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A Few Thoughts on the Catalan Independence Referendum

Marian L. Tupy

Having observed the buildup to and consequences of the legal and
peaceful dissolution of my native land of Czechoslovakia in 1993
into two separate countries, I have developed an open mind about
separatist arguments. Since their separation, tensions between
Czechs and Slovaks have disappeared and the two are, once again,
the very best of friends. The Czechs no longer subsidize their
poorer cousins in the east, while Slovaks no longer blame their
problems on their “big brother” in the west. Everyone has won.

As such, I have kept an open mind about Scottish independence.
Many Scots resented their bigger neighbor to the south and wished
to regain the statehood they lost with the creation of Great
Britain in 1707. Scots, ultimately, balked at going it alone – a
decision partly influenced by the large financial subsidies that
Caledonia receives from England. The Brits handled the question of
the referendum in a typically cool-headed fashion. Unencumbered by
a “written Constitution,” a simple agreement between David Cameron,
the British Prime Minister and Alex Salmond, the Scottish First
Minister, paved the way for a vote north of the Hadrian’s Wall,
with 55 percent of the Scots opting for the status quo.

Madrid’s approach, while
legal and proportionate, seems to me politically unwise.

Spain, alas, has a Constitution, which was adopted in 1978 by 92
percent of the Spanish voters, including 95 percent of the voters
in Catalonia. The document does not provide for independence
referenda and specifically refers to the indivisibility of the
Kingdom of Spain. Consequently, the Spanish Supreme Court ruled
that the Catalan independence referendum was unconstitutional and
should not take place. The Catalan government ignored the Court’s
ruling and decided to hold the plebiscite anyway. The Spanish
government responded by sending in the national police and the
referendum was, for all practical purposes, derailed – amid some
violence.

With regard to the crackdown, a couple of things should be kept
in mind. First, nobody died, which is a bit of a miracle,
considering the red-hot passion on the Catalan side. From the film
footage I saw, it seemed to me that the Spanish police were
remarkably restrained and only responded with batons and rubber
bullets when under physical threat from the pro-independence
protesters. Second, given the Supreme Court ruling, the Spanish
government was obliged to enforce the rule of law and should not be
unduly blamed for the unpleasantness that followed.

That said, Madrid’s approach, while legal and proportionate,
seems to me politically unwise. The only way that the Catalans
could have held the vote legally was through constitutional change,
which is impossible, because the Spanish Parliament is filled with
unionists opposed to Catalan independence. The crackdown leaves the
Catalans with no recourse to rectify their grievances and could
lead to increased support for independence and, even, occasion a
rise of more extreme forms of Catalan resistance to the central
authorities.

For most Europeans, Spain without Catalonia is as strange of a
concept as the United Kingdom without Scotland. But, independence
can be a good way to lower tensions between peoples who no longer
wish to remain a part of the same political entity and an excellent
way to increase inter-jurisdictional competition, thereby allowing
for greater institutional experimentation.

Prior to the rise of the European nation states in the 16th and
17th centuries, Europe was sub-divided into hundreds of different
states and statelets. Germany alone consisted of over 300 different
political entities prior to Napoleon’s consolidation of the
territories in 1806.

These states offered their residents different sets of rights
and responsibilities. They competed with one another in terms of
policies, including religious tolerance and taxation. In fact, it
was this territorial disunity that, scholars argue, enabled Europe
to zoom past heavily centralized China to become the world’s
leading economy.

Today, Europe is in a bit of a funk. Perhaps an injection of
greater jurisdictional competition is just what the old world needs
to take it out of its morass and reinvigorate it once more.

Marian L. Tupy
is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global
Liberty and Prosperity and editor of www.humanprogress.org.