part, I have wrestled with the question of secession for many years. I have taught the topic at universities around the world: in the US, Bangladesh, Ireland and Scotland. Secession has played a critical role in the history of all those countries and students have had valuable points to make. But even after my debates with students, I have struggled to resolve matters in my own mind.

It is not that I don’t have an intuitive judgement about the issue. As I indicated in a piece I wrote during the Scottish referendum, I do think regions like Scotland and Catalonia should be allowed to secede. What I have struggled with is locating an adequate justification for that position. In the literature in political philosophy (my field) there are some fascinating books and articles, but few arguments I find convincing. It is only now, in reaction to Catalonia, that I finally have a better sense of what is grounding my pro-secessionist stance. I return to that grounding below, but first let me review what I regard as some common false starts.

First, democracy. This is the ‘go to’ argument of many Catalan secessionists. According to Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, a vote on independence is simply an “expression of a free democracy”. In this view, Catalans have a right to decide whether Catalonia is independent just as they have a right to decide on any other issue affecting them. The problem with this argument is that it assumes what is precisely at issue: that Catalonia represents the appropriate constituency to make this decision.

Another plausible constituency would be Spain itself. For it is not just Catalonia that is affected by the issue of independence. Catalan independence would have significant repercussions for Spain’s economy and identity. It would also have ripple effects on other regions, including the Basque country which has only recently escaped the violence of its own secessionist conflict.

In short, the democracy argument fails to overcome what we might term the ‘symmetry problem’. Democracy can be advanced both as an argument for secession and an argument against it. To justify secession, we need to justify ‘asymmetry’: to explain why it is Catalonia, not Spain as a whole, that has a right to decide.

Democracy is not the only argument that suffers from the symmetry problem. Another is national self-determination. The idea that a nation has a right to determine its own future is fine as far as it goes. The problem arises when there is more than one nation in play. Catalan national self-determination butts up against Spanish national self-determination. One cannot give full expression to the one without limiting the other. Some will stamp their feet at this and proclaim that “Catalonia is not Spain”.

If there were two discreet nations then Spain would be other-determining not self-determining when it takes part in Catalan affairs. But the very fact people proclaim this slogan demonstrates how controversial it is. National identity is not physics. Nations exist, split or overlap depending on inter-subjective beliefs. As long as there are people inside Catalonia and the rest of Spain who believe in an over-arching Spanish nation, the concept of national self-determination can be invoked by both sides. It offers no firm ground for secession.

Are there no arguments that avoid the symmetry problem? Yes, at least two. One is self-defence: the idea that group of people can have a right to secede when threatened by some profound injustice. Such an argument can prove compelling. Having recently survived Saddam and ISIS, and with the future still so uncertain, Kurdish Iraq can plausibly make an argument of this sort. Catalonia, however, is different. It did experience severe repression under Franco but modern Spain, whatever its faults, is a peaceful liberal democracy. In terms of wealth, security and freedom, it is among the most successful countries on Earth.

Catalan secessionists complain that, as a richer region, they pay more into central government than they get out. But this complaint should not arouse much sympathy. Indeed, for those on the left, with their concern for equality and redistribution, it should be treated with particular disgust. There might be more nuanced complaints to be made against Spain’s fiscal arrangement, but even if we accept them, they do not amount to profound injustices of the ISIS or Franco kind. Admittedly, things could get worse. If the state violence we witnessed on Sunday were to become routine, then a self-defence argument would become more convincing. Let us hope, for everyone’s sake, that that is not where we are heading.

The other argument that avoids the symmetry argument is freedom of association. This the kind of argument that it takes a philosopher to come up with. The argument likens states to clubs. Just as you and your friends don’t need anyone’s approval to set up a new club or split from an old one, so regions don’t need their state’s approval to secede. The problem with the argument is quite simple: the analogy fails. States are not like clubs. People do not voluntarily join states for the sake of their hobby or passion; they are forced into states for the sake of justice and peace. States set the background rules; clubs and other associations offer people the opportunity to pursue particular interests.

If Catalans want to form associations, they can do so. Catalonia already has all kinds of clubs and associations, including many operating across the region (the Catalan Football Federation, the Catalan Association for Science Communication and so on and so forth). They don’t need a state to be their club, nor should they want it to be. A state that tries to be a club is like a parent who tries to be a friend. We need states. We need parents. But if we are to maintain our individual autonomy, these unchosen authorities in our lives must assume their proper roles and not pretend to be something they are not.

Those are the arguments that I find unconvincing. So why do I favour independence referendums? For a while I thought the best argument was merely pragmatic; the ‘let-insiders-vote rule’ is, among the alternatives, the best means to minimise conflict. But now I think there is more to be said. It is important that we, as citizens, feel some kind of connection to our state; that we see it as legitimate or at least not as wholly illegitimate. This is not because states are like clubs, but precisely because they are so different. States coerce us. They tell us to do certain things and punish us if we disobey. Such coercion can be justified. Everyone except anarchists accepts that.

But it is important that when they coerce us, we have some sense that they are not merely coercing us. We need to be able to look at the state and think that, in some sense, it is our own. The state institutions we interact with and the laws we live under should feel familiar and benign; like they are there for us and our society, not some outside power. When instead the state seems foreign or hostile, it is hard to feel at home in the world.

As events have proceeded, I think more and more Catalans are experiencing a sense of alienation from the Spanish state. The spectacle of Spanish police being shipped in (quite literally) from other areas of Spain, has not helped matters, evoking, as it does, parallels with foreign occupation. Of course, not everyone in Catalonia feels alienated. The thousands who protested in Barcelona’s unity rally on Sunday clearly believe in the legitimacy of Spain. That is why it is crucial that the matter is settled by a free and fair referendum in which everyone in Catalonia is given a say.

Does this ‘alienation argument’ escape the symmetry problem? I believe so. If Catalonia were to secede, the Spanish economy would suffer and many Spanish people would be profoundly upset, but they would continue to live under a Spanish state that most recognise as their own. The same is not true of Catalans who are denied a referendum.

I realise the argument raises many questions. How many people need to feel alienated to demand a referendum? How alienated must they feel? What about the possible costs of secession, for those inside and outside the seceding region? There cannot be an absolute right to secede no matter how high the costs – that would be absurd. But how high must the costs be to defeat the right to secede?

