How Its Overreaction Legitimized the Call for Independence

Madrid responded to this weekend’s referendum on Catalan independence by sending in thousands of police, who beat up voters and shot nonviolent activists with rubber bullets. It is difficult to picture a more counterproductive course of action. According to the polls, independence was not heavily favored leading up to the referendum and most Catalans already considered the vote illegitimate. The Spanish government could have stuck to a simple playbook: allow the referendum to proceed and affirm the results if it failed and declare them null if it succeeded. This is the example set by Canada in 1995, the United Kingdom in 2014, and Iraq earlier this month. If the Spanish government had downplayed the vote, the world would have quickly forgotten about it. Instead, they have grabbed headlines by breaking the key international norm of tolerating peaceful demonstrations and supporting democratic representation.

A good-faith effort to move toward a federalist system may be one way to take off the pressure.

Indeed, the referendum on October 1 saw the use of repressive tactics normally seen only in authoritarian states. The government moved thousands of police into the region to physically prevent Catalans from voting. Catalan social media is now filled with videos of police beating elderly men, throwing people down stairs, hitting them in the face and neck, dragging elderly women through the streets, and striking citizens with truncheons. Rubber bullets are banned in Catalonia, yet police have been firing them at voters and protestors at close range, with over 900 wounded. As if such imagery is not stark enough, there is even footage of police confiscating ballot boxes from polling stations, scoffing at the universal symbol of democracy.

And all of that is a gift to the independence movement. Any separatist group that hopes to set up a recognized sovereign state has to struggle with international norms. The most important is the norm of territorial integrity, which implies fixed borders and nonintervention in other states’ affairs. There is a strong and understandable preference for the status quo, and the major powers that do play a role in determining separatists’ international sovereignty are almost never willing to upset the apple cart. However, there is a competing principle of self-determination, enshrined in Chapter 1 of the UN charter, and a perceived right to decent representation in government. Separatist movements usually claim this principle as their foundation, arguing that the central government is failing to hold up its end of the bargain.

Of course, the rest of the world usually ignores such claims, especially when they come from democratically represented citizens. But add a violent crackdown, and the calculations adjust. In fact, they see such state suppression as proof that the government has, indeed, lost legitimacy. “To substitute violence for power can bring victory,” as the political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote, “but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is also paid by the victor in terms of his own power.” People holding up ballot sheets outside a polling station in Barcelona, October 2017.

Following Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 1990, for example, it was Serbia’s dissolution of the Kosovar government, the firing of 100,000 ethnic Albanian workers, repeated raids of Albanian Kosovar villages, and a heavy-handed military presence that began the long road to autonomy for Kosovo (although it is still not universally recognized). What began with international concern over ethnic cleansing culminated in full-scale intervention before leading to rapidly snowballing recognition of an independent Kosovar state.

Madrid’s reaction, likewise, has loaned more legitimacy to formerly dismissed Catalan claims than any social media campaign or referendum result could have. It has also managed to get the world to watch something it was paying little attention to. It is still almost certain that no state will recognize an independent Catalonia right now. That would be too hard on relations with Spain, and it would cause too much trouble to change the involved governing bodies. The only states that might officially recognize Catalan independence are those for which it is costless: small states with no relations with Spain or the EU and no separatist movements of their own.

However, research shows that there are many other ways third parties can support separatist movements—introducing resolutions in the UN or the EU, proposing sanctions, funding their militaries, suspending diplomatic contact, or, conversely, establishing new diplomatic contact in breakaway regions. Such activities are more likely to occur during bouts of violence, and suppression of democracy is a particularly egregious offense. Such lesser acts of recognition or support contribute to the legitimacy of these movements and help develop the movements’ administrative and military capacity. And so they inch toward greater eligibility for statehood until, like the Kurds, their referendum manages to tempt one or two states to consider unilateral recognition for the first time.

Remember that Bangladesh and South Sudan were recognized by no other states when they first declared independence. But following months or years of violence, the world’s favor grew, and so did the pressure for widespread recognition.

If the Spanish overreaction continues apace, other countries will start expressing concern for the situation in Catalonia, and officials in some (especially former colonies) will start discussing Catalan claims. They may even bring votes before international bodies such as the UN or EU. If violence persists after that, Catalans may organize to establish diplomatic ties with other countries, and those governments might be open to it for the first time. It is a slow, deliberate process to sever one territory from another, and it most often stalls short of universal international sovereignty. However, violence and suppression of self-expression are some of the most useful catalysts for moving that process along.

If the Spanish government wants to get back on the right side of the news, it should seek every way to reestablish the legitimacy of its government in Catalonia. A good-faith effort to move toward a federalist system in Spain may be one way to take off the pressure; reversing the incendiary 2010 court decision to strip the region of certain autonomous powers—over language, the judicial system, and other rights of self-rule—may be another. Madrid should certainly not suspend Catalan autonomy unless it wants to see a continued confrontation that will only be characterized as a return to Spain’s dictatorial past. One way or another, its actions have eroded its standing. It now needs to take deliberate measures to demonstrate that Catalans are respected by the government as Spaniards and that their interests are well received in Madrid.

Otherwise, Catalans may soon be much more successful when they reach out to increasingly sympathetic countries for support.

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