Catalonia: The Search for Independence

On Sunday October 1, 2017, Catalonia voted for independence from Spain.[1] Catalonia, the northeastern region of Spain that encompasses Barcelona, held a referendum and voted to become an independent state. Before the referendum took place, the Spanish courts and governments declared the holding of the referendum and the actual referendum as violations of the Spanish Constitution.[2] When the Catalans proceeded to hold the referendum against the demands of the Spanish government and leader, Mariano Rajoy, the central question shifted from the issue of Catalan independence to a more basic question of whether Catalans have the right to decide on statehood.

 

Over the past few decades, Europe has seen a lot of its states declare independence, including Crimea, Scotland, and Kosovo.[3] Similarly, the Catalans have several reasons as to why they believe they should have their own, independent state. First, Catalonia has its own distinct language, history, and culture from the rest of Spain. Catalonia was independent until it was captured by Philip V of Spain in 1714.[4] Since then, Catalonia has retained much of its own distinct language and culture, separate from the rest of Spain. This has caused much tension between Catalonia and the rest of Spain, especially during the Franco dictatorship, where the Spanish government tried to wipe out all of the Catalan culture and history.[5] Second, Catalonia almost was granted autonomy by the Spanish courts, but the statute was struck down as unconstitutional in 2010.[6] Third, the Spanish prime minister rejected a plea from Catalonia to reduce Catalonia’s contribution to the Spanish tax system that transfers money from wealthier areas to poorer areas of Spain.[7] Catalonia is the biggest contributor to the Spanish economy, and believes that it is being treated unfairly by having to contribute so much money to the rest of the Spanish economy.[8] Finally, Catalans believe that Spain is denying them the right to vote on their future.[9]

 

Although Catalans have compelling points for independence, Spain also has compelling points against Catalan independence. First, Catalonia is the biggest contributor to the Spanish economy.  If Catalonia were to secede, it could have destabilizing effects on both economies, and both states could face disastrous economic futures.[10] Second, Spain believes that Catalonia is undermining the democracy of Spain by flouting the rules and violating the Constitution.[11] If Spain did not object to this type of behavior, it could set a dangerous precedent for other regions in Spain. Third, Spain does not believe that Catalonia will be allowed back into the European Union (EU), which would have even more destabilizing effects on the country, and the EU as a whole.[12] Finally, Spain does not believe that Catalonia should be granted the opportunity to create its own country without a solid plan.[13]

 

The Spanish government and Spanish court have both determined that Catalan’s vote for independence violates Spain’s Constitution.[14] The EU is siding with Spain in this declaration of independence. Although the EU is a democratic body, it is a democratic body made up of sovereign states, and is therefore wary of encouraging separatist bodies that threaten the sovereignty of its member states.[15] If Catalonia succeeds in gaining independence, it would like to rejoin the EU as its own independent nation, something the EU has had no opinion about.[16] Catalonia has looked to the European Commission to intervene in this situation, but the EU has stated that Catalonia is a problem for Spain, not for the European Commission to deal with.[17] The EU is standing with its long held tradition of discouraging separatism, especially after the recent cases in Great Britain, Kosovo, and Crimea.[18] Because of he bias that the EU has shown towards Spain, the Catalans no longer view the EU as a neutral mediator in this situation, and have requested that the Venice Commission of International Lawyers, a part of the Council of Europe, to step in and handle the situation.[19] As of now, there is no word as to whether this will happen.

 

Catalans claim that Spain should look to other EU member states that have had similar separatist issues in the past, like Belgium.[20] When the Flanders population of Belgium threatened to declare independence, Belgium used a process of ongoing constitutional reform to give the Flanders population much more autonomy.[21] However, as of now, the Spanish courts and government are not deviating from their view that the declaration of independence is unconstitutional. [22] This move towards Catalan independence also causes worry that other regions of Spain, such as the Basque region, might move towards independence as well. The Basque region already has won control over its own tax receipts, something that the Catalans are demanding, so a vote for independence might not be far off.[23]

 

One of the questions that is up in the air at this point is whether the EU could recognize Catalonia as an independent state, and allow it to become an independent member of the EU. According to the Prodi Doctrine, a breakaway state would have to leave the EU and could then only be let back into the EU if the state had gained independence in accordance with the constitutional law in the member state that it left.[24] Further, any new member state must enter the EU with the unanimous agreement of all of the other member states.[25] In the case of Catalonia, clearly Spain would object to allowing Catalonia back into the EU, assuming that Catalonia gained independence constitutionally in the first place. But Spain would hardly be the only member state that will veto allowing Catalonia into the EU. Most member states are against separatism and the fragmentation of Europe, and allowing Catalonia back in could set a dangerous precedent.[26] Taking Kosovo as an example, today five of the 28 member states still do not recognize Kosovo as an independent state.[27] It would seem that the EU would have to respect the decisions of the Spanish government and constitutional courts and not recognize Catalonia as an independent member state.

 

The referendum was approved by over 90% of the 2.3 million Catalans who voted.[28] Although Catalonia is still pushing for independence, there has already been instability within the region. Before the vote occurred, the Spanish government deployed approximately 4,000 police officers to attempt to stop people from voting.[29] Hundreds of people were injured as the police used rubber bullets and truncheons to stops people from voting and to seize the ballot boxes.[30] Police also attempted to disable the Internet to interfere with the vote.[31] The Catalan referendum has been called the gravest threat to Spain’s democracy since Franco’s dictatorship in the 1970s.[32] Stay tuned to see what happens next.

 

About the author: Olivia Levine is a 2L at Penn State law.


 

[1] Minder, Raphael. “Catalonia Leaders Seek to Make Independence Referendum Binding.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Oct. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/10/02/world/europe/catalonia-spain-independence-referendum.html

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Minder, Raphael. “Catalonia Independence Bid Pushes Spain Toward Crisis.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Sept. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/09/08/world/europe/spain-catalonia-independence.html.

[5] Osborne, Samuel. “Catalonia: Spanish Government Demands Catalan Leader Clarify Whether Independence Has Been Declared.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 11 Oct. 2017, www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/catalonia-independence-spain-prime-minister-clarify-catalan-leader-mariano-rajoy-carles-puigdemont-a7994326.html.

[6] Minder, Raphael and Ellen Barry. “Catalonia’s Independence Vote Descends Into Chaos and Clashes.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 Oct. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/10/01/world/europe/catalonia-independence-referendum.html.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Erlanger, Steven. “For E.U., Catalonia Pits Democratic Rights Against Sovereignty.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Oct. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/10/02/world/europe/catalonia-independence-referendum-eu.html

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Rodríguez, Blanca, and Sonya Dowsett. “Spain Gives Catalan Leader 8 Days to Drop Independence.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 12 Oct. 2017, www.reuters.com/article/us-spain-politics-catalonia/spain-gives-catalan-leader-8-days-to-drop-independence-idUSKBN1CG12O

[23] Erlanger, Steven. “For E.U., Catalonia Pits Democratic Rights Against Sovereignty.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Oct. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/10/02/world/europe/catalonia-independence-referendum-eu.html

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Osborne, Samuel. “Catalonia: Spanish Government Demands Catalan Leader Clarify Whether Independence Has Been Declared.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 11 Oct. 2017, www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/catalonia-independence-spain-prime-minister-clarify-catalan-leader-mariano-rajoy-carles-puigdemont-a7994326.html.

[29] Ellyatt, Holly. “Constitutional Crisis Looms in Spain as Catalonia Looks to Vote on Independence.” CNBC, CNBC, 28 Sept. 2017, www.cnbc.com/2017/09/28/constitutional-crisis-looms-in-spain-as-catalonia-looks-to-vote-on-independence.html

[30] Minder, Raphael and Ellen Barry. “Catalonia’s Independence Vote Descends Into Chaos and Clashes.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 Oct. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/10/01/world/europe/catalonia-independence-referendum.html.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.