Contra Bershidsky on Catalan Independence

Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky recently wrote an article explaining why Catalan independence is doomed to failure.

The article does a good job providing an historical analysis of previous independence movements, and it explains that the situation in Catalonia does not fit within the previous patterns where independence was achieved. But I believe that his piece fails to acknowledge what happens in the intermediate and long term if current dynamics continue to develop as they have in recent years. While I would not argue that the Catalan independence movement will succeed in the short term, I do believe that its separation from Spain in nearly inevitable in the long term.

I can appreciate from a normative perspective that many people believe that Catalonia leaving Spain might be a terrible idea, but I’m also certain this issue isn’t going away.

The polling seems to indicate that the majority of those in Catalonia want to leave.[1] And what’s more important is that the momentum seems to be moving in the direction of independence. This has been borne out in polling and it is clear on the ground as well.

I lived in Barcelona for three years, in 1998 and again from 2001 to 2003. I then spent time there again in 2014. In the late nineties, you might occasionally see a radical university student with a separatist flag (the red and yellow flag with the blue triangle and white star), but it was rare. The simple red and yellow flag, known as the Senyera, was much more common.

Now, the separatist flag is ubiquitous. The revolution has gone mainstream.

What’s more, there is considerable political asymmetry in the intensity of the separatists’ desire to leave and the more moderate crowd’s wish to remain. In Barcelona, you see 50 Catalan flags for every one Spanish flag. If you go more than 30 minutes outside of Barcelona, in Catalonia, you’re more likely to see the national flag of Bhutan than that of Spain.

This is not reflective of the political will of all of the people. But it is the reality on the ground.

It is likely true that the majority of Catalans no longer want to be a part of Spain. And it is likely true that the proportion of Catalans who want to leave is growing. And it is definitely true that the squeakiest wheels are the ones screaming loudest for independence.

But neither Spain nor the EU wants to let that happen.

So what to do?

Bershidsky seems to think that because Catalan separatists lack the requisite violence or a consensus with Spain, its revolution won’t succeed.

The Catalan nationalist movement has always been largely peaceful. The only notable exception is the Terra Lliure group, which was active between 1978 and 1995. Its attacks only killed one person, and it dissolved