Alberto Mingardi  

The Catalonian Mess

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Last Sunday, the Catalonians organised a referendum to secede from Spain, which was illegal under the Spanish Constitution and thus opposed by the Spanish government. Such an opposition was not merely a statement of principles, and the police's interventions in Barcelona produced riots and injuries.

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As some readers may remember, I consider in general terms the Catalonian secession to be a positive development, for Catalonia and Europe, too. This is consistent with a stream of classical liberalism, which tends to view secession positively.

In his 1927 splendid little book Liberalism, Ludwig von Mises made the point that:

The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars.

Other classical liberals tend to be more suspicious of secession, because they think that a smaller and more homogeneous state will make it easier for local majorities to crush with the sheer force of numbers local minorities. It is indeed true that a smaller state is not necessarily a smaller government, but if states were smaller one could expect the cost of "voting with their feet" to be lower too for people who don't like particular political arrangements. That is, leaving Barcelona for Madrid is certainly less demanding, both financially and culturally, than leaving Barcelona for Kuala Lumpur.

On the other hand, I think "government by the consent of the governed" is rather difficult to define: nobody has ever "consented" to tremendously arcane regulations like Dodd-Frank, and even matters far dearer to the general public like the scope and aim of military interventions are seldom put to the test of the general electorate.

At the same time, it is easy to recognise "government without the consent of the governed" when someone sees it. People who want to secede and part ways with their national government are not holding referendums on complex issues nobody really knows much about. They are seeking to change nationality on their passport, they'd like to leave a club to form another (see also this article by Jennifer Maffessanti at FEE).

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy argued that no referendum took place in Catalonia. Indeed, the overbearing presence of governmental police and paramilitary forces did probably lower the turn out, which was *only* 42%, and in very difficult circumstances. The referendum was won by the secessionists with an overwhelming 90%.

In these circumstances, Rajoy has hardly proved to the international community that no referendum took place. He did perhaps exactly the opposite, gaining for himself a reputation of brutality.

Nafees Hamid and Clara Pretus argue that

The actions of the Spanish government reveal a deep misunderstanding about the psychology of the independence movement. Authorities are attempting to wear down the movement by denying a vote. Our findings suggested that Madrid's current approach may well backfire: The government's muscular response to Catalans' desire for self-determination could increase the number of independentists and heighten their passion, which, in the long run, may further erode the stability and reputation of Spain's central government. Allowing a vote to proceed, meanwhile, could actually strengthen Madrid.

They therefore stress that "Madrid's strategy of denying a referendum will not cool the independence movement. Its obstinance will backfire, inflaming the passions of some Catalans and further maligning the undemocratic image of the central government in the eyes of other Spaniards". This seems rather common-sensical to me.

The Achilles' heel of the Catalonian referendum, to me, was the fact that it was supposed (by the Catalonians) to be binding in case it won a simple majority of the votes and regardless of the turn-out. There are good reasons to have super-majorities when changes of this magnitude are envisaged. Were European governments, the European Union, or the international community not so silent as they have been on the issue of Catalonian secession so far, they might have tried to convince Barcelona to hold a referendum with more sensible rules - a move which would have entailed an analogous move to convince Madrid to allow the referendum.

I see that the Spanish Constitution does not allow for such a referendum, but "legal" secessions are rather rare. Perhaps naively, I think European institutions would have something to gain, in promoting the right of self-determination of the people living within their territory. It is true that there is no such right in European treaties. But trying to make secession a more procedurally ordered process may have benefits for everyone. Minorities would feel better safeguarded and secessionist would feel incentivised to appeal to them, instead of crashing them with numbers' superiority.

So far European authorities have chosen to be silent, which means they substantially backed Madrid. If Hamid and Pretus are right, this is hardly a good bet.


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CATEGORIES: Eurozone crisis




COMMENTS (7 to date)
Shane L writes:

I wonder if the rise of the welfare state has shifted the direction of secessions. In the past, perhaps seceding regions were more likely to be poorer than the main part of a country, like agricultural 1920s Ireland leaving industrial, wealthy UK, or most of the world's 20th century colonies separating from their wealthy imperial occupiers. The nationalists in the seceding region may explain their regional poverty as a consequence of misrule by the wealthy elite in their distant capital.

Today, though, taxes and redistribution mean that wealthy regions subsidise poor regions. Hence wealthy Catalonia, North Italy and Flanders are inclined to sever their ties to the poor they currently subsidise.

bill writes:

General comment: I think the balance of the political unit should have some say and that the seceding entity should not secede on some small margin. Say 90% want to secede, then that should be OK no matter what the central gov't wants. 75% want to secede should require a majority approval from the central region. Below 67%, then stay and have another referendum in 5 years.

Re Catalan, it appears that the central gov't shot itself in the foot. Pro-secession voters were probably more likely to fight to get to the ballot and that 92% pro-secession result is tough to ignore.

Thaomas writes:

I do not think reducing the fiscal transfer from Barcelona to Madrid has much to do with the motives of those seeking independence.

Fabrizio Ghisellin writes:

Secessionism is right? A few questions:
1) WHO defines what are the minimum requirements to define "a people"? The inhabitants of Rome feel that under many regards they are different from the rest of Italy.Would they be entitled to secede?
2) WHO certifies the numbers and the turnaround?Not the central state, of course, as the voting is illegal.But then the promoters of the voting would ALSO be the only source for data on participation and percentages?

Vasilis Kostelidis writes:

So, let's assume that Catalonia achieves independence and now is a country.

What will happen if a South Catalonia, decides that they too want to be their own country? Will the new formed Catalonian government allow them the right to vote for independence?

If they allow them this, then respect!
But I don't seriously believe they will.

However I would really really love to see that happening:
- South Catalonia declares a referendum, they want to be a country.
- Catalonian government claims that this is absurd. They claim the referendum is illegal.
- South Catalonia disregards Catalonia and is having the referendum nevertheless, heroically claiming that they also have the right to independence !
- After a while, South Catalonia manages independence.

- Then Terra Alta, a South Catalonian district declares their desire to become a country.

What would South Catalonia's reaction be?

This is fun!

Juan Carlos de Cardenas writes:

In theory (von Misses, Mingardi et all) all is good but when you look closely this is how it looks:
A minority, mostly rural, of xenophobic Catalans which think of themselves better than the "charnegos" as they call immigrants from the rest of Spain and which have over the years developed a mythical history of a country that have never existed as such into which they include other regions like Valencia and the Baleares that as Catalonia speak a variant of old Provencal without asking them (the so called Paisos Catalans). These nationalists have already all but forbid the Spanish language in education and even in commercial signage disregarding the wishes on the individuals, it is just like any other nationalism that classical liberals justly despise. Joining them as fellow travelers are all kind of leftists radicals with a deep hatred of market and private property which will be happy if the nationalists help them bring down the bourgeois state, in Catalonia and the larger Spain.
In every fair and democratic elections held periodically in Catalonia the nationalists have always fallen short of a simple majority of votes, even shorter if you consider the entire universe of people eligible to vote, even as they (because of gerrymander) control the government with ample and proved corruption as well as the state media and the government schools that act as nationalist indoctrination madrassas.
This folks is the reality, not the theory. No liberal regime has ever come out of a nationalist fever swamp. Nationalism may have a point if opposing and imperialist and autocratic power. Spain after the 1978 constitution is not that but a democratic and open society which does not interfere with local languages or cultures and grants ample local autonomy, higher than that of most federal states. There is no real beef here just xenophobia and totalitarian ideologies.
By the way, I am American, born in Cuba just in case anybody thinks I am a Spaniard imperialist.

William writes:

As one living in the US, the question of succession is central to our history. Would the author support Southern states of 1860 succeeding from the Union?

You seem to support a Catalonian Confederacy. Was Lincoln wrong to preserve the Union our Union?

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