Following the success of pro-secessionist parties in the 2015 Catalan elections I articulated my view that independence from Spain was “inevitable“. My belief in pro-secessionist movements is not based in any form of nationalism, whether ethnic or cultural, as I am an internationalist; it is based on passionate support for decentralisation and the weakening of existing state-power, particularly in the case of former colonialist powers. I still do believe that Europe is on the way to having another nation-state within its borders, but it would be foolish to ignore the biggest challenge that still remains: Spain.
A few weeks ago there was a vote held in the Catalan Parliament. The debate was around whether the Catalan government should endorse setting up a pathway toward independence from Spain. The Spanish government have consistently said that any such unilateral action would be illegal under the Spanish Constitution, which they are correct in stating. This is the biggest problem for Catalonia. The Catalan people can be continually denied a referendum on independence because the pro-unionist Madrid government sees no need to amend the constitution. The unilateral action of the Catalan government should be acknowledged as important, as it is understandable why they would carry out such a vote, but the consequences of any vote are far from certain.
For example, in the same 24 hours as this vote in the Catalan Parliament, a vote took place in Paris to see if Kosovo should be given membership of the UN’s cultural agency UNESCO. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 following the collapse of the Ahtisaari Plan which would have given Kosovo a huge amount of autonomy including allowing the government to apply for membership of international organisations and to adopt national symbols. The plan itself didn’t specify independence so it was a way of granting Kosovo a greater degree of self-governance whilst also placating the Serbian government. Although there was a majority in support of membership on the day, the vote lacked the required 94 votes to grant Kosovo membership; the final result was 92 yes, 50 no, 29 abstentions. The reason for this was that Serbia, in partnership with Russia, managed to corral enough votes into opposing or abstaining because membership of UNESCO, in their minds, would be a stepping stone to full recognition of statehood by the international community.
This will be the same situation if Catalonia succeeds unilaterally. If Catalonia succeeds the Spanish government will continually block their accession into international organisations. Whether it is the EU, the UN or the ICC, Spain will seek to stop Catalonia becoming a fully recognised member of the international community as unilateral secession would create a territorial dispute between Barcelona and Madrid. Despite this, I do not see any other solution. If Madrid continues to deny the people of Catalonia a referendum and ignores the fact that most of the MPs in the Catalan Parliament are pro-secession then unilaterally declaring independence may be the only other option left.
The reason that Rajoy hasn’t offered a referendum is that in the rest of Spain moaning about Catalonia is seen as politically popular, and both politicians in the People’s Party and the Socialist Party are guilty of this. Nevertheless Rajoy should definitely have offered a referendum, especially given that a number of years have passed since the height of the Spanish debt crisis which was when independence was at its most popular.
The situation on the ground in Catalonia is mixed as those who support independence are seeking statehood for Catalonia at every opportunity. Indeed the lack of a referendum has fuelled their sentiments for a unilateral declaration. Rajoy needs to offer a referendum right now because there is still a conceivable chance for the pro-union forces to come together and win the vote. If he leaves it any longer support for independence may begin to creep up once again, especially given the vocal supporters of secession have come together to run the Catalan Parliament. The ball is in Rajoy’s court. He can offer a referendum now and have a chance at keeping Catalonia through winning the democratic argument, or he can continue criticising Catalan political parties and politicians thus pushing the province toward a unilateral declaration. Either way I still believe that Catalan independence will take place in my lifetime, but I hope that it is via the democratic process so the result cannot be questioned.