The State of Catalonia

I’m sure I’m not the only one who was appalled by the scenes of violence yesterday as police tried to stop voting in the `referendum’ on Catalonia. Here’s some footage from the BBC which clearly shows excessive use of force inside a polling station:

This is far from the worst example: elsewhere plastic bullets were fired at unarmed protesters. In all, about 900 people have been reported injured, though this claim is contested and  thankfully none of them – as far as I know – seriously.

Whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of the independence movement – and I’ll tell you what I think in a moment – there’s no question that the Spanish government has handled this issue very badly and in so doing has conceded a propaganda victory.  There was no need to use force to prevent the voting, as the  referendum was unlawful. The national government was undoubtedly in a difficult position, but I think it would have been far better just to let the vote go ahead in full knowledge that it had no constitutional validity. The referendum result (claimed to be about 90% for independence, on a turnout of just over 40%) means nothing even if you actually believe the numbers (which are doubtful). ‘Democracy’ means nothing without the rule of law. 

Nevertheless, it just may be that history will judge Sunday 1st October to be the day that Catalonian independence became inevitable not because of the vote per  se but because of the reaction to it.

Many seem to be either casting this as a battle between democracy and fascism, raising the spectre of Franco, or, even more absurdly, blaming all this on the European Union, ignoring the blame attached to the antics of the separatists. For a counter to the simple-minded propaganda emanating from the extremes of left and right, you might read this piece

Of course I’m just an ignorant foreigner and I encourage those with different opinions to express them through the comments box below.

The EU will of course not intervene in what is essentially an internal problem for Spain, but is right to call for a dialogue to begin quickly before things get any worse, as the Commission has made clear:

Under the Spanish Constitution, yesterday’s vote in Catalonia was not legal.

For the European Commission, as President Juncker has reiterated repeatedly, this is an internal matter for Spain that has to be dealt with in line with the constitutional order of Spain.

We also reiterate the legal position held by this Commission as well as by its predecessors. If a referendum were to be organised in line with the Spanish Constitution it would mean that the territory leaving would find itself outside of the European Union.

Beyond the purely legal aspects of this matter, the Commission believes that these are times for unity and stability, not divisiveness and fragmentation.

We call on all relevant players to now move very swiftly from confrontation to dialogue. Violence can never be an instrument in politics. We trust the leadership of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to manage this difficult process in full respect of the Spanish Constitution and of the fundamental rights of citizens enshrined therein.

It was wrong to proceed with the referendum, but it was also wrong to use heavy-handed tactics to try to stop it going ahead. There is blame on both sides, and both sides need to get together to sort it out. I’m not optimistic that will happen immediately, but the only way to make peace is by talking to your opponents. Let’s hope that common sense prevails, if not immediately then perhaps eventually.

So what do I think about the case for Catalonian independence? Well, I’m not qualified to talk about the specific arguments, so I’ll keep to the generalities. Let me start with a bit of autobiography that might explain why I see things the way I do. I was born in Wallsend (on Tyneside) in the North East of England. My parents were both born just before World War II started, also in the area where I was born. Of my four grandparents, one was born in England, one in Northern Ireland, one in Scotland, and one in Wales. I always smile when I get to write my nationality on a form, because I put “United Kingdom”. Of course being born in England makes me English too, but I find that less defining than “UK” or “British” or even “Geordie”. To be honest, my ancestry means that  I generally find the whole concept of nationality fundamentally silly. I find nationalism silly too, except for those occasions – regrettably frequent nowadays – when nationalism takes on the guise of xenophobia. Then it is truly sinister. Nationalism is a tool by which unscrupulous individuals whip up hatred for political gain, regardless of the human consequences.

It may be apocryphal, but Albert Einstein is reported to have said “nationalism is an infantile disease”. The obvious way to cure it is to grow up and focus on fixing the real problems facing us instead of just waving flags, shouting slogans, and blaming others for our own failings. The reality is that we depend on each other too much for independence to have any meaning, let alone be desirable.

