by Oliver Steward

September 27th 2017 will be remembered as a Day of Independence. A day of celebration, but also a day of possible mourning. I rejoice and also remain vigilant at the coming days since the Catalonian government’s decision to declare independence. Some would view this as a failure of democracy, and of politics more generally, to achieve a peaceful alternative that would recognise the cultural diversity of Catalonia within Spain. The compromise option would have seen Catalonia keep its devolved status, but within the context of Spain.  The model that Quebec and Scotland have already taken.

To paraphrase Social Constructivist Wendt ‘Anarchy is what states make of it’, and following that logic, we could extrapolate that sovereignty is what citizens make of it. We can use Constructivism as a useful tool for deconstructing competing discourses in operation. ‘Sovereignty’ is not a static concept but one which is a slippery slope. Nationalism, state sovereignty, and nationhood are all interconnected concepts that are linked together to form a part of ‘national identity’. Thus, identity is the key factor in understanding the ‘conflict’ between the two sides. It is how one defines ‘identity’ and at what level it is defined at. Can one be Spanish and Catalonian, or are the two mutually exclusive?

Can one be Spanish and Catalonian, or are the two mutually exclusive?

This is where a Constructivist approach to ‘identity’ has a value in understanding this political phenomena. It can take on many forms, from linguistic identity such as the Welsh or the Quebecois in Canada, to differing cultural, religious, and legal system in Scotland, or religion as is the case for Kosovo. These are by no means mutually exclusive and can reinforce one another. The challenge for the first decades of the 21st century is to strike a balance between the representations of minorities, and also protect the fabric of national sovereignty which represents a pluralistic society. This balance should in theory be one of equilibrium, but in practice there are tensions, constraints, and also limitations placed upon it.  Usually on behalf of the larger state, who positions itself as the legitimate state, and attempts to invalidate the ‘other’ who wishes to separate.

The revisionist separatist state attempts to offer a differing discourse of what it means to be a nation, embedded within certain cultural, socio-political, and linguistic cultural norms and values that makes it unique and ‘exceptional’, thereby legitimating independence from the ‘host nation’.  In this case the ‘host nation’ is Spain, and the ‘revisionist state’ is Catalonia.  However, the international system is also predetermined by sovereign states, and what sovereign states fear most is their own secessionist movements.  Thereby the system attempts to delegitimise the ‘other’ in an attempt to strengthen and maintain the ‘status quo’.

( Catalunian graffiti CC0 Pixabay )

This goes beyond pure legitimacy, and has elevated the issue of ‘separatism’ to a ‘threat’ upon Spain’s ‘sovereignty’ which requires extraordinary measures to be taken to defend Spain’s state sovereignty and to end the impetus for independence.  In effect, Spain through its political discourse has managed to ‘securitise’ the issue, and quite successfully has been given international backing, not vocally but through the silence of other neighbouring powers and actors.  The lack of a competing narrative has played into the hands of the elite establishment in Madrid who has used the powers given to it by legislation written during Spain’s era of Franco’s Fascist authoritarian rule. This performativity in itself does raise eyebrows as to the illiberal nature of these acts.

Spain could have attempted dialogue, but it would have been seen by the elites in Madrid as weakening their hand.  Similarly, the Catalonian independence movement could have attempted to reach a compromise.  However, both aims were seen as diametrically opposed, and both have reached for the so called ‘nuclear option’ for which there is no going back. The Spanish governement’s decision on the 27th October 2017 to dissolve Catalonia’s parliament, which has been the forum and channel to express ‘self-determination’, is a reflection on how far they are willing to go.

Don’t expect anyone to come out for support for this secession.  

On a wider geopolitical front, the EU does not want a cascade reaction that would embolden separatism across the European Union, which would result in a ‘chain reaction’.  To ‘legitimise’ Catalonia’s independence would be seen to challenge the status quo and bring in more ‘challengers’ who would seek ‘independence’ from their host nations.  Remember how the EU was critical of attempts by the Scottish for independence.  Sadly, the equilibrium between political authority, and political representation has reached an imbalance, with the result of the status quo and political realism dominating the political discourse of both national and international bodies.  Don’t expect anyone to come out for support for this secession.

However, there is a point which you place a premium upon the principles the very institutions you are seeking to protect are founded upon. That is why I support an Independent Catalonia. Not because I am a separatist at heart, but because I am a democrat, and a liberal.

I support Catalonia’s right and freedom to determine its own future and destiny. I show solidarity for Catalonia against the authoritarian rule of the Spanish government. A free Catalonia is fully compatible with the principles of democracy. This crackdown goes against the principles which both Liberal Democracy and the EU project hold dear.  an attack upon its very soul. It places a premium upon a larger state’s sovereignty at the expense of a minority who wish to be governed by a separate state.

( 2007 Mural in Catalunya CC3.0 1997; Wikimedia Commons )

So what are the alternative options?  Look no further than what is prescribed by Liberal philosophy and embed the Catalonian independence within the fabric of the EU; legitimise, instead of standing by, and allowing the Spanish government to act in ways that are contrary to democracy itself.

The actions of the EU and Spain will be evident in history for years to come how they handle this declaration of independence. We are so quick to judge, but when Kosovo held their own referendum the West was happy for this to happen. When it happens on their own doorstep, they condemn it.  It all has to do with national and international organisations’ self-interest, rather than democracy itself.  Sadly, the international state system intends on protecting its own interests: ironically, in the Liberal West ‘Democracy’ becomes a ‘threat’.

On a personal level, I am a Democrat first and foremost in my belief that if a collective body of people who express a majority wish to express their feelings of independence through a democratic forum, we should allow them to become independent and work to embrace their new found freedom in International Organisations such as the European Union and the United Nations. To normalise relations, and to display choice, would mean that we recognise the free will of peoples who wish to determine their own fate.


Featured image by Wikimedia Commons


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