Nearly five years ago, I wrote a quite long article in a Norwegian blog, where I said, about how the political landscape had changed since when I was a child, that I wouldn’t have believed it “even if completely drunk”. The title of the post was “to stay or to leave”. Today thousands of Catalans (including myself) have voted to answer that question. Not all Catalans will have been able to vote. Some of them will have had paid a price for voting, “thanks” to the Spanish police. And we’ll see if there will be more prices to be paid. Again, I wouldn’t have believed that a day like today would come. And no, this time I won’t explain why it has come what I never thought it would.
There are, broadly speaking, two ways to look into the matter. From the Spanish point of view, everything is clear: the referendum is illegal, banned by Spanish courts (because of Spanish law), and Spanish police was in its right to do its best to avoid the referendum taking place. One can argue that there was disproportionate use of force, but (in computer science parlance) that would be “a matter of implementation”. From the Spanish point of view, defending the law is defending democracy (and the other way around), so removing ballots and preventing Catalans from voting was defending democracy, since the referendum was illegal.
Of course, one can think that this way of reasoning makes sense. At first sight, it makes. Well, one can wonder how a referendum can be made illegal, taking into account that voting is one of the fundamental pillars of democracy (but not the only one). One answer could be that honoring the law is also a pillar of democracy, and the referendum was illegal. There are elections every 4 years at least, so everything should appear all right.
So, is the matter settled? Not so fast. Two factors come in here. First, disobedience to the law. I think we can agree that nearly always it’s bad. But there have been situations when it has been deemed all-right, especially with laws that have been regarded (at the time they were in force or later on) to be unjust. Sometimes enacted by legitimate authorities, sometimes not. There have been great accomplishments thanks to disobedience. One can think, for example, in Gandhi. The right to strike and other ones were also had by means that probably were not the cleanest and nicest. And who cares, now? Of course, I’m not ignoring that deciding when you can disobey is an extremely complex issue.
The second factor is sovereignty. Some people love talking about the “Estado de Derecho” (meaning, “the rule of law”). They will say that today’s referendum was against the rule of law, because the law forbids that referendum.
To some extent, this is a case of begging the question. To the statement that “the law forbids the referendum”, an apparently silly question would be, “which law?”, to a first answer could very well be “Spanish law”. And “of course it’s Spanish law! Which country’s law were you thinking of?”
But this is not a silly question. It just brings up to the surface some things that we take for granted, but perhaps they’re not. Till now, we have examined the Spanish point of view. But if you ask those Catalans who have defied Spanish law and have done their best (I hope) to make the referendum take place as much as possible, they will tell you that what they doing is utterly democratic, since they are just… voting!
But wait a second! There are rules for voting, aren’t they? You can’t just vote on whatever you want, whenever you want. So, one the first hand, we have a country (Spain) with laws that tell you when you can vote, and how (and that today’s referendum is illegal), and all this in the name of democracy; and on the second hand, you have people who go to vote, despite the referendum being called illegal by Spanish courts, and they do this in the name of… democracy!
Not surprisingly, every side is utterly convinced that it’s right and the other one is absolutely wrong.
Since I have voted today, one could reach the conclusion that I’m one the side of those who think that today’s referendum was democratic and right. Am I? Well, one could call me an hypocrite if I didn’t, since it would have been wrong to do something undemocratic. How can I justify my position?
Before explaining it, let me tell you that I’m not necessarily trying to convince you, my reader. Obviously I will be happier if I do, but my goal is to try to show both points of view in as much an impartial way as I can, and explain the reasons behind my choice.
In that whole matter, we are ignoring a factor I just barely mentioned, but which is, in fact, the title of this post: sovereignty. When Spain claims that what has taken place today is illegal, it does so in the name of Spanish law, as it should be obvious. Undoubtedly, they claim that Spanish law is binding in Catalonia. Thus they say that what we’ve done is against democracy, because we have been acting against the rule of law.
It just happens that what Catalans were voting (or at least trying to) for was just that very same question: about seceding from Spain. And well, when you are considering secession, you’ve taken a very important first step: you’ve denied the principle that Spanish law necessarily binds in Catalonia. Or to put it in another words: you’re questioning the right of the Spanish Constitution to rule in Catalonia. If you’re in favor of having the referendum, even if you’re not for secession, implicitly you’ve crossed the Rubicon.
