In the case of Catalonia, Pandora’s Box has been opened, while the perspective is complicated and risky. On October 10 Catalan’s president, Carles Puigdemont, stated that the province will pursue independence. It should be stressed that within Spain, autonomous Catalans having their own distinct language and culture enjoy full democratic rights in their own regional parliament restored through the Catalan statute of autonomy of 1979. They are economically prosperous, more so than Spain as a whole. And, therein lies the rub; Spain’s economic crisis requires wealthy Catalonia to pay billions of euros in taxes to Madrid, inuring to the greater benefit of the European Union.
By Nicholas Dima l October 17, 2017
On October 1st news broke that, Catalonia, an autonomous province in the northeast region of Spain and once an independent region of the Iberian Peninsula, voted in a referendum to pursue independence once again. Madrid declared the referendum illegal and warned Barcelona of consequences if it pursued secession. Catalonia may or may not succeed, but the centrifugal force toward independence lives on in Europe and elsewhere.
Are we witnessing a fragmentation of the world? Some analysis is necessary.
Ethnicity is a very important factor and it is both objective and subjective. It involves a group of people who inhabit a certain territory and who share such common traits as language, culture, history, and aspirations. Our modern world is made up primarily of large ethnic groups organized in nation-states. They are the world’s building blocks.
However, ethnic groups have evolved differently from place to place and not every group enjoys statehood. Granting independence to everyone would be impossible and would make the world chaotic and ungovernable. Consequently, in today’s world, small ethnic groups are granted autonomy and minority protection. Yet, what should be done when large populations, such as 7.5 million Catalans, push for independence?
Recent history and current events show that there are limited options when coping with breakaway ethnic groups. One option is to grant them independence and accept the new reality. It is the case of several countries in post-communist Europe.
Another option, especially for parent countries, is to respond with military force and to try to control the pro-independence movements. It did happen in the former Yugoslavia originally consisting of a federation of six republics. Yet, one other is to resort to ethnic cleansing in order to get rid of the problem. It is the case with the Rohingya minority in today’s Myanmar. Nevertheless, what could the world do in the case of the 20 million plus Kurds who straddle Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran and who aspire to independence? And what should we expect in the case of Catalonia? What is Europe’s response and what is America’s position?
It should be recalled that it was President Woodrow Wilson who formulated the principle of self-determination of nations at the Paris peace conference in 1918. Since then, Washington’s position has become somehow ambiguous. In more recent times, President Bill Clinton stated that America supports the independence movements, but only in those countries that do not respect human rights and minority rights. At the dissolution of Yugoslavia, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that Washington is against organizing the new states based on ethnic criteria. And later, President George W. Bush declared that America does not support any actions leading to the ethnic consolidation of the new states. Nonetheless, later, Washington aided the consolidation of the new Balkan nation-states to Moscow’s objection.
The big question is: When is a country truly independent?
The answer is simple, but the reality is complex. A new country is considered officially independent when the United Nations recognizes its independence. For example, Kosovo was recognized as such and is now a member of the UN, but only a few countries have recognized it and Serbia considers it as part of its own territory. South Sudan was also recognized by the United Nations after a bloody and protracted war. Yet, after securing its official independence, South Sudan has been embroiled in a bloody civil war of its own. On the other hand, Somaliland, a former British colony, is a de facto independent country without any international recognition. The truth is that small ethnic groups can become independent and recognized as such only as long as it suits the interests of the big countries. And many times, the price for independence is paid in blood.
The current process of globalization also contributes to the world’s instability. For example, the economic interests of trans-national corporations foster local aspirations, but this trend conflicts with the existing nation-states. Therefore, local aspirations, existing national governments, and big corporations must struggle continuously to maintain a fine balance among them. Otherwise, regional and international peace is in jeopardy.
In the case of Catalonia, Pandora’s Box has been opened and the perspective is complicated and risky. On October 10 Catalan’s president, Carles Puigdemont, stated that the province will pursue independence, but on a more conciliatory note, he offered to negotiate with Madrid. It should be stressed that within Spain, autonomous Catalans having their own distinct language and culture enjoy full democratic rights in their own regional parliament restored through the Catalan statute of autonomy in 1979. They are economically prosperous, more so than Spain as a whole. And, therein lies the rub; Spain’s economic crisis requires wealthy Catalonia to pay billions of euros in taxes to Madrid inuring to the greater benefit of the European Union.
A further push for independence, however, would trigger Madrid’s severe reaction and could throw the province into dangerous internal strife and further divisions. Economically, the future country would likely suffer consequences and risk international isolation. Several corporations have already announced their intent to leave Catalonia. Secession would also trigger the greater negative reaction of the European Union, which is already confronted with a host of other problems. And there is one more point: Russia is instigating the process in order to weaken Europe.
Nicholas Dima, Ph.D, is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. He currently lectures and is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the online-conservative-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.