Perhaps the most difficult question is that of minorities within minorities. Consider, the case of the Val d’Aran, an area of Catalonia that has its own fierce sense of independence. If Catalonia secedes, must the Val d’Aran be granted its own referendum? The alienation argument would suggest so, but many, including Catalan separatists themselves, would demur at the prospect of repeated secession. I cannot hope to settle these questions here. My thoughts are too tentative; these matters too complicated.

This brings me to a final point. Because secession is such a morally complicated issue, it is crucial that both sides show greater respect for each other. There is no black/white here. We are all in the grey zone of reasonable disagreement. Contrary to statements by leading politicians, the  Spanish government is not Franco and the Catalan government is not Hitler. The parties to the conflict need to stop waving flags and start making arguments.

This point is perhaps particularly important for Spain since it is the Spanish government that has the tanks and riot squads at its disposal. With such power, it is much too tempting to use it. The recurrent theme of the Spanish government – and most recently, the king – is that the Catalonian crisis is first and foremost a criminal justice issue. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, the referendum broke Spanish law, but it is perfectly evident by now, from the civil rights and other great movements of the past, that reasonable people sometimes do break laws for good reasons. They should not be dismissed as ordinary criminals. Indeed, when millions of your citizens engage in a referendum you have ruled illegal, it is a sure sign that you have a political, not a legal, problem on your hands.

_________________

A few notes by way of bibliography:

This article draws on a philosophical literature on secession that is by now quite extensive. Rather than attempt to provide a full list of sources, let me refer to a few works that might prove particularly helpful.

For an excellent introduction to the philosophy of secession see Allen Buchanan’s article in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

The problem I raise with the democracy argument relates to a much-discussed problem in democratic theory called the ‘boundary problem’. For a description of the problem, and one of many attempts to solve it, see David Miller’s article, “Democracy’s Domain”.

The freedom of association argument I referred to has been presented by a number of philosophers, including in Christopher Wellman in A Theory of Secession: The Case for Political Self-Determination.

The alienage argument I defended has some affinities to Annie Stilz’s “Decolonization and Self-Determination”.

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53 comments

  1. Disturbed Voter

    The suggestion by someone, that the whole of Spain, not just Catalonia, has a right to vote whether Catalonia can secede is the fairest suggestion. This should apply to any other breakaway region in Europe, Canada or the US.

    Of course a legal and orderly mechanism to allow devolution would be nice ;-(

    Reply
    1. none

      The suggestion by someone, that the whole of Spain, not just Catalonia, has a right to vote whether Catalonia can secede is the fairest suggestion.

      Two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner?

      Reply
      1. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit

        More like “battering husband and children voting against wife’s divorce.”

        The question was answered centuries ago. The answer begins with “When in the Course of Human Events….”

        Reply
    2. Ralph Riley

      The author mentions Democracy as being used to justify and reject secession. He further explains that the left, with its demands for income distribution would find individuals’ desire to secede for their own financial good as another reason that “democracy” isn’t a workable justification. While his argument elements are well reasoned, his seeming lack of understanding of the foundational issue of right of individuals to seek their own type of political association for their own ends (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As such he takes what IS and tries to repair it without addressing what OUGHT TO BE as the most fundamental principle.

      Reply
  2. Clive

    An excellent and thought proving analysis. Kieran wisely managed to avoid mentioning the B-word (Brexit) as this would just muddy the waters, but it is a good companion piece to any Brexit discussion.

    What I took away from the Brexit vote was that, not just myself as an individual but also a fair proportion of the UK felt increasingly disconnected from the state. That disconnection was blamed on the EU. Sometimes the blame was misplaced but sometimes it did have some real merit.

    But why did some people in the UK not reconcile themselves to the “it’s better to be in the EU, warts and all, than to not be” conclusion that pretty much every other EU member state manages to do? Clearly, there’s something about how some British people think of the state and what constitutes things which weaken their connection to that state, things that the populations of other EU member states don’t.

    My opinion is that the British are much more like that Japanese who have an especially vivid idealisation, if not actually the nation of Japan, certainly of what it means to be Japanese and what threatens their sense of Japanese-ness.

    I wouldn’t draw any firm conclusions, though. But the inability to come up with hard-and-fast rules in itself is interesting — statehood and citizenship must be an art, not a science.

    Reply
    1. Anonymous2

      As a Briton deeply involved in European affairs for many years, my take has long been that the difference between English perceptions of the EU and those of others stems above all from the way the EU is presented in the English press. For decades they have been virulently hostile to the EU, representing it in the worst possible light, frequently resorting to outright lies where distortion or half-truths would not do. In doing so they undoubtedly played on the English sense of superiority compared to other nationalities and xenophobia.

      The contrast with the attitude of the Scots is telling. The Scottish press has a quite different take on these matters compared to the English, far less prejudiced.

      Reply
      1. Clive

        I like blame-the-media explanations and am normally quite happy to chip in with a ritual denunciation.

        But I can’t bring myself to be entirely convinced here. It goes back to the old questions about does the mass media lead, like it would love to believe it does, or does it follow mass opinion?

        Why, exactly do a couple of millions of Daily Mail readers every day stare at the front page and say to themselves “yes, that makes perfect sense to me”? Unless they buy it or read it online because they delight in being aghast and apoplectic at the rubbish-y-ness of it.

        A significant majority must read it because they agree with it. Put it another way, I once made my Mother-in-law read an entire day’s output of Naked Capitalism. I viewed it as an attempt at a public duty. Her reaction? “That’s all very silly, I think everyone should stop making things so complicated and it’s best to keep things as they are”. (that was the gist, anyway)

        Suffice to say, it didn’t gain a regular reader. Not at all an unitelligent person, very caring and compassionate in many areas of her life and not without some gulle, no amount of my attempts at providing media — and it wasn’t just Naked Capitalism which elicits a similar reaction — will make her embrace ideas which don’t chime with her worldview.

        And yet I lap this sort of stuff up. I get my fair share of Daily Mail free copies, BBC and Sky (Fox) news brainwashing and our prevailing neoliberalism culture. Not a jot of it will suddenly start making me believe that, hmm… maybe we can’t have nice things because the government has run out of money or what’s really needed to sort out problems like a dysfunctional energy supply industry is a “better operating market and market forces”. Yet a decade ago, that’s precisely what I would have said. My views shifted, but it certainly wasn’t the availability of same-thinking media which shifted them.

        So, there are limits on what influence the media has. While I think it was certainly a factor in Brexit, I think — as Kieran explored in the article above on people’s relationship with their states — there’s a lot more going on here.

        Reply
        1. Anonymous2

          Clive

          Yes. I agree there is more going on. My remarks I guess were in response to your question why the British are different, which, as a Scot, inevitably prompted me to note the difference between us and the English. I recall that in 1975 the Sun ran a headline proclaiming ‘we are all Europeans now!’.I reckon if Murdoch had kept the paper on the same line since, we would never have had a referendum.

          I accept fully that someone as intelligent as you will not be easily gulled. The problem I think is that many particularly older people who do not use the Internet are not as savvy and therefore more easily duped.

          As you say , there is of course more to be said but I didn’t and do not want to write a book!

          By the way I much appreciate your comments. Among some of the best on the site IMO.

          Reply
        2. diptherio

          very caring and compassionate in many areas of her life and not without some gulle,

          I had to look up “gulle.” Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

          A gulle is a type of sseugae (쓰개), Korean traditional headgear, worn by children aged one year (called dol) to five years old during the late Joseon period. It was mostly worn by young girls in the upper class for warmth and style.

          That’s what I love about NC — I learn something new every day! It’s interesting, though, that your mother is still wearing hers this late in her life and so many years after the Joseon period… ;-)

          Reply
          1. Clive

            I meant of course to say “guile” but that was a typo I didn’t spot!

            guile

            noun

            sly or cunning intelligence.
            “he used all his guile and guts to free himself from the muddle he was in”

            But if my mother-in-law did in fact have a gulle, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised, the woman is capable of anything.

            I wish Theresa May had a smattering of guile. That might stop her from scoring so many own gulles all the time.

            Reply
            1. diptherio

              I guessed you meant guile, but looked up gulle just to be sure it wasn’t some Britishism I wasn’t familiar with. What came up was so odd I just had to share. I hope you don’t think I’m that slow on the uptake! I mean, I know I write some stoopid things from time to time, but come on, give me some credit :-D

              Reply
              1. Clive

                I wouldn’t rule out the possibility it might also be some obscure Britishism. Sometimes we just make up new words on the spot, we think that’s okay because, after all, we own the English language don’t we? When Lambert visited London, Richard Smith and I so bamboozled him with our colloquial use of English, we wondered if we should get a translator.

                Then again, what I do pales into insignificance compared to the linguistic war crimes that Sean Spicer used to commit. There was a chap who could out-gulle anyone.

                Reply
      2. PlutoniumKun

        I would just add my anecdotal experience of having grown up in Ireland and moved to work in England for my first job in the West Midlands. Knowledge of the EU wasn’t particularly important in my job, but it was useful.

        What struck me is that my colleagues in England knew absolutely nothing – zero – about what the EU was, and how it worked. Growing up in Ireland the history and structure of the EU was regularly part of normal school courses (history, geography, politics, economics), and more advanced university courses had a variety of modules relating to EU law and its structures. Most newspapers had Brussels correspondents and various EU issues – mostly relating to farm and structural supports of course were constantly in the news, and generally reported in a fairly neutral and factual manner (if, of course, with the inevitable bias towards Irish politicians trying to get as much cash as possible). I had never thought to have a great deal of interest in it, but at least I knew the difference between the EU Commission and the Council of Ministers and I knew what a Directive was and how it related to national law.

        But when I started as a pretty ignorant graduate in my first low level job I found myself an oracle of all things European, especially when it came to applying for grants or trying to get to grips with the occasional legal issue arising from Directives. My colleagues, including much more senior ones, were not just ignorant, but were regularly spouting the nonsense picked up by osmosis from the Daily Mail and Telegraph (in my office, the Guardian was generally the usual doorstop, occasionally supplemented by local papers and some tabloids for the sports pages). It wasn’t just direct work issues – I was later involved peripherally in Union activities and I found a sort of wierd mind block when it came to applying useful laws and rights which came via EU Directives (this wasn’t shared at the highest level of national Unions, who were usually fully aware that the key fights for workers rights were often won and lost at EU Commission level).

        In these circumstances, I think it was almost inevitable that the Brexit referendum became clouded in nonsense and misinterpretation, and it was astonishingly easy for the likes of Farage and Johnson to tap into a deep level of resentment (although I suspect Johnson didn’t know this is what he was doing, he was just playing games). The less people knew about the EU the more likely they were to focus on it as the source of all their grievances. I really never doubted that the vote would be close – it is telling that so few of the London elites realised this.

        Reply
        1. Eustache De Saint Pierre

          Perhaps a part of it is to automatically blame your old enemies.

          The USA looks to Russia
          England looks to Europe.
          Scotland to England.
          Ireland & possibly Wales to England.
          Catalonia to Spain.

          As for knowledge of EU/EZ – two members of my family are Remainers who have heaped derision on Brexiteers, which includes the assertion that those they label as stupid know nothing about Europe. As far as I can tell that pair & many others like them appear to be stuck in a pre-2008 time warp & have no idea or interest in looking at how the EU has since changed. When faced with arguments which involve for example the treatment of Greece, they tut tut & mumble something about reforming it all from within.

          This to me is the equivalent of a doctor planning to cure a patient without diagnosing which disease is present. They are both Guardian readers which in my view is also often economic with the truth when it comes to the EU & Geopolitics.

          For the record – I did not vote as I did not like either side & I wish Brexit had never happened, especially as the Tories are obviously making a huge mess of it.

          Reply
        2. Basil Pesto

          What struck me is that my colleagues in England knew absolutely nothing – zero – about what the EU was, and how it worked.

          ugh, this annoyed me, especially the day after the vote when everyone was caterwauling, mainly because they wouldn’t be able to travel so easily throughout the continent (I am pretty sympathetic about UK students losing Erasmus access though). If the EU was so important to you, how on earth does Nigel Farage get elected MEP? Why weren’t you voting in European parliamentary elections?

          Reply
  3. PlutoniumKun

    Interesting ideas. Its a complex area, and I’m not sure there are any clear answers. I’m reflexively supportive of small nations seeking independence, but the situations are rarely clear-cut, not least because the driving force behind such moves are often elites who see an advantage in independence, with sub minorities who fear it ignored. An Irish writer Brendan O’hEihir told the no doubt apocryphal story of a country priest in in 19th Century Ireland trying to persuade a peasant of the benefits of Home Rule.

    ‘We’ll have our own Parliament, our own priests, our own police, our own church, our own flag and our own gentry’.

    The peasant nodded respectfully and walked away muttering under his breath ‘We will in our arse have our own gentry!’

