Last Thursday’s elections in Catalonia demonstrated exactly this. Catalan nationalism, whether one likes it or not, was not going to disappear just because the people of the region were asked to vote in an election for their regional Parliament. Rather than strategy, the move smacked of desperation by the central Spanish government and its Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
The elections only further demonstrated that Catalans are divided over the issue of separating from Spain. The results cannot be called a decisive victory for the separatist parties, who won 70 of the 135 seats, although they still maintain a majority in the Catalan Parliament. Rajoy, on the other hand, is clearly the big loser. He gambled on voters to do the job for him of killing off the nationalist challenge, and lost. Those parties who do not want to break away from Spain are in a minority in the Catalan Parliament, and Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party recorded its worst ever result; it was all but wiped out, losing 8 of its 11 seats.
These results also highlight that Rajoy’s ill-judged decisions to impose direct rule after the Catalan Parliament declared independence, to go after the members of the Catalan government who supported the region’s independence, and then to call an election, have all backfired. Accusing Catalan President Carles Puigdemont of sedition and rebellion and jailing other members of the deposed Catalan government for similar offenses, was an overreaction made in panic. Turning Puigdemont, a rather lackluster leader, into an almost Che Guevara-style rebel with a European arrest warrant on his head, was only ever going to entrench nationalist resistance to Madrid. Though the arrest warrant was withdrawn last month, the damage had already been done. And now the regional election results have left Spain and Catalonia on the verge of further confrontation, and an out-of-sorts EU facing a major crisis brewing within its borders.
Turning to the European angle of Catalonia’s search for independence, the ousted Puigdemont, who is in self-imposed exile in Brussels, has declared all along that the secessionists’ desire was to part company from Spain, but not leave the EU. But for the EU the best result would have been a victory for those who want to remain part of Spain. The very idea of a region within one of its member states declaring independence sends shivers down the EU’s spine. Its very existence is based on membership of sovereign states that are admitted on the basis of meeting political, social, economic and legal criteria. Would any territory within a member state that declared independence be automatically admitted to the EU? Or should it undergo the same strict admission process as other states applying for membership? There are dozens of other separatist movements waiting on the wings, and watching with great interest how the EU and its individual members are approaching the Catalan quest for independence. If Brussels is too sympathetic to the secessionist cause this would legitimize, even encourage, other similar movements across the continent. On the other hand, there is a recognition that international law, at least ostensibly, is on the side of those who aspire to self-determination. Article 1 of the UN Charter states that one of the organization’s fundamental objectives is “to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.” This is not something EU law can ignore.
There is a conflict between the internationally recognized right to self-determination and the EU’s need to preserve intact sovereign states, and it will not be resolved by treating regional leaders like seditious traitors.
There is no escape from the fact that there is a real clash between international law’s stand on self-determination, which would appear to support the Catalan secessionist cause, and article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which gives central government the power to suspend some of a region’s autonomy if it “fails to fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the constitution or other laws, or acts in a way seriously prejudicing the general interests of Spain.”
It would be foolish to think that what Europe needs right now is more separatist and secessionist movements, motivated by parochial nationalism. These movements and their ideologies have their origins, as in the case of Scotland, or Brexit, in a reductionist approach driven not only by a different history and culture, but by a strong sense of being economically exploited by central government. The rise of this nationalist discourse contains the seeds of a return to a divided and war-ridden Europe, a disturbing trend that urgently requires a collective effort to roll back.
However, this can be done only by constructive engagement between different factions and ideas within a society, and through a genuine understanding of the root causes of the rise of nationalism, especially the question of why it continues to draw support despite its disastrous record in Europe, including Spain. Nevertheless, to simply dismiss Catalan aspirations to self-determination, and to treat the region’s leaders like bandits, accusing them of treason and sedition, will only make matters worse and certainly won’t make their stand or their supporters go away.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg