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Why I Support the October 1 Catalan Referendum

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When in the course of human events a person makes potentially divisive political statements, especially a person who lives in another country, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them.

I have friends in Catalonia, and I have friends in other regions of Spain. Some of them support the October 1 Catalan referendum and some don’t. I also work in a very apolitical organization, and any expression of political opinion by me is a non-trivial matter; because of that of was very hesitant to publish this post, even though I wrote it a few days ago. Needless to say, my opinions are mine, and they have absolutely nothing to do with any other person or entity.

With that out of the way, here are my reasons.

1. I read Leopold Kohr’s “Breakdown of Nations”, and found its central argument pretty convincing: All things being equal, smaller countries are usually better than large countries for their citizens and for the world.

Economically, socially, and politically, there’s nothing inherently good in big countries. The bigger the country is, the more damage it can cause in wars and in economic crises.

According to this logic, a smaller Spain is better for Spaniards and for the world. Catalonia, which will be small to begin with, is good for the same reasons.

So sure: I studied the Catalan language, I read Catalan books, I listen to Catalan music, and I have many Catalan friends online and in real life, so I obviously have a personal bias when it comes to the question of Catalonia. But it goes further: I do believe that smaller countries are better for the world. Catalonia just happens to be a notable first example in what will probably we a continuing wave of regionalism in Western Europe and elsewhere around the world.

2. There’s nothing sacred about borders. Borders of modern independent states are a rather new and arbitrary thing. Countries pretend that they always existed, but in fact, the current world map is less than a hundred years old.

The current borders are not inherently good. In fact, a lot of them are awful. A lot of them are much, much worse than the borders of Spain, for example those in Africa or some parts of Asia. A lot of them should be changed according to a more sensible division of language, culture, and economics. Most ethnic groups and languages in the world don’t have a country; it makes the whole idea of a “nation state” rather problematic, even in its relatively better implementations, such as France.

The map of the world in 2017 is very different from the map of the world in 1950. The map of the world in 2050 will probably be very different from the map in 2017.

So why not start the change from a more peaceful place, so that the more troubled places would learn how to do it better?

(While I was writing this blog post, the New York Times published a piece that says pretty similar things: Learning to Live With a Changing World Map, by Joshua Keating.)

3. A referendum is a rather precise and fair way to ask for an opinion of a group of people about an important topic.

It’s more precise than an opinion poll on a sample of a few hundreds of people. When Mr. Rajoy says that most Catalans don’t want independence, he’s simply not telling the truth. He cannot know how many Catalans want independence or not. There is a precise way to know whether most Catalans want independence: A referendum.

I’m not a lawyer, but I acknowledge the possibility that the Constitution of Spain doesn’t allow it. But a constitution that doesn’t allow a referendum is not very democratic. If Mr. Rajoy cares about democracy, he should want to change this constitution.

Changing the Spanish Constitution is possible, but it’s so hard that it’s a Catch-22. While the bold move by the Parliament of Catalonia to break this Catch-22 is legally challenging, as far as democratic principles are concerned, it’s a reasonable way to make the people’s voice heard.

4. The Parliament of Catalonia had made its intentions very clear, and has given everybody ample and fair time to prepare for the referendum. Unlike, say, the Parliament of Crimea, when it suddenly decided to call a referendum on seceding from Ukraine.

For over a year, Spain’s only response to this was “it’s illegal, so we are ignoring it”. Spain has only itself to blame.

The Parliament of Catalonia certainly stretched its authority when it committed to declare independence if the result is “Yes”. It did so because not making this commitment would be a repetition of the abortive 2014 referendum, when under pressure from the Spanish authorities no such commitment was made. The “Yes” side won, but with a very low turnout. In 2017, the Parliament did make this commitment in order to raise the turnout. Higher turnout is yet another thing that is better for democracy, and, judging by the opinion polls, better for the supporters of remaining in Spain.

5. Spain has a much stronger point about the potential secession than it has about the referendum.

Preventing a referendum is undemocratic and immoral. Preventing a secession, which may be declared as a result of the referendum, is a whole different beast.

Indeed, a strong “Yes” result in the referendum may give Catalonia a moral mandate to ask for secession, but actually seceding means actually setting up borders, actually removing Spanish police, military, judges, and tax clerks. All of these things aren’t easy, and they shouldn’t be.

Comparing again to Crimea, the thing that made Crimea’s de facto secession from Ukraine possible was not the referendum, but the Russian invasion, which pushed the Ukrainian military away. Nothing like that is imaginable for Catalonia. Spain has no compelling reason to remove its armed forces from Catalonia and no other country is going to intervene. This can only be decided in negotiations.

Readjusting Spain’s economy for the life after secession will be hard, but that’s OK. Spain has a strong legal standing to make actual secession hard, and that’s where it should focus: Making it hard for Catalonia to secede. Fair’s fair. Instead, however, Spain is making it hard for Catalonia to find out how interested it is in seceding.

6. The Catalan independentists’ commitment to non-violence is truly admirable. It should serve as a good example for all the other national movements across the world. Yes, this includes Palestine.

To sum up: I have nothing against Spain. I rode the Valencia–Madrid AVE twice, and it was probably the best train ride I ever had. Madrid is no less amazing than Barcelona. Don Quixote is one of my favorite books. Spain has some reasonable legal and moral points in this debate.

But Spain really shouldn’t waste them on preventing a vote and say that it’s doing it for the sake of democracy.


Written by aharoni

September 27, 2017 at 11:22

Posted in politics