Catalan (and Scottish) Independence Referendum — why not?

Why not have a referendum on independence?

In the tortuous debate on independence for Catalonia (and Scotland) it’s often accepted that a referendum offers a fair and reasonable resolution to complex, difficult problem. It is after all democratic and who can argue with that? In Catalonia opinion polls regularly show a large majority in favour of holding one even if actual independence has never polled a consistent majority.

It is clear that there is a clear democratic justification for asking voters to decide such an important question. There have been examples of such consultations successfully taking place and put simply, in a democracy, why not ask the people?

Unfortunately for separatists the matter is far more complex that this implies. A vote may in fact make the situation far worse and solve nothing. That is not to say a vote should never take place but that one must be very carefully considered, its cons as well as its pros.

Taking a step back first of all, given the risks, it is difficult to appreciate the rational case for the permanent, massive, wrenching change that independence would bring. And despite what some pro-independence-minded commentators claim, there is, in reality, very little legitimacy for secession conferred by international laws, practices, conventions and norms. Other than some flowery language about human rights, there is simply no legal right to secession unless it is part of decolonisation. ‘Self-determination’ has been (probably deliberately) misunderstood and misrepresented by secessionists because in international law it refers mainly to internal self-determination — i.e. what Catalonia and Scotland both currently have. It implies little right for a region to become an independent state.

Catalonia and Scotland are not being ravaged by a foreign empire, there is no occupying army. They have no ‘just cause’ for secession in the academic parlance. Catalonia does pay more to fund Spain’s poorer regions — as do all rich regions in any country — and perhaps too much (the opposite is true for Scotland despite its oil). But both regions already enjoy significant democratic autonomy, they run large parts of their own regions. And despite problems with corruption there is simply no doubt Spain qualifies as a ‘liberal democracy’.

However let’s put aside for one minute the lack of any legal argument and the hotly debated positive case for independence.

Are we ready for a Catalan referendum (or a second one in Scotland)?

Successful referendums rely on the choice and the consequences of that choice being clear. This is how Ireland successfully handled its abortion and gay marriage changes. There, votes followed years of discussion, with special citizens’ assemblies to debate the various issues accompanied by sensible political leadership and balanced reporting (mainly). Unfortunately this is not how the UK handled the Brexit vote — which in comparison to Catalan secession is a relatively straight-forward divorce. The UK remains divisively split with Scotland and Northern Ireland deeply unhappy with the changes.

Very little in terms of a sensible debate exploring the possibilities and consequences has happened in Catalonia. In 2012–2014 there was a concerted effort by a group of academics set up by the local government to explore a future independent state but their recommendations were never openly debated and range from the hopeful to the fanciful. The Scottish debate received significant praise here in Catalonia, but in reality there were no realistic answers to the key questions of currency control and monetary policy, membership of international institutions, border trade, deficit-funding and basic economic policy.

One clear prerequisite then is that there must first be an agreement with the parent state (and for Catalonia, the EU) on how independence would play out. Scotland has not achieved this and Catalonia is very far from such a reality. In Catalonia the debate has thus far fed the worst kind of angry identity politics. This is simply not any kind of basis for making a fundamental generation-enduring decision. The population has not been properly informed and it is unlikely this would change anytime soon.

The fact is that such civil debate is extremely hard even in the most stable and mature of democracies. This is because such a change cuts to the core of individual identity. Deeply held beliefs are being tested and so logic may not feature. There is no simple answer to this but to think that a referendum is that answer is a dangerous folly. A referendum should come after these problems have been solved never as a means of solving them.

Likely outcomes are deeply troubling scenarios

Opinion polls in the last few years have been fairly consistent in both regions. A close result — either way — appears most likely. Nicola Sturgeon argued in 2014 after losing her vote, that to vote again Scottish independence should poll well over 60% for several years before a new vote be considered. She was right and in neither region is this anywhere being close to reality. She said this because she knew that a second vote lacked legitimacy and a very close result risked societal conflict.

Given a close result, is the losing side simply going to accept this massive once-in-a-generation decision and go home quietly to accept the new reality? Some sensible (alongside some very angry) arguments will be made that if you voted once why not vote again, perhaps after a cooling-off period? After all it’s such an important decision. The Scottish example demonstrates this, yes Brexit is a big deal but if it wasn’t Brexit then the secessionists would have found another reason (perhaps 5–10 more years of Tory government with next to no representation in Scotland).

Even assuming a peaceful process it’s impossible to believe there will not be an economic impact. Confidence will be affected as businesses will not be able to plan, not knowing the result.

Who votes, where and how often?

