Multinational states are fragile entities. In Europe, we have witnessed the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia as well as the peaceful break-up of Czechoslovakia. Separatist movements in Belgium, Italy and France dream of secession. Somehow the rickety old British state continues to hold together; it is probably the most successfully multinational state in modern history.
Like the United Kingdom, Spain is a kingdom with distinct peoples, languages and regional and national identities. It is also deeply divided, with no issue more contentious than the status of the autonomous region of Catalonia, home to 7.5 million of Spain’s 46 million people.
During the Spanish Civil War and under the cruel military dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, Catalans were culturally oppressed, and for some that feeling of hurt has never gone away. There is also resentment that this wealthy and industrialised region in north-eastern Spain, which contributes a fifth of the country’s €1.2trn GDP, in effect subsidises poorer regions, especially the hot south. Secession would solve these problems, Catalan nationalists insist.
We support self-determination for all national groupings but, at the same time, one has to work within the legal parameters of a nation state. The Scottish independence referendum in September 2014 was a model of its kind, negotiated and agreed by the devolved parliament in Edinburgh and the Conservative-led government in Westminster. The long campaign led to a democratic awakening in Scotland, with a record 85 per cent turnout in the final poll, and the emergence of a politically engaged and informed population. Whatever the end result, it was a triumph of legal process and democracy.
That was not the case in Spain on 1 October. The country’s constitutional court banned the referendum in September and the government in Madrid had a duty to uphold the law. But the response of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his ruling People’s Party to the Catalans’ defiance was unnecessarily severe and counterproductive, exacerbating the crisis.
Spanish police fired rubber bullets at voters and beat innocent demonstrators with batons. Catalan officials say nearly 900 people were injured as riot police tried to prevent the poll going ahead in Barcelona and other cities in the region.
The response in European capitals and from the EU has been muted. On Monday, the European Commission issued a short statement emphasising that the vote was illegal and an internal matter for Spain to deal with. The reason for that approach is clear: if Catalonia breaks away, it will embolden the Corsicans in France, the Lombards in Italy and the Flemish in Belgium.
Our view is that if there is a democratic majority for independence in Catalonia, its people should have their independence. All the same, the Catalan devolved government has to work in concert with the national government, and any decision on self-determination must be made in accordance with the law.
The provocative actions of the separatists may give the impression that the Catalans are trying to escape the tyrannical rule of the Spanish state. This is not the case in a region where, for four decades, the people have enjoyed extensive individual freedoms and self-government, enshrined in the national constitution. Under local and international law, Catalonia’s case for self-determination appears weak.
Nor are its people united on the issue. Catalan authorities claim that nearly 90 per cent of the 2.2 million people who managed to cast their ballots on Sunday chose independence. But there are 5.3 million registered voters in the region, and many of those who stayed away did so because they viewed the poll as illegal and oppose secession.
There is still no evidence that the majority of Catalans favour independence. However, if the Spanish government continues with its heavy-handed approach instead of listening to the grievances of Catalonia, they may well do before too long.