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Catalonia is heading towards a referendum. While many voices are rooting for the right to secede, Aparna Babu George presents the difficulties of separation in today’s world. She is replying to the article written by Hamish McRae in the Independent. Read on to know the reasons why she thinks a Referendum for Self-Determination might not be a good idea for Catalonia right now.
On 17th October, 2017 the Parliament of Catalonia passed the Law on the Referendum on Self Determination of Catalonia, declaring that it had won the right to secede from Spain through a referendum after 92% pollers voted for it. International media went berserk sucking in images of the Spanish National Police Corps disrupting polling and even physically engaging with the local population, for all the world to see. The apex court in Madrid did its bit too, declaring the referendum illegal. Carles Puigdemont, the leader of the pro-split movement and President of this autonomous region now lives in Belgium, fearing arrest and more from the government in Spain.
There are many who say Catalonia should be given the right to explore their right to self-determination, that their explosive population and limited geographic presence isn’t a hurdle to existence. To understand the present situation well, it is imperative to travel a few centuries back to understand how a region that proclaims that it is different from the rest of Spain ended up there.
A BIT OF HISTORY
Ferdinand II of Aragon married Isabella of Castille, effectively unifying the then Principality of Catalonia with the greater Aragon region, which is modern day Spain. Soon it became the powerful naval arm of that kingdom. But after King Philip V took over the kingdom, he imposed the Spanish language for all official purposes replacing Catalan and other dialects that were in usage. This created rumblings. With the advent of democracy, Catalonia was given autonomy in the 1930s.
Things started getting stifling again under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. He abolished all institutions of Catalan origin, banned the use of their language yet again, forbade mass media and temporarily disallowed them from practicing their customs and traditions. With the Spanish Civil war, democracy returned and Catalonia voted to remain with Spain as it had been badly scarred by the fighting.
Even during its worst period under Franco’s regime, Catalonia experienced rapid economic and industrial growth. Its capital Barcelona hosted the summer Olympics immediately after the civil war, a reflection of its resilience. In the 1960s, it registered as the second fastest growing economy in the world. Even today, it generates close to 20% GDP of Spain. All of this and more has been used by supporters to show that Catalonia is so much better off on its own while being with Spain is seen as a dent on its surge ahead. Now let’s see if that bubble can be popped.
WHY IT MAY BE A BAD IDEA
Exactly a week after the Catalonian referendum, the wealthy northern region of Italy which comprises of Venice and Milan voted to separate from Italy, though they have not used those terms officially yet. In September of the same year, poll results from Scotland shocked Brits as a 51% went to booths to register a positive “Yes Scotland” vote. Even in Iraq, the Kurds conducted a referendum asking to unite them and their brethren from Iran and Turkey to form a Kurdish state. The National Liberation Front of Corsica, rumblings in Northern Ireland, Hungarian movement in Slovakia and many, many more see the Catalonian debacle as a clarion call to action.
This tendency is dangerously alarming. Most of these regions, if you were to look at them, are economically well off and in most cases like Catalonia a hub for tourism, culture and business. This by itself gives them the confidence that being independent will be a cakewalk and may even elevate them. But as with the chaos that the UK is tackling post Brexit, it isn’t easy for a bird with no training in flying on its own to suddenly join the flock.
Firstly, secession almost always ends up in ugly relations with the former parent state which in most of these cases will also turn out to be the immediate neighbour. With no cooperation forthcoming from your border states and even from far flung states who are probably allies to the parent, the new born state will languish trying to win recognition in international organisations, acquire aid or even raise its voice in world platforms.
For instance, Ukraine was a part of the USSR which today comprises only of Russia. After its breakup, Ukraine has been ‘disciplined’ by Russia so many times for not falling in line. In 2006, Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine over a debt dispute. It unilaterally annexed Crimea which was and is still seen by many as a legitimate part of the latter country. Russia is also accused of forced ‘Russification’ in the borders that it shares with that country. So evidently, being independent does not solve any issues that the newly formed nation may have with the parent sovereign.
Secondly, it has to form trade relations, set up diplomatic outposts and establish foreign and military relations all from scratch. At a time when countries are moving towards conservative and protectionist policies, it will be a most unwelcoming atmosphere for a new born. And there is the political turmoil that is natural during formation. Fringe groups and others along with legitimate political parties will all be vying for power and a say in the matters of the country. It will be years, and maybe after tenures under the military and even dictators, that a transition to democracy will even be possible. Examples of the Arab Spring movement and the bloody histories of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Balkan states tell us a frightening story.
Finally, many credit Catalonia with having a strong economic base and thus confirming its success. As has been noted earlier, its contribution to the Spanish GDP is immense. But it is to be noted that the market never likes change, forget revolutionary, a-new-nation-is-formed kind of change. For instance, Ukraine is a point at hand. Its GDP kept falling for the first ten years of its formation and was further exacerbated by the Global recession in 2008. It is only in the last couple of years that the economy has slowly begun its journey upwards.
We all feel patriotism and the desire to be part of a nation that is successful in terms of its independence, culture and ideals. But most nations in the modern world began their journeys way back in the 40’s or even before and we still do not have that one country that has washed away all the problems that plagued it when it started off. In these times, it is even harder as apart from conventional issues such as poverty and unemployment, countries are helplessly grappling with a plethora of other issues such as terrorism, immigration, climate change and cyber-attacks. It’s best that Catalonia and its people really think about whether they want to go it alone in this big, bad world.
Aparna Babu George is an alumni of National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi. She is an LLM Candidate at the prestigious Cambridge University. Apart from being a voracious reader, she is also a passionate dancer.