Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Catalonia: Breaking Countries and Making Nations

We may soon bear witness to the birth of a new country. Spain has a fractured and difficult modern history, which includes violent separatist movements. Recently the Catalan region held a referendum on the question of its independence. Like make such referenda the history behind this is long and not easy to summarize, but where this referendum differs from Scotland, Quebec, etc. is that it succeeded.

Catalan's regional President Carles Puigdemont is expected to declare independence for his region soon. Puigdemont is in a difficult position as he moves forward. Hardliners within his governing coalition will expect a unilateral declaration, but this will impact any future negotiations. Another important difference was that the referendum vote was held without the consent of the Spanish government. Spanish police forces attempted to prevent voting on October 1st which resulted in violence.

These questions are inevitably difficult as they dive into questions of loyalty and identity. Despite the animosity between Catalans and the central government, is it still possible to be proud to be Spanish and Catalan at the same time, or to reconcile these differences? Add into the fact that Spain has spent the last ten years struggling with its economy and debt and the risk of disintegration only grows. Especially in the case of Spain it is important to note that there are other regions agitating for greater autonomy or independence. Principally the Basque come to mind.

Since Spain has not recognized the referendum it has threatened to suspend Catalonia's self-government it makes further moves towards independence. While I don't think there is enough suggestion that we are at this stage, there is a very real risk of civil violence if not civil war in Spain. The legitimacy of the vote is in question, not only because of suppression by the central government, but also because only 43% of the electorate turned out to vote. The Catalan government claims that 90% of voters supported independence.

I suppose in the coming weeks and months the only certainty is uncertainty. It will be very difficult to close this particular Pandora's box and it is just as likely that accepting this dubious referendum will cause just as many problems as accepting it. Spain is not unique in this regard. Many countries have defined, distinct regions, cultures, or nations within their boundaries. Divorcing these areas and bodies from the central state is as complicated as it is messy. Catalonia may provide an object lesson on the difficulties of this process, but the lesson may be costly for Europe as a whole at a time when it can scarcely afford it.

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