    One thing not mentioned is the notion of natural regions. A plea for independence has a much stronger grounding if the area has a solid geographical base – an island, or peninsula with a long history of cultural coherence. So and independent ‘Scotland’ as an entity always seems to make more sense to people than a Catalonia or Kurdistan, both of which have quite arbitrary borders (depending on who you ask).

    A key element of independence movements is that in order to have legitimacy, they must present a coherent geographical entity. Historically, Irish revolutionaries were at pains to present themselves as uniting ‘catholic, protestant and dissenter’, even when that wasn’t always the case. Independence groupings such as the Kurds, which are based on ethnic or religious identity are always on shakier grounds, as the question will always be asked ‘what about your own minorities?’.

    Reply
    1. Nameful

      I’m reflexively supportive of small nations seeking independence, but the situations are rarely clear-cut, not least because the driving force behind such moves are often elites who see an advantage in independence, with sub minorities who fear it ignored.

      I agree that situations are rarely clear-cut. However, your perspective might be a bit particular. While I don’t know if there exists a “right” generalization, I’ll leave this here as food for thought. Applying the cui podest perspective to secession only is, I feel, partial and prone to reinforcing biases. One should always look, however briefly, from an opposite perspective, if only to try and ensure that one’s opinions remain honest. The easiest place in recent history to see unifications (aside from the EU, which is a tad mired in a cloak of emotional mist right now and thus offers a less clear view and even less bias) is in M&A in the corporate universe. There are (or should be, in theory) advantages in combining forces, either to better deal with competition or to better face a common existential threat (for countries, these two need not amount to the same thing). The pressure of an external opponent leads to fusion. However, in the absence of such pressure, people eventually do what they always did across history – find enemies within. Of course elites will foment such internal divisions for their immediate benefit, in the hope of being able to avoid for themselves the long-term costs. And this is also human nature – future problems are abstract, out of sight/mind and hopefully some else’s problems anyway (après moi le déluge) Because of this, I believe the legitimacy problem of secessions is fundamentally unanswerable in a democratic setting, since a large percentage of those to be affected are people from the (usually near) future, which do not yet exist or have no voice in the present process. And any other setting is less or far less legitimate anyway.

      Reply
  4. BoycottAmazon

    Seems from many interviews of people on the street as well as talking heads, the argument this time is mostly about money even though there are other factors as well.

    If the Catalans are near slaves, working for lazy overseers, then they get my yes vote for the little value it has.

    If the Catalans are just lucky to be sitting on the best property/location in Spain and are objecting to sharing some of their luck/fortune with their brothers on the Iberian Peninsula, then I’d say they are as obnoxious as many right wing libertarians who don’t think native Americans got a raw deal. In this case they deserve my condemnation.

    as two which of these two is the case, I don’t have sufficient information yet.

    Reply
    1. Eustache De Saint Pierre

      I don’t think it is as simple as that because there is evidence aplenty that the wealth being generated, is as the case pretty much everywhere else, only trickling in an upward direction. I do not know for sure but for very many that the high unemployment figures ( particularly for the young ) are unlikely to have changed very much for the better, as with UN figure for Spain from a few years ago of 40% child poverty & all the other effects from austerity measures which would be seen as bing imposed from Madrid are likely to, as was the case with Brexit added to the general dissatisfaction. Perhaps the turning of the screw is less than other parts of Spain, but probably not by very much.

      Interesting I think that tractors have become very visible & perhaps as in France where it appears Le Pen’s best support was from rural areas, their Catalonian counterparts are also struggling. I read a recent article which stated that a French farmer commits suicide every other day. I also think that it is forgotten or ignored that Scotland had a relatively large sector that was once industrial ( steel, coal mining, ship building etc ) in a country that also suffers from with high levels of inequality, hard drug use, murder rate & prison population . Surely the people left behind there have helped to swell the Independence vote.

      As with so called populism these movements have grown since the banking crisis & as have the bite your nose off to spite your face austerity policies It is not all of the story by any means but it is surely a part of it – any port in a storm is I think the case for many.

      Reply
    1. Marco

      Thank you! Hits the nail on the head for me regarding the Catalan “problem”. Austerity Forever to protect (largely) German and French banks and their stranglehold on EU monetary policy. Am I the only one with an awful taste in my mouth whenever some wonkish VSP clone like Oberman opens with a-very-thoughtful-chin-stroking-somber nod to State violence before lumbering on to hem-hawing and hand-waving about airy topics of international legal norms.

      Reply
      1. Basil Pesto

        But this doesn’t really make sense. The separatist leaders have stated their desire to remain in the EU, and presumably that includes the Eurozone. How does that settle the debt question, or the monetary policy question? Unless the leadership understands the fact that the EU won’t accept them as it stands, for all the legal reasons. But then they’re lying to the public, which, while not surprising, is not a good look. This is why legitimate referendums are important in the first place, for the sake of clarity on these important questions.

        Furthermore, the legal issues and implications are important. Unless you’re a legal nihilist, in which case, I can’t help you there.

        Reply
  5. PlutoniumKun

    Another issue to add to this is the complexity created by supernational organisations such as the EU.

    The EU has I think had an unintended consequence of making it easier for bordering regions to seek secession, while much harder for regions within the EU to do likewise. When the Soviet Union and then Yugoslavia collapsed, the potential umbrella of EU ownership made the transition to nationhood for countries from Estonia to Slovenia much easier. It also made splintering easier and less bloody, as demonstrated by the former Czechoslovakia.

    But the impact within the EU has been to ‘freeze’ borders in a way which I don’t think was necessarily intended. As a partnership of nations, not regions (as some wished), it is structurally hostile to independence, making the transion for a Catalonia or Corsica or Basque Country or Scotland to nationhood very difficult. Its difficult to see how it could be otherwise as no voluntary club could exist if it facilitated the disputed dissolution of member organisations.

    There has also been a paradoxical situation whereby independence/secession* movements from Northern Ireland and Scotland to Spain have seen the EU as a potential ‘umbrella’ to protect them from their former overlord. Sinn Fein in Ireland went from a very anti-EU party to being overtly pro-EU when it was realised that the EU provided an element of assurance to non Republicans that their interests would be protected. Its also a pragmatic realisation of course that small nations cannot exist without external alignments. The Scots Nats are similarly very pro Europe, as is Catalonia of course and the Walloons/Flems in Belgian similarly see themselves as independent within the EU. They see the ‘far’ ruler of Brussels as more benign than the ‘near ruler’ of London or Madrid. But of course they have (with the exception of Sinn Fein, because of the unique situation pertaining to Ireland) hit the brick wall of wanting to be part of an organisation that is overtly hostile to their existence.