If we accept the principle of a people voting to secede from a parent state, there is simply no logical reason why this principle cannot be extended to more sub-region level referendums leading to potential fragmentation. It has only half-jokingly been suggested that if Catalonia becomes independent, then a new state called ‘Tabarnia’ could secede from it, (the provinces of Taragona and Barcelona typically have fewer independence supporters). So what if some communities vote (massively) against the overall majority which chooses change? Is it democratic to force them to change with the majority? If you’ve just used arguments about democracy you are on shaky ground denying this.

Claims that Catalonia is ‘whole’ are weak, since many Catalans live outside today’s regional boundaries, and many non-Catalans within it, And there is huge blurring and mixing of communities near borders. Carlos Puigdemont accepted as much when he admitted the Vall de Aran (a small pro-unity region within Catalonia) could vote to secede from a hypothetical Catalonia. Of course he would never allow Barcelona to secede as this would make the fledging state unviable yet the logic, taken to its conclusion, is undeniable.

Then there is the question of who gets to vote, how are ‘Catalans’ to be defined, or is it everyone simply present in Catalonia, including recent arrivals from the rest of Spain? Who has a legitimate say? Finally the result would deeply impact Spain, why therefore would Spanish voters have no say?

Can a vote be truly conclusive?

Up until ten years ago in Catalonia secession was a fringe debate polling under 20%. The current strength of feeling has been strongly linked with the economic crisis in Spain. Given that context is this the right time to be making a one-off life-changing decision? It would be a monumental, once-in-a-generation decision. What if people change their minds after 1 day, 1 year or 5 years? This is not like a general election where in 4 or 5 years (or sooner) citizens can change their minds.

There would also be concerns around manipulation, social media has proven to be uniquely vulnerable to this. Can such a crucial single-issue vote, if close, be considered definitive? Will people actually answer the question, what if there was significant anger towards the (current) Madrid government that found expression in (permanent) independence?

But surely it’s about democracy?

It is true that a lot of these arguments can be countered by arguing that surely if enough democratic legitimacy exists, how can it be avoided? This is true and this exposes just how imperfect democracy is. There is in reality no black and white answer here. Democracy involves lots of fudges, most things are a shade of grey. But a wrenching massive change that secession implies cannot be treated haphazardly.

So what next then?

As Miquel Iceta stated in 2017, if a large majority of Catalans wanted independence then a way needs to be found. This is clear, indeed Canada’s very sensible (if necessarily somewhat fudged) ‘Clarity Act’ on Quebec — following the near car-crash of Quebec unilateral independence — commendably demands a requirement, among others, that a ‘clear majority’ decide, i.e. not simply 50% plus one vote. This should ideally hit something like 2/3 of voters as this provides significant legitimacy for big change. It also demands that the parent state and other regions have a clear role.

Separatists therefore should focus on peaceful, sensible, logical debate to get support far above 50%. They have to answer the open questions of how independence could work and why it would benefit the region while protecting those who disagree. If this is not feasible they should gracefully accept that they will have to wait and make the best of the existing arrangements.

All politicians must reject illegal and unconstitutional actions. International support let alone recognition will never occur under such conditions and it is naïve to believe there is a massive international constituency waiting welcome a free Catalonia. In reality the EU and the rest of the world cares far more about stability.

However parent state central authorities cannot consider this as a blank slate to ignore separatists. They must act magnanimously and fairly by considering how to actually attract those sympathetic to independence. There needs to be a positive case for continuity. And they need to cease any arbitrary use of the judicial system of which Madrid is accused. If something approaching 2/3 of voters wanted secession, and this was demonstrated over some time, parent state politicians have to accept that would mean independence and that therefore they should plan for how that plays out. How could a divorce be amicable, as it was with Czechoslovakia? This means engagement on fair terms with the secessionists.

Perhaps in building a more positive case to remain, politicians in Madrid must accept that there is deep frustration with current arrangements. Catalonia is clearly not the same as Aragon or Andalucía or even Valencia and a new financial settlement, and even a new constitutional model may have to be explored.

How likely are these outcomes? In Catalonia watching the quality of debate as a concerned observer, one has to conclude, ‘not very’. Yet the alternative is surely festering dissatisfaction which could escalate violently and the demographics appear to favour the secessionists.

A final point. Secessionism may well be linked to the ills that are infecting most western democracies and that found expression with Trump, Brexit, AfD, Vox… These are economic and cultural. If so, the answer seems clear, if hard to achieve: economic growth that benefits the great majority and an education system fit for this century.

Fintech investor/director. Brit in Barcelona. LSE IDEAS MSc graduate in International Relations.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store