Carles Puigdemont – premier of the Catalonian Autonomous Region – is currently winning the PR war with the Spanish government. That seems to be the temper of the times: there’s a strong misalignment between the forces that are good at manipulating public opinion and the forces that are for right and the rule of law, and this is a case in point. His recent editorial in the Washington Post making the case for the referendum will no doubt prove to be another battle on the way to winning the image war. Nothing about it advances the moral cause, though, as it’s full of the usual misrepresentations.
After three centuries under Spanish rule, on Oct. 1, citizens of Catalonia will finally have the chance to exercise their right to self-determination.
Actually, they won’t. The referendum is illegal, and while the European Union has been admittedly a little mealy-mouthed about it, Jean-Claude Junker recently reaffirmed the default position in an interview: such matters have to be decided according to the Spanish Constituion (though he would "respect" a "yes" vote, whatever that means). The US and Germany have both made clear that it is an internal Spanish matter. It is also unclear what a "citizen" of Catalonia is. There is no such legal concept at the moment, and indeed one of the best objections to holding the referendum without first working it out with Spain is that this category will be up in the air in the event of a "yes" vote. The closest thing to being a Catalan "citizen" at the moment is that you have a Spanish national ID card that lists "Catalonia" as your region of residence. Which is to say, it’s a category that exists only in the framework of the same Spanish constitution that clearly forbids Catalonia from holding this referendum.
The way to this historic referendum was paved by a majority decision of the Catalonian parliament.
Again, not really. For one thing, it was passed with a fair amount of trickery – inserted into the legislative agenda at the very last minute on the same day as the vote. The parliament then refused to have it vetted through a legal committee, even though this is standard parliamentary procedure. 52 delegates walked out rather than vote, but their votes were counted as "no"s rather than abstentions. So, the official figure of "passed 72-52 with 11 abstentions" is in a very important sense a lie.
In our last regional election in September 2015, pro-independence parties won 47.8 percent of the vote, which gave them an absolute majority of seats. Unionist parties won 39.1 percent of the votes, a clear defeat, while the rest of the votes went to parties that defend the right to self-determination but are not necessarily in favor of independence. So there can be no denying the democratic legitimacy of our current Catalonian government.
Left out here is the fact that these same pro-independence parties actually lost seats in that election and very nearly failed to form a government at all. Two new broadly pro-independence coalitions (Junts pel Si and Catalunya Sí que es Pot), and they still didn’t manage to win a majority. Junts pel Si is the only of the two for whom independence is the signature issue, Catalunya Sí que es Pot being a coalition of the populist left that happens to also support Catalonian independence, though that is somewhat lukewarm. Junts won 62 seats (short of the 73 needed for an outright majority) and then failed, for a third of a year, to come to a governing agreement with the traditional Catalan independence party (the CUP). Mere moments before the deadline (10 January – for an election held on 27 September), Junts and Catalunya Sí que es Pot struck an agreement and saved Junts‘ "win." That may well be an example – albeit an unusally weak one – of "democratic legitimacy of our current Catalonian government," but note the sleight of hand: it is nothing like "democratic legitimacy" for an independence referendum, let alone this one.
For this reason, after making several unsuccessful efforts to agree on the terms of the referendum with Spanish President Mariano Rajoy, I initiated the referendum.
This is just cheeky. He waited 100 days after being installed in office to even meet with the Prime Minister, and when he did, his tone wasn’t "this is what I was elected to do, can we find a legal way to do it?" – it was "welp, we’re doing this, how are you going to help?" Furthermore, Rajoy has indicated willingness to negotiate more autonomy for Catalonia.
In stark contrast to the governments of Canada or Britain, Madrid has refused to accept this democratic challenge, and has opted instead for the path of authoritarian repression.
Also in stark contrast to Canada and Britain, there is no clear popular mandate for the vote. In both Quebec and Scotland, there was a single nationalist party whose signature issue was holding a referendum, and in both cases, that party won a clear majority in the regional parliament after campaining on that issue. In the case of the Bloc Quebecois in 1995, they won 54 of 75 seats, sweeping nearly all francophone ridings. The Scottish National Party’s majority was not nearly as dramatic (69 of 129), but it was still a clear majority for a single party with a referendum as a signature issue. Other differences: Quebec’s case for sovereignty is on much firmer legal ground. Quebec did not ratify the 1982 (repatriated) constitution (still has not done so), and a good chunk of the 1980s was spent trying to find a way to get them on board, as the legitimacy of the constitution was seen as compromised without them. Things are just the opposite with regard to Catalonia, which ratified the 1978 constitution with an overwhelming (95%) majority of the vote at an impressive turnout of 68%. Moreover, Catalonia has supported each separate, constitution-altering agreement for regional autonomy with majorities in the range of 70%. Quebec can reasonably claim to not be bound by the Canadian constitution; Catalonia clearly has no such argument. In the case of Scotland, you’re talking about a Union that was formed in 1707 under obviously less-than-democratic circumstances. While Scotland clearly had no unilateral legal right to a secession referendum, it was morally correct for the UK Parliament to allow them to hold one. Again, no such case can be made for Catalonia. Catalonia has been given several opportunities to affirm support for the much-more-recent Spanish constitution and it has done so each time. Madrid is under no moral imperative to recognize this vote. Quite the contrary, it is under a moral imperative to uphold the national constitution, and that constitution clearly prohibits Catalonian secession.
