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Catalonia Region Just Declared Independence from Spain; What Happened Next Will Force You to Think for Yourself.

October 27, 2017

From the New York Times:

BARCELONA, Spain — Spain’s leader fired the government of the country’s Catalonia region on Friday, dissolved the regional parliament and ordered new elections after defiant Catalan lawmakers declared independence, escalating the biggest political crisis in Spain in decades.

But then there’s this:

Within an hour of the Catalan vote, the Spanish Senate in Madrid voted 214 to 47 to invoke Article 155 of Spain’s Constitution, granting Mr. Rajoy extraordinary powers to take direct administrative control over the region and remove secessionist politicians, including the Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont.

It’s hard to say whether this will result in a stable new country of Catalonia. It seems unlikely, considering that the Spanish government is considering prosecuting the Catalan lawmakers who voted for independence. Other European countries are already lining up to assure Spain that they won’t recognize the new country, but this is a big deal nonetheless. It raises serious questions about legality and, more importantly, legitimacy. Spain says this move is illegal. Putting that aside, what makes a new separatist government legitimate in the eyes of the rest of the world? I don’t claim to understand the nuances of Spanish/Catalonian relations, but I sense that it would be unwise for supporters of independence to overplay their hand. Catalonia, which includes the city of Barcelona, was granted autonomy in 1978. The current President of the region, Carles Puigdemont, called for a vote, which the constitutionalist party (those who wish to remain under the Spanish constitution) refused to participate in:

Puigdemont announced in June 2017 that the referendum would take place on 1 October, and that the question would be, “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?” The Spanish government said in response, “that referendum will not take place because it is illegal.” [Wikipedia]

It took place anyway. Now what?


Catalan Sheepdog or a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

A few things worth noting:

  1. Independence is not as popular among the citizens of the region as it’s often made out to be. Although the people are fiercely nationalistic, the independence movement has historically been the project of a small far-left cohort that wants more power to tax and spend. Figures for support range from 40 to close to 50%, but I haven’t seen any that exceed a majority.
  2. Tyler Cowen suggests that this may be an act of “electoral terrorism.” He asks whether any geographic region can call a legislative referendum to separate from the broader country, and demurs. Could this be a case of pretending to be victims, when in fact the Catalonians are the aggressors?
  3. Some amount negotiating would need to take place to figure out how the new nation would split its assets and liabilities with Spain. It’s hard to imagine this unfolding smoothly when the parties can’t agree on what’s lawful.

As a final point, I’m reminded of Adrian Vermeule and Eric Posner’s observation about the paradox of tyrannophobia – i.e., crying wolf when there is none, or when it’s merely a big fluffy sheepdog. It can have the effect of creating tyrants out of leaders who feel backed into a corner by their rebellious constituents. There is a parallel to Trump and his critics in America. Just look at the escalating wars of words (“You’re a maniac!”; “No, YOU’RE the maniac!”), and consider what this might look like if one side fires an actual first shot.

With that said, we may about to witness one of the biggest experiments in new nation formation in decades. There will be many lessons to be learned. We should be especially tuned in to mistakes to be avoided in the future.

One Comment
  1. October 28, 2017 12:44 am

    “Although the people are fiercely nationalistic, the independence movement has historically been the project of a small far-left cohort that wants more power to tax and spend.”

    That does match my personal experience, but personally Id like to be explicit about the fact that I very much wish the right upon the Catalan people to build their own version of utopia. Sure, it is still a far cry from a genuine withering away of the implicit social contract, but it is a step in the right direction; and I really could not care less if this is supposed to be a left/right win. Nor do I believe it is, in any objective sense. Every tax-and-spend voter going into Catalonia is one going out of Spain; and vice versa. So insofar as this characterization of Catalans holds true, we might just as easily cast this as a win for fiscal conservatives in Castille.

    But why would we buy into any such narrative? To me it feels like a distraction from the important questions. What is the legal relationship of the catalan people to those in the Iberian peninsula? And does the legitimacy of that relationship derive from some royal conquests? Franco’s military victories? And are we doomed to a Hobbesian state of nature with such Strong Leaders forging us into a union, as many would have us believe? Or can we envision a future where the people of Catalonia and the people of Spain formalize their overall excellent relationships in an explicit and mutually beneficial manner?

    I sure do hope that this is the direction the public discourse will take.

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