    *just for the moment ignoring the issue of movements which seek secession without independence – i.e. wanting to belong to another State – this applies to Northern Ireland Republicans and some Flems, etc.

    Reply
    1. auskalo

      Everybody forgets that Spanish gov’t is the most corrupt of modern times. More than 900 politically elected people in court.

      Their extreme right wing is taking to the streets and going to Ciudadanos, a party ideated by Banco Sabadell’s president, with the only purpose of making Spain a flat country without any different region/country, removing all autonomies.

      The Constitutional Court is made by PP and PSOE. The president was a militant of PP. It’s bought and sold.

      There isn’t a democratic solution to Spain countries, because the 8,5 million of jubilated people, mostly, vote the gov’t party, just in case, to receive their monthly pay.

      This Spain

      Spain is different!

      Reply
    2. Darn

      I disagree SF is pro-EU, rather the policy is “critical engagement” and they opposed further integration in the Treaties of Nice and Lisbon. Calling it pro-EU is like calling the Tories pro-EU because they had a Eurosceptic, but not pro-Brexit, leadership… What’s keeping SF from proposing Irexit is surely that it would be electoral suicide in Ireland, and not because anyone believes it provides protections to non-republicans (and I’d love to know what those might be). There would also be their own lack of interest in Irish Lexit as SF moves right economically, which it can always justify for short-term electoral reasons a la Tony Blair (e.g. wanting to cut corporation tax). “We’ll do the other stuff later.”

      As for the pragmatic realisation, well, consider Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, which are not EU members. (Yes, there is a connection, and Brexit is nuts, which will hopefully slowly mutate into pseudo-membership on different terms, without a hard Brexit in between.)

      Reply
    3. Pespi

      The EU ‘umbrella’ is a solid reason for general desire for secession without the fear of being a tiny isolated country. If there was no EU, secession would be something for geographically and ethnically distinct regions, justifiable or not. The idea of microstates for every localized ethnic group is a boon to any hegemon that can keep its state from fracturing. Those small states can be bullied at will by large states and multinational corporations.

      Most Spanish people have legitimate grievances against a deeply corrupt state, but there is an element of ‘fuck you got mine’ and ‘if you try to do anything to me the EU will save me’ in Catalan secessionism.

      Reply
  6. Ruben

    This is a great article, very short and condensed, packed with info of the relevant kind. The asymmetry condition for a justified secession push is something that will certainly stick in my mind.

    Reply
    1. Ruben

      The right to secession is a very important matter for anarchists because even though anarchist are the only ones that do not accept the legitimacy of the state to coerce the individual, as remarked by Oberman, there are two solid reasons the right to secession impinges upon the world view of anarchists.

      First, secession leads to smaller states, that are closer to the individual, and therefore coerce less or coerce proportionately more for reasons that can be more acceptable to the anarchist.

      Second, in the limit (in a mathematical sense) the right to secession leads to the dissolution of the state, or in other words, to one-person states.

      Back to Oberman, it seems to me he nailed it. The right to secession on the grounds of alienation of a critical mass of subjects that are otherwise clearly defined (as in territory, language, and so on) from their state is one proper grounding for a legal theory of secession.

      Reply
  7. Basil Pesto

    Ah! Great piece! Thanks for this

    I plugged an essay I wrote yesterday but it touches on a lot of the issues raised here (although my background is legal, not philosophical). It’s ultimately more strident than academic, as opposed to this piece, but it may well be informative for many who found this piece interesting.

    Catalonia and the political misuse of concepts of democracy and human rights.

    Basically, as this article also details, it’s not as simple as many are making it out to be. “We are all in the grey zone of reasonable disagreement.” is a golden line as well.

    Nice to see that this article drew from the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy article that I also cited and which is really interesting. We also coincidentally use a similar double-secession hypothetical (although my hypothetical was arbitrary, and not based on the real case of Val d’Aran, which I was not aware of).

    I’m sorry to flog the piece again, but I checked the thread from yesterday and noticed that some NC commenters read it and found it valuable in some way. Thanks :~)

    I’m also interested by Mr Oberman’s thesis of immigration as a human right. Before reading, I’m not convinced by the premise, but I’m looking forward to reading it and seeing if I can be swayed.

    Reply
  8. Eclair

    Very nice presentation of ideas on secession that gives us a framework, other than emotional flag-waving, for discussion.

    Except why do I feel that all these carefully worded justifications are rationalizations, applied, well maybe not quite like ‘lipstick to a pig,’ but to pretty-up and legalize some basically irrational and human forces.

    The argument, or description, that rings true to me is described by the phrase, ‘persistent alienation.’ Perhaps this is because that describes what I and so many of my friends have been feeling in regards to our economic and political leadership class.

    Now, the Catalans have been feeling that for a couple of centuries. As have the Scotts and and Kurds. Us here in the US, not for so long. And, certainly we don’t have a separate language to unite us. But we are, perhaps, evolving and articulating a very different philosophy of the duties and responsibilities of political leadership.

    So, thank you for presenting Kieran Oberman’s essay. Lots to think about.

    Reply
  9. hman

    The Catalan’s have been bounced around since 1117, that’s 900 years..
    Thorny situation if you know the history.. The piece is written from a very limited time perspective imho..
    There’s more at play here than another fascist in Madrid and socialists in Brussels..
    The brits rolled out the cannons here, leadership had to hide out, some citizens were killed and look where that got them..
    see catalonia, wiki

    Reply
    1. shargash

      Much of the commentary I’ve read has ignored the history, but the history is the substrate of the entire situation. I don’t think there has been a 100 year period without a Catalan rebellion since the days of Ferdinand and Isabella. Spain’s relatively new democracy treated the Catalans well enough to suppress independence, but that seems to be gone now, for a variety of reasons. The commentary has mostly focused on those reasons without addressing the underlying urge for independence.

      Reply
  10. Jamie

    Is the question even well formed? A ‘state’ is an expression of power not an expression of rights. The “legitimacy” of states is always post hoc legitimacy. Some interesting questions are: do the Catalonian people have the will and power to secede, and what sort of international sympathy and support will they garner for their efforts. These things may, in the end, depend on feelings, but feelings are generated by material conditions. It is the material conditions (austerity is a good proxy word for current material conditions) that can lead the Catalonian people to feel alienated from and unserved by the government in Madrid, and pressed to complain to Madrid by their local leaders (who may have—and probably do have— hidden agendas) even though it is the EU, not Madrid, that is ultimately responsible for the austerity conditions.