It seems incredible that this could happen in Spain in the 21st century. One French journalist recently noted that the Spanish government is acting more like Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuelan dictatorship than a healthy European democracy.
Yes, by all means, let’s let one French journalist decide the right of it. Amateur. He’s not wrong that Spain’s reaction has been a little over the top, but given the slippery actor Spain is dealing with, it’s hard to blame them too much.
And consider the fact that Catalonia, Spain, and other European countries are currently on maximum alert against jihadi terrorism. Instead of working to prevent possible attacks, Spain’s police forces are working to prevent the exercise of democracy. This is profoundly irresponsible.
Oh please. This is easily the silliest use of the lame-ass "the government can rule by fiat because terrorism!" argument I have ever seen. Just go fuck yourself. If you want to take this line, please explain how going ahead with a referendum you know is illegal on the basis of an extremely unstable coalition government after making no attempt to mollify the rest of the country or even outline how the transition would take place helps promote stability in the face of the terrorist threat.
The Spanish government has also gravely violated the freedom of expression and of information. Not only has it prohibited both public and private media from broadcasting advertisements about the referendum, it has also moved to block Catalan government websites that inform the public about the vote. Madrid has even blocked proxy servers, a procedure employed by only the most totalitarian regimes. The Spanish government not only wants to keep Catalans from voting, but also to prevent them from being informed.
This part I agree with. This is a really stupid move on the national government’s part, and I think it will come to see it as a mistake.
This de facto state of siege to which the Spanish State has submitted Catalonia nullifies the autonomy conceded in 1979. A few days ago the central government seized control over Catalonia’s finances, thus imperiling the Catalan economy, which is the motor of the Spanish economy. Catalonia is responsible for almost 20 percent of Spanish GDP, and our exports comprise some 25 percent of all Spanish exports. Spain is thus gravely damaging its own economy as well as putting Catalonia’s at risk, and is even threatening to cut some of the social services to which Catalonia’s people are entitled. Madrid is thus punishing each and every citizen of Catalonia indiscriminately, whether or not they actually want independence.
Again, I really have to agree. The Spanish central government is pissing away all kinds of credibility by overreacting in such a stupid way. They should not restrict speech, and they should not restrict financing as this just gives snake oil salesmen like Puigdemont legitimacy they haven’t earned and don’t deserve. Nothing about the Spanish central government’s incompetence changes the moral and legal calculation, though. Catalonia has no right to seceed, they know this, they’ve agreed to this on several occasions. Nothing the Spanish government is doing is actually illegal – it’s just (extremely) bad PR. So no, it doesn’t "nullify the automonmy conceded in 1979" – but it will no doubt win a lot of support that otherwise wouldn’t be there for independence, causing greater headaches for the nation down the road.
Respect for minorities is a fundamental human right, and the right of self-determination is an irrevocable right of all nations.
Catalonia isn’t a nation, though. The "right of self-determination" he’s talking about is a right for colonies, and Catalonia isn’t a colony. But even if we accept that Catalonia were a nation – and, culturally and lingusitically, I think we have to – exercising this right wouldn’t be as simple as holding an indeterminate election and then an indeterminate referendum. International law, such as it is, does not support his position, and he knows it.
We call on democrats around the world to give support to this long struggle between freedom and authoritarianism.
Agreed – we should support Spain in this. Spain is on the side of rule of law, the Catalonian regional government isn’t. If Catalonia wants to handle this in a grown-up way – namely appealing to Spain to amend the constitution to allow a referendum, announcing the referendum well in advance and agreeing to work out the logistics and implications of it with the national government, then I’m all for it. Calling a referendum with less than a month of runway, no clear election mandate for it and no consultation with the surrounding world and acting like it’s "authoritarianism" when the rest of the country doesn’t want to play is a lot of things, but a bold stand for "freedom" just isn’t one of them.
Spain should probably allow Catalonia to hold an independence referendum at some point. Clearly, it’s an issue that is not going to go away. Enough Catalonians feel like they belong in their own country, and have felt so for a long enough time, that Madrid should find a way to let them express it, and express it meaningfully – as in, with legal consequences, including independence, if it can be reliably determined that that’s what they want. This referendum is so far from reliably determining that that it’s laughable, though, and Spain is right to reject it. I wish they didn’t feel the need to smack it down, but what can you really do? The lesser of two evils is still less evil, and Spain’s government isn’t even evil, just maybe a little stupid and emotional. Here’s hoping they come through this and Catalonia gets a chance to vote in a more sensible crowd than the criminals currently representing them.