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38 Responses to “The State of Catalonia”

  1. Both your take and the piece you link to are good and balanced, though I disagree with the claim (mentioned in the linked piece) that this is somehow similar to Brexit. First, Catalonian nationalism is one of the few examples of nationalism not paired with racism or jingoism. Second, although they would have to (re)join, most probably want to be a member of the EU. Thus, Catalonian secessionists are more similar to many wanting Scottish independence than Brexiteers.

    Yes, the referendum was illegal and hence has no legal consequences. One should follow the laws. However, one can question whether all laws are just. To me, it seems that self-determination is a core principle of democracy. Many people say that if Catalonia succeeds in seceding, then Scotland, the Basque country, Flanders, etc will follow. What if they do? Is that a big deal? Should it worry us? Isn’t the most important thing what the people in the regions themselves want?

    Before Indian independence, a British official asked Gandhi what he would do about this problem, and that problem, and the other problem, to which Gandhi replied, I don’t know, but they will be our problems.

    • telescoper Says:

      `Self-determination’ is all very well (though I’m not sure what it means exactly in an interconnected world), but what is the optimal size of self-governing unit? I really don’t know the answer to that!

      If you can make a case for Catalonia to be self-determining, then you could also argue for Scotland, Wallonia or Wales, but why not smaller units? London would probably be successful as a self-determining state!

      • The people involved should decide. There is a huge range of sizes for countries. Some of the smaller ones are among the more successful.

      • telescoper Says:

        But what do you mean by `involved’. Should London be able to declare itself independent of the UK based on the wish of its citizens?

      • But the people that are involved are not being consulted. I am one of the 15% of foreign nationals denied a vote – much like the 3 million that were not consulted on Brexit. In this sense, this is not democracy for “the people”, because the decision as to who “the people” are is clearly political.

        There are many causes of the deplorable situation in Catalunya today. The economy post 2008 is one. But also the cynical use of nationalism by politicians to cement their own power.

        Trump, Brexit, Catalunya, Hungary and Poland. The rise of LePen and AfD. The 1930s are calling and people must take a stand against the surge in popularism lest future historians look back on this period with horror.

      • “But what do you mean by `involved’. Should London be able to declare itself independent of the UK based on the wish of its citizens?”

        Why not?

      • “But the people that are involved are not being consulted. I am one of the 15% of foreign nationals denied a vote – much like the 3 million that were not consulted on Brexit. In this sense, this is not democracy for “the people”, because the decision as to who “the people” are is clearly political.”

        Irrelevant. What foreign nationals should be allowed to vote on which issues? How long do they have to have lived there? Can one be a foreign national in more than one country? Allowing foreign nationals the vote opens many cans of worms and creates many more problems than it solves.

      • telescoper Says:

        If people live, work and pay taxes there why should they not vote? Where one is born is just a matter of geography.

      • “If people live, work and pay taxes there why should they not vote? Where one is born is just a matter of geography.”

        How long should I have to live somewhere to vote? A week? A month? An hour? How long can I be away before I am not allowed to anymore? In how many countries can I vote?

        This is just completely impractical and pushing for this will make things worse, since right-wing loonies will use it as evidence that the other side has completely lost it. 😦

        In an ideal world, there would be no police. But it is wrong to think that one would come closer to this ideal world by just getting rid of the police.

        One can always become naturalized if one wants to vote where one lives.

      • telescoper Says:

        If one is required to pay taxes one should have the right to vote to determine how those taxes are spent.

        Many people have dual (or multiple) nationalities anyway.

        Oh, and Irish and Commonwealth citizens were allowed to vote in the brexit referendum, but not Europeans.

      • How would this work in practice? Suppose I pay taxes in 20 countries—can I vote in all? What if I live somewhere and don’t pay taxes? Etc. Wasting time on non-issues like this detracts from real problems. Like with modern art, I think that Anton will agree with me here. 😐

      • telescoper Says:

        You need to be resident for long enough to get on the electoral register, that usually means registering in the tax system. It’s actually very simple.