    It seems to me that the only interest we outsiders have in the question of the “right” of Catalonia to secede is to help us decide whether we ought to root for or against secession. It seems to me that, regardless of the political outcome on the question of secession (i.e. regardless of whether the people of Catalonia have the will and power to secede), the people of Catalonia, and the people of Spain generally, deserve our support and sympathy for the suffering they are undergoing and our fondest wish that the suffering does not further escalate (though by all appearances it is about to escalate).

    The question of what is right to do in the face of current suffering is not the same as the question do the people have a right to do X. Each Catalonian is subject to a unique matrix of suffering and has a unique level of what they will tolerate. Suffering cannot simply increase forever without consequences. Suffering generates the will to act, but it does not convey the power to succeed. The tragedy we are watching unfold here is that secession will almost inevitably lead to greater suffering while the European elites who are driving it, who are causing all the suffering to begin with, are not even on the radar.

    Meanwhile, the political leaders, both in Madrid and in Catalonia—leaders who ought to be uniting their efforts to confront the EU and demand a non-austerity solution—are instead pursuing parochial agendas of wealth extraction putting them at odds.

    Reply
    1. diptherio

      A ‘state’ is an expression of power not an expression of rights. The “legitimacy” of states is always post hoc legitimacy.

      This is the starting point for any realistic analysis, imho. Which is why sentiments such as these strike me as downright childish:

      People do not voluntarily join states for the sake of their hobby or passion; they are forced into states for the sake of justice and peace…

      We need states. We need parents. But if we are to maintain our individual autonomy, these unchosen authorities in our lives must assume their proper roles and not pretend to be something they are not…

      I understand that the author of this piece doesn’t necessarily share these views, but they are apparently common in academic poli-sci circles, as well as with the common citizenry. Please show me in history the time when some people got together and formed a state for the sake of “justice and peace,” and not to serve their own self-interest. I’ll wait.

      The second quote makes the infantilization explicit. We need states because we are like children. That the entity referred to as “the state” is composed entirely of people who are exactly as childish as the general population doesn’t seem to occur to people who make this argument. Which is to say, “the state” is nothing more than people pretending to be something they are not (i.e. society’s adults who know better than the rest of us and therefore have the right to rule over us). I find it difficult to have much respect for people who make this argument, as they don’t seem to have much for themselves.

      There is no morally right or wrong answer to the succession question, the only relevant considerations are pragmatic. Will you suffer more in gaining your independence and being punished for your insolence, even if successful; or will you suffer more by staying in the current arrangement? As always, it’s a catch-22 situation – you can do anything you can’t be prevented from doing…and so can they. FWIW, Personally, I think we’d all be better off with much smaller and more distributed centers of political and economic power than we have now, and having every nation break up in to local regions would, in the long-run, be a positive. But it’s up to the people in any given area to weigh their options and act accordingly.

      Reply
  11. The Rev Kev

    I have thought about this and for a comment, I would like to quote from a novel called “Shogan” by James Clavell. For context, a shipwrecked English sailor is being interviewed by a major Japanese Lord at his court and it is set in the 1590s. The subject comes up of the Netherlands who are fighting for their independence from Spain. Here is that passage-

    ‘Therefore the Netherlands – your allies – are in a state of rebellion against their lawful king?’
    ‘They’re fighting against the Spaniard, yes. But – ‘
    ‘Isn’t that rebellion? Yes or no?’
    ‘Yes. But there are mitigating circumstances. Serious miti – ‘
    ‘There are no “mitigating circumstances” when it comes to rebellion against a sovereign lord’
    ‘Unless you win.’
    Toronaga looked intently at him. Then laughed uproariously. …
    ‘Yes, Mister Foreigner with the impossible name, yes. You named the one mitigating factor.’

    Reply
  12. Synoia

    There are no “mitigating circumstances” when it comes to rebellion against a sovereign lord

    Rebellion against a “Sovereign Lord”

    Precisely. I point to the British Dissolution of their Empire, which was mostly peaceful.

    Do people have a right to “self determination,” that is choosing their own Sovereigns (or Government)?

    From Wikipedia:

    The right of people to self-determination is a cardinal principle in modern international law (commonly regarded as a jus cogens rule), binding, as such, on the United Nations as authoritative interpretation of the Charter’s norms.[1][2] It states that a people, based on respect for the principle of equal rights and fair equality of opportunity, have the right to freely choose their sovereignty and international political status with no interference.[3]

    A people can associate, be a part of a Federation, if there is mutual benefit (Typically Common Defense, or Inter-federation trade). If there is not mutual benefit, does the above right to self-determination prevail?

    Reply
  13. Ignacio

    Very good article. It raises more questions than it resolves but this is exactly what is needed now instead of the typical nationalistic fervorous black&white language.

    I agree that a truly free referendum in this case is advisable, but there are questions arising before it can be done. Take a look at brexit. I watched it with sympathy considering the political drift in the EU throughout the crisis. Nevertheless it was voted without serious provisioning on how should it proceed in both the british and the EU side of the equation and the result is messy. It may occur that some or many british will later regret the result depending on the outcome.

    Thus, before voting and to do it in a truly free fashion, there should be a previously negotiated secession/separation legal framework agreed. Or it shouldn’t? I think it should. In my opinion, the biggest problem with catalan referendum was not that it was illegal under current law (it was), but the fact that it was a one sided decission and lacked the necessarily negotiated background. A referendum shouldn’t be held on the grounds of frustration and of course without such repressive reaction. The background includes more popular frustration with the crisis, how (badly) is it being managed and how corruption is embedded in both Catalonia and the rest of Spain.

    This is a recipe for disatrous outcomes. Besides, Catalonia, like Scotland, is deeply divided in this issue, complicating even more the result.

    How could foreign observers help? Not by feeling sympathy or antipathy as Oberman asserts. Repression has been rigthfully condemned and pressure should be put on Rajoy to show regret about it. Pressure should also be put on independentists to show them how irresponsible was for them to force a referendum without warranties and granting its outcome. Then, force negotiations.

    Reply
    1. Ruben

      Your logic is flawed, it’s tautological.

      When you write

      “In my opinion, the biggest problem with catalan referendum was […] the fact that it was a one sided decission [sic] and lacked the necessarily negotiated background”

      and

      “Pressure should also be put on independentists [sic] to show them how irresponsible was for them to force a referendum without warranties …”

      you are making the logical error because you are siding with the part that denied the conditions that the same part later deemed as necessary for acceptance.