Which is why Spain is so staunchly against the referendum. Because allowing it is, to some extent, allowing “defeat”: allowing that some territory you consider part of the country has the right to say that it’s not part of the country (even if they end up saying that yes it is). Even if each and every Catalan voted and voted against secession, the very fact that a vote was held, it would have meant defeat.
There are other reasons why Spain is so adamant against the referendum, but they are of another nature and outside the scope of this post.
I said that I adhere to the point of view that today’s referendum was democratic. But why? The reason is, at the same time, simple and difficult. Countries are “things” made by people, not by God; so it’s up to people to decide which country they belong to, and to create new ones if they so desire. Put in this way, it’s simple. But I bet that you could point me lots of problems in that statement.
Because, you might say, countries could change from day to day, and what happens if, let’s say, a town inside Catalonia decided to establish itself as a country, etc. “This idea cannot work”. Well, I bet it could work much better than war, after all, but you’re right: there’re lots of problems with my belief.
Can they be solved? Partially. Of course, if countries change from day to day, it could be a mess. I think we can agree that we don’t need to elaborate on that point. But to say that they can’t change from day to day is one thing, and to say that they can never change is another one — in fact, they have never ceased to change, as history teaches us.
One can be tempted to thing that this whole thing of the referendum and secession is just something of the last few years. It’s not. I can’t explain here why, it would take me too much time and space. Despite that it’s true that, if today’s referendum would have been held in, say, 1992, I bet that more of 90% of Catalans would have voted against secession, it’s also true that this kind of feelings (of Catalan national identity) are more than a century old. Relationships between Spain and Catalonia have been strained since more than a century ago — needles to say, evolving with time and the particular political situation of Spain (monarchy, republic, dictatorship, etc).
I can’t give rules about how and when a “piece of land” and “some people” have the right to consider themselves entitled to create a new country. But I can assure you that I’m utterly convinced that the only reasonable way to do this is by letting people vote — as Britain showed us perfectly well by allowing Scotland to vote.
Two final notes. The first one. About the Scotland’s referendum, you might tell me that it was legal and democratic because the UK made it so. Canadian law seemed not to allow the Quebec referendum, but by some reason Canada’s Supreme Court saw the matter in another way… in the name of democracy.
The second one. What will happen now in Catalonia? Don’t be surprised if I tell you that I have no idea. We need to know how the events develop. International diplomacy is very subtle and intricate, very difficult to read the message behind the words being uttered. Sometimes you need to focus more on what is *not said* than on what is actually being said. The difference between what you expected it would be said, and what’s actually said. I’m not optimistic, but neither pessimistic. Spain has made a mistake in how the police has behaved, because it always gives a bad impression. One can think that the one who has the power is the one who can act more freely, but it’s not always the case, because you may be expected to show restrain. And the images of elderly being wounded by police officers is not precisely a show of restrain.
Tomorrow perhaps some European Union officials will be asked about what has happened today, and some kind of answer will have to be provided. They can be tempted to answer again that “it’s an internal matter of Spain”. I doubt that this can work in the long term, since the very essence of the European Union is that states surrender part of their “internal matters” to a wider entity — think, for example, about the freedom of goods and people to travel, etc. Also, there are treaties of the EU limiting what a country can do. Perhaps they will turn a blind eye. It seems that the EU has a long record of doing this.
Recent events (such as Brexit) tells us that perhaps these are not very good times for the EU. How it reacts about today’s events will show what the EU “wants to be when it grows up”, so to speak.
And even a third final note. Some people might be tempted to discuss about whether today’s referendum was held with enough “guarantees”, that is, that there have been no opportunities for fraud. It’s a worthy discussion, to be sure. But it seems that violence always likes to take “a place of honor” when it comes to attention, and since there has been violence, people will easily focus more on it than on another matters. At the time of writing, I see that at least one Prime Minister (Belgium’s) has condemned violence, and that a EU’s official (Guy Verhofstadt) has also condemned it. Even if they say that the problem needs to be solved according to the Spanish Constitution. They call for dialogue and de-escalation. Will this happen? I don’t know. But it seems that it’s no longer an internal affair of Spain.