        It’s a separate question whether tax dodgers should be alllowed to vote.

        It surprises me that you think democracy is a non-issue, but there you go.

      • telescoper Says:

        You have convinced me of one thing, though: I should post more ‘modern art’ on this blog.

      • telescoper Says:

        To show what a non-problem you are raising, note that EU citizens resident in the UK can vote in local council elections so they are on an electoral roll. They are removed from the roll for general elections (and the recent referendum).

      • “You need to be resident for long enough to get on the electoral register, that usually means registering in the tax system. It’s actually very simple.”

        Maybe in the UK; other countries have different procedures.

        “It’s a separate question whether tax dodgers should be alllowed to vote.”

        I wasn’t thinking of tax dodgers, but rather people who live elsewhere without paying taxes there. This is often the case for retired people, for example. (OK, they pay sales tax, but so do tourists. So, do tourists get to vote if they pay sales tax?)

        “It surprises me that you think democracy is a non-issue, but there you go.”

        It depends on the definition. You seem to be arguing that even if a majority of people in a well defined geographical region want to form a separate country they don’t have this right. Where’s the democracy there?

      • telescoper Says:

        I’m arguing no such thing.

      • “Should London be able to declare itself independent of the UK based on the wish of its citizens?”

        Sorry, I thought that this was a rhetorical question. So know I know that you support their right to do so (which, echoing Voltaire, doesn’t mean that you have to personally approve of their wish).

        Note that London has more people than several countries, even several countries together.

      • “To show what a non-problem you are raising, note that EU citizens resident in the UK can vote in local council elections so they are on an electoral roll. They are removed from the roll for general elections (and the recent referendum).”

        Sure; this happens in other places as well. But, by the same argument, why can’t they vote in national elections? Or the referendum? And there is still the problem that the criteria (pay taxes? resident? if so, how long? more than one country OK?) are not well defined, arbitrary, and differ from place to place.

    • telescoper Says:

      I have friends who live in Barcelona and they say that there has been considerable violence and threatening behaviour associated with the separatists against `no’ voters.

      • There has been violence on all sides. Yet each side claims it is perfect and all blame lies with the other anf if you say otherwise you are branded a traitor. In the current highly irrational and emotional environment it is now difficult to see meaningful compromise that could de-escalate the conflict.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    There has to be government, to enforce the laws at least; and people want to be governed by persons who are broadly of the same culture, and who are concerned about the people they govern rather than themselves. There also have to be borders in order to prevent enforcers maintained by differing rulers/governments from clashing.

    Nation states would seem to follow from these criteria. Some will be better governed than others. Hopefully people of all nations will get on well and love their own nations/peoples/cultures without hating others.

    Questions then arise of how porous should borders be, to people and to goods. Regarding goods, today a person is typically a producer of one ‘good’ and a consumer of many types of goods, and to some extent the same is true of nations. Protectionism rears its head. Also, a small nation cannot possibly take in (say) ten times its own population should such numbers want to come. Where and how to set limits on trade and migration is the subject of impassioned debate, but I am trying only to set the parameters of such debate.

  3. What about nationalism that comes about as a defence mechanism? Welsh nationalism only started rearing it’s head in modern times, when the British state decided to e.g. drown a Welsh-speaking community in Cwm Celyn. A minority language and culture subjected to even more pressure.

    Apart from one abstention, all Welsh MPs voted against the scheme. Was it silly for some Welsh people to advocate a separate state to protect themselves from such actions?

    I hasten to add that the aims and intentions of e.g. Welsh nationalism, is quite different to that of the Soviet Union, but some see them as the same.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      The national parliament has voted to drown various villages for reservoirs, some in Wales providing water for Wales, some in England providing water for England, and this one in Wales providing water for England.

      http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/what-lies-beneath-britains-eerie-7437628

      I think that the nationalist case is far stronger when based on language and culture than water.

      • That’s exactly what has happened – it’s only reared its head because the language and associated culture is threatened. Many see nationalism as a vehicle for its protection.

        The state broadcaster (BBC) decided this was a suitable question for debate http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-40876802 When the state broadcaster treats you in this way, it’s easy to see why you wouldn’t want to be a part of it.

        Often people only recognise nationalism as this otherness to the one that they, obliviously, are a part of.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    Catalonia will declare independence from Spain in a matter of days, the leader of the autonomous region has told the BBC.In his first interview since Sunday’s referendum, Carles Puigdemont said his government would “act at the end of this week or the beginning of next”.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-41493014

    Madrid wouldn’t stand for that. There could well be another Spanish civil war, and a war in Western Europe for the first time in decades. How quickly this has blown up!

    • telescoper Says:

      If the Catalan government declares independence (even if there’s a vote in its parliament), Madrid will step in and take over. That will almost certainly lead to more, and worse, violence.

      • The sad thing is that that is something which many in Catalonia would like to happen, hoping that images of violence will increase sympathy for their cause. While that might happen, it will make independence more difficult than before.

        I have no problem with well defined processes leading to independence. But for many reasons it can’t be allowed that due process is done away with, especially if only a small minority actually want it. (In general, in a vote the deciding question is more yes than no votes, regardless of the number who vote, though some referenda specify a quorum. That doesn’t apply here, though, since the referendum itself is illegal.)

        Months ago, we booked a week of holiday in Catalonia for next week. 😦 We usually go on summer holiday in Croatia, but the summer school holidays were too early this year (too hot in Croatia, nice weather here, more expensive). Next year they are even earlier, but will go in the first week when it might not be too hot. I’m looking forward to travelling to a place with a more stable political situation, like former Yugoslavia. 😐

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Yes, Peter, I agree. for the sake of clarity, I am not advocating for it but expressing concern.

  5. Bryn Jones Says:

    I’ve been trying to avoid commenting on this article for several days, but the urge has proved too strong.

    I agree strongly that the response of the Spanish government to the unofficial referendum in Catalunya was inappropriate and will increase support for independence. That response was stupid. The unofficial referendum only stoked up tensions and polarised society, which was wrong, and that polarisation may have been deliberate.

    It is not for me to judge whether independence for Catalunya would be a good thing: that is something for Catalans. There are probably advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages would be that it would give greater protection to a culture and language from absorption into the majority culture of the existing larger state. One disadvantage is the lessening of the cooperation across the territories that make up today’s Spanish state.

    One of the strengths of the European Union is that it lessens the importance of member states, and therefore makes it easier for minority nationalities to exist within those member states.

    Where I disagree with Peter is over his view of nationalism. Peter’s attitude perhaps tends a little towards the standard English view about nationalism: that, unlike other people, the English don’t do nationalism; the English only do patriotism.

    Every time we do something involving cultures, languages or peoples, even our own, we are engaging in a form of nationalism, consciously or unconsciously.

    Nationalism may be good, it may be bad, or it may be very bad. But we cannot put nationalism in a box and point to it from outside: it is everywhere, including in ourselves. We need to understand where issues of cultures, identity, geography and language exist. We need to understand our own reactions to these, and our own assumptions. We must strive to respect all cultures, and uphold cultural diversity across the world. We must identify weaknesses or failings in cultures and criticise them impartially, particularly in our own. We must recognise that the cultural differences between peoples are less than our common humanity, and we must celebrate the internationalist ideal.

    Self determination for minority cultures is generally a good thing, but the fragmentation of larger states can cause instability. Competing claims for the same territory can cause conflict. Isolationism is always bad. Self determination should always be pursued by constitutional methods where a democratic route is possible.

    And what’s more, patriotism is boring.

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    Two prominent separatists, Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart, have been jailed. Is there an independence movement in Tyneside too?

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