14 December 2018
Given its limited executive power, the Catalan administration does not have too many bargaining chips at its disposal to advance its bid for statehood. Photo: Reuters
Given its limited executive power, the Catalan administration does not have too many bargaining chips at its disposal to advance its bid for statehood. Photo: Reuters

How the Catalans can advance their independence bid

Shortly before Madrid’s official announcement invoking special constitutional powers to impose direct rule on Catalonia, the Catalan legislature unilaterally declared independence from Spain.

The sudden secession of Catalonia has significantly narrowed the room for maneuver on both sides.

Catalonia’s declaration of independence can hardly go beyond rhetoric, since under the existing Spanish constitution, autonomous regions are not allowed to break away from the rest of the country unilaterally.

Besides, given its limited executive power, the Catalan administration indeed does not have too many bargaining chips at its disposal to advance its bid for statehood.

Theoretically, there are several courses of action the Catalans can take in order to achieve true independence. However, none of these options sounds feasible to me.

The first option is that Catalonia could mobilize and fight a war of independence against Spain. The problem is, the Catalans don’t have their own military, and even their local police force has already been taken over by Madrid.

Moreover, given the haunting memories of the brutal Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939, the Spanish public is highly unlikely to approve of any form of secession movement by force.

The second option is that Catalonia could consider following in the footsteps of the Basque autonomous region and resorting to terrorist tactics to seek its full independence.

However, the fact that the Basques have already put down their weapons a long time ago in exchange for greater autonomy indicates that terrorist approach to seeking independence is a blind alley.

Third, Catalonia could draw insights from the independence movements of Slovenia and Kosovo, both of which succeeded in gaining their independence with the endorsement of the European Union.

However, in reality, Catalonia can hardly duplicate the success stories of Slovenia and Kosovo. It is because the current state of affairs in Catalonia just can’t be compared with what happened in Slovenia and Kosovo in the 1990s.

Let’s not forget an important fact that the Slovenian secessionist movement actually took place against the backdrop of the sudden disintegration of the former Yugoslavia in the post-Cold War era.

As far as Kosovo is concerned, its bid for independence was only taken seriously by the West after the region had been devastated by the massive ethnic cleansing campaign mounted by the Bosnian Serbs, thereby enabling the international community to invoke the principle of “responsibility to protect” and bypass Belgrade to grant Kosovo statehood.

However, since Spain currently remains a fully functional, stable and unified sovereign state, nor is there any humanitarian crisis going on in Catalonia, there is simply no justification for any foreign intervention in the dispute between Madrid and Barcelona.

Lastly, the Catalans could resort to a civil disobedience movement like the Indians did during the 1940s. However, once again, the problem is, immigrants from other parts of Spain have already constituted a substantial portion of the Catalan population, and they are fiercely opposed to Barcelona’s independence bid, which explains why only half of the people in Catalonia are in favor of secession.

Worse still, even for native Catalans who are pro-independence, most of them are reluctant to sacrifice their core interests in support of their nationalist cause. They might be willing to take some symbolic actions such as withholding tax payments to the central government in Madrid or withdrawing some of their money from Spanish banks, but that’s it.

As such, in my opinion, the only feasible option left on the table for Catalan separatists right now is perhaps for the relatively wealthy administration in Barcelona to align itself with other political parties in Madrid by providing them with financial support and then, when the time is ripe, force the issue on the national level and demand a binding independence referendum of the Spanish government by mobilizing the support from these new allies.

This idea might sound a bit far-fetched for now, as Madrid has already drawn the line at allowing any form of independence referendum in Catalonia, not to mention that it would likely be a highly complicated and long drawn-out process that would entail a lot of behind-the-scenes political maneuvers and intense arm-twisting.

However, this approach is at least in accordance with Spain’s constitutional framework. Besides, once the political atmosphere in Spain has changed, for instance, in the wake of some kind of national crisis, or after a new and less nationalist political party has been voted into office some time in the future, then this method might in the end prove a viable option.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct. 31

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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