      Reply
      1. Ignacio

        Tautologic?

        Imagine that you call me “stupid” (just imagine).
        Then I reply you “idiot” with the risk of starting a fight.

        My opinion is that both of us would be acting in the wrong direction. That’s more or less what has been happening in Spain this year.

        Reply
  14. shargash

    Another is national self-determination. The idea that a nation has a right to determine its own future is fine as far as it goes.

    By the UN charter, and generally in international law, “peoples” have a right of self-determination. I’m not sure if the author is confusing nations with peoples or is just ignoring the right of peoples. By construing the right as the right of peoples, I do not see the reciprocity problem. Also, it is very dangerous to think of nations as having rights relative to their own citizens. Nations have obligations towards their citizens, not rights.

    Self-determination does have a recursion problem, and the reductio ad absurdum is the sovereign man. It is a tricky question, but I think it’s clear that relatively large, geographically cohesive units like Catalonia, Scotland, Quebec, Crimea, etc. should have their (fair and free) referenda.

    Reply
    1. pictboy3

      Nation is a term of art in international relations academia. It refers to a “nation” of people, usually specific to an ethnic group. A nation doesn’t have territorial borders or significance by itself.

      I believe you’re thinking of countries or states.

      Reply
      1. David

        Well, this is the point, really. I’ve been involved in various “nation-building” activities over the last twenty-five years, and most of them have foundered on what look like semantic issues, but are actually fundamental ones. “People” ” “nation” and “state” are sometimes (as in English) three separate words, but sometimes not. In Slavic languages, Narod means both “nation” and “people”. In the ex-Yugoslavia it arguably meant “state” as well in some cases (the Army for example). Thus, the Croatian “people” or “nation” included ethnic Croats living outside Croatia in 1991, notably in Bosnia, but also in other parts of Europe and the US. Much of the misery of the last generation has been caused by the assumption that “national” (for which read ethnic/linguistic/religious) boundaries should coincide with political ones, and attempts to bring this about in some cases, but not others. You rapidly get into what we used to describe as the “doughnutting” problem, of minorities inside minorities. The West decided, for example, that Croatia and Bosnia had the right to secede from the SFRY, but that ethnic Serbs and Croats in Bosnia, and the Serbs in Croatia, did not have the same right. Later it was decided that Albanians in Kosovo had the right to secede from Serbia, but that Serbs in Kosovo did not have the right to secede from the new entity (later state).
        These problems are in fact insoluble, as I think is clear from the article, and attempts to create any kind of general rules are doomed to failure. In the end, secession is not a “right” but an expression of the balance of forces.

        Reply
        1. rd

          And then you have “empires” layered over all that. They are passé today, with the Soviet Union effectively the last one in a nearly unbroken string of empires with different nations leading them going back several thousand years. Often empires were structured with lots of minor kingdoms, duchies, etc. all assembled into a loose framework reporting up to one emperor. “Cult of personality” empires (e.g. Alexander the Great) generally don’t have a long shelf life, although local bits (e.g. Ptolemies in Egypt) can hang on for a long time. Ones with a strong bureaucracy and popular support can survive for a very long time (Roman Empire continuing on in Byzantine Empire)

          In the US, the southern states voted democratically to secede and the legal question of whether or not they could was resolved through a brutal civil war. So, it is not clear how the US could promote a position that a territory internal in a country should be able to secede unless their constitution explicitly permitted that.

          Countries like Iraq are interesting examples because they are artificial entities previously assembled by an empire with little attention paid to what the inhabitants wanted. In many cases, unstable structures were cobbled together and then the ruling authority given to a favored group, often a minority, which could rule with an iron fist. So it is unclear what the legal basis for preventing secession in these entities would be other than being able to force them to comply. Ultimately, winning is the mitigating factor in these cases.

          Reply
  15. bronco

    I believe they can vote to secede , the converse of that is the rest of Spain can vote to throw Catalonia out. Lets do both and that should clarify things. My wag is the rest of the country will choose not to eject Catalonia.

    Why wouldn’t Spain throw Catalonia out ? They wouldn’t because Catalonia is like a dog and the rest of Spain is a horde of ticks clinging to it.

    On an unrelated note is the F-word suddenly ok to use in posts ? What happened to the whole family blog thing?.

    Reply
    1. Outis Philalithopoulos

      Specific words don’t always cause a comment to get shot down, they just dramatically increase the likelihood of that happening.

      Reply
  16. EoinW

    Excellent article!

    In theory, if we are democracies then the democratic process should be respected at all times. Nevertheless there are problems with this. The first is that we no longer live in functioning democracies. Citizens have been too willing to embrace apathy and ignorance, leaving politics to an elite and a continuous build up of corruption. The second is that people pick and choose when they want democracy. An example of this would be Quebec. Many who supported a provincial referendum would never support municipalities within Quebec holding their own successionist referendum. Thus the biggest democratic problem is getting everyone to agree to any process.

    Raul Ilargi simplifies things to what really matters. People will only submit to a faraway central authority if such an arrangement provides them with a better life. Once that central authority stops delivering – or, worse, like some mafia godfather only takes – it makes sense for people to want out. If we are really honest about things in the West we’d admit that our governments are running a protection racket in which we’re allowed to remain free so long as we pay protection money to their authority. The process at this moment is people slowly figuring this out. And hopefully figuring it out before it’s too late. Our governments are done, they have diminishing credibility. It’d be nice if people could peacefully end their tyranny, like through a referendum, however this article well displays the problems with the democratic option. Our pseudo-democracies are part of the system and it is the system we will need to escape from.

    Reply
    1. Synoia

      Citizens have been too willing to embrace apathy and ignorance, leaving politics to an elite and a continuous build up of corruption

      I think this is unfair. Better stated is Citizens have become disconnected from their representatives and Government by the creeping mendacity of their representatives with their focus on rich donors.

      Elected Representatives should only be able to raise money from the proposed or actual constituency. If their representation is governed by geography, their money raising should be governed by the same geography.

      I also wonder if it would be a benefit of said Representatives had to spend 75% of their working days in their constituency, and attend Congress remotely.

      Reply
  17. Chauncey Gardiner

    Not to diminish the seriousness of the question, the underlying reasons for various independence movements, or the excellent post and comments; but the philosophical basis of a right of secession and related asymmetry presented by the author reminded me of the script of the film “Bull Durham”:

    Annie Savoy: These are the ground rules. I hook up with one guy a season. Usually takes me a couple weeks to pick the guy – kinda my own spring training. And, well, you two are the most promising prospects of the season so far, so I just thought we should kinda get to know each other.

    Crash Davis: Time out. Why do you get to choose?

    Annie Savoy: What?

    Crash Davis: Why do you get to choose? I mean, why don’t I get to choose, why doesn’t he get to choose?

    Annie Savoy: Well, actually, nobody on this planet ever really chooses each other. I mean, it’s all a question of quantum physics, molecular attraction, and timing. Why, there are laws we don’t understand that bring us together and tear us apart. Uh, it’s like pheromones. You get three ants together, they can’t do dick. You get 300 million of them, they can build a cathedral.

    … Crash Davis: After 12 years in the minor leagues, I don’t try out. Besides, uh, I don’t believe in quantum physics when it comes to matters of the heart.

    Might be useful to read a little Richard Thaler, too. Believe he just won a Nobel Prize based on behavioral psychology and the limited rationality of human beings regarding matters of economics and markets. Economics = Politics?

    Reply
  18. Jim

    “States are not like clubs.”

    What then, are states like?

    Are they simply instruments of coercion?

    Are they a combination of coercion and capital and emotion?

    Is it true that when talking about a state we must talk as if it is a single actor even if that single actor is a representative of a large group of elites who are involved in a complex set of social relationships?

    Is it true because of the class struggle in the economic base, that the state arises under each mode of production to serve the interests of the dominant class?

    Have Marxists produced an unworkable theory of the State?

    Can we really understand secession without understanding the nature of the State?

    Is it true that what is at stake in a discussion of secession is the nature of identity itself–including an understanding of its acute affective dimension?

    Can we understand the nature of the State without having an understanding the nature of the human mind?

    Reply
  19. Roland

    At least both the Brexit and the Catalan secession votes had clearly phrased questions.

    Brexit:

    Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

    Catalonia:

    Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?

    A complication in both of the Quebec referenda was that the questions asked were less than entirely clear.

    Quebec 1980:

    “The Government of Quebec has made public its proposal to negotiate a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations; this agreement would enable Quebec to acquire the exclusive power to make its laws, levy its taxes and establish relations abroad — in other words, sovereignty — and at the same time to maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency; any change in political status resulting from these negotiations will only be implemented with popular approval through another referendum; on these terms, do you give the Government of Quebec the mandate to negotiate the proposed agreement between Quebec and Canada

    Quebec 1995:

    Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?

    Reply
  20. Michael

    OK, let’s accept that Catalonia residents have a right to determine if they leave Spain. What then? What criteria are used to determine how the vote is carried out? Who is Catalan in a region that has 100,000s if not millions of residents from other Spanish regions and countries? Is the vote only available to those born in Catalonia? If so, can those Catalans who reside outside of Catalonia vote as well? Do we automatically exclude the legal residents, but not Spanish citizens, many of whom having located in Catalonia to be part of Spain/EU not only to enjoy the coastal region? (I doubt there are many current non-Catalan residents who moved to Catalonia with the the concept of Catalonia as a country in mind. I know a half-dozen personally who will certainly move.)

    Next, how does succession work? What are the conditions by which Catalonia as a state interacts with other states? What becomes of the institutions, laws and actors that are present in Catalonia, not as Catalonia as an independent state, but in “Spain”? This is not just EU institutions but this also concerns corporate investments into Spain. I believe HP has a huge printer manufacturing operations there – both R&D and international distribution. How does independence impact their tax situation? How does it impact their distribution to the rest of Europe? Will other EU countries continue to treat HP equipment manufactured in Catalonia as coming from an EU entity?

    This is like the Brexit, but more complicated as Catalonia has not just one but two larger entities from which they must disentangle and much less international economic clout to soften the blow. As Catalonia’s exit will hurt Spain, does anyone think that Madrid’s central govt will make it easy for investing companies to continue their status from within Catalonia? Given this context, how many would continue to vote yes?

    Beyond flag-waving and emotion-driven rationales, will the potential exit scenarios be given a fair discussion?

    Of course, this forces one to return to how the vote is orchestrated. How are the votes counted to support succession? Is it a flat majority? Is it acceptable that 51% of independence votes can wreak such havoc on the other 49% who don’t share their views? Because, sadly, I don’t see any scenario that independence enables a soft-landing. And people who are scared for their future start to do dangerous things.

    Reply
    1. Basil Pesto

      These are all good questions.

      I believe all people residing in Catalunya would be able to vote in such a referendum, regardless of ethnic background. In terms of how the vote is carried out, procedurally, this document gives a guide as to how sound referendums should be conducted: http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=cdl-ad(2007)008-e

      If the referendum were legal and to succeed, I expect there would be a negotiation process, as per Brexit. There could even be a double referendum on the terms of the negotiation, which I believe was mooted for Quebec in the event of their independence vote succeeding.

      Regarding the question of transfer of institutions, here is one paper that argues ways forward from a Catalan persoective: http://revistaselectronicas.ujaen.es/index.php/TAHRJ/article/view/2316/1999

      Strictly in terms of unilateral secession, I’m not entirely convinced myself. As I say above, it doesn’t make sense to me that the EU would accept a state formed on the basis of a constitutionally and legislatively (I think? The Catalania high court seems to have ruled against the Oct 1 referendum too, but I think in terms of parliamentary procedural legitimacy than constitutional) illegal and procedurally illegitimate referendum, at least not for many years. This would be different if it was a legal, bilateral secession.

      In terms of how referendum success is defined, there is some consensus that when it comes to questions of secession, it should be more than a simple majority, say 60%. Stéphane Dion, political scientist and former Canadian MP, opines on this here, with reference to Quebec: http://www.realinstitutoelcano.org/wps/wcm/connect/fdf4b5804f3b281e9521df09dfd350c4/Stephane-Dion-secession-democracy-Canada.pdf?MOD=AJPERES&CACHEID=fdf4b5804f3b281e9521df09dfd350c4

      He touches on this soecific issue at points 6 and 8. The Canadian SC decision, which is something of an international watershed on this issue, mentions a ‘clear majority’ but doesn’t provide a number. Dion thinks, and I tend to agree, that the question of a ‘clear majority’ would have to be settled politically, and/or by the legislature. However, I differ with him on the point that a ‘clear majority’ shouldn’t be defined before a referendum in the relevant referendum legislation. Deciding what constitutes a clear majority after the vote opens the door for all sorts of semantic and political chicanery.

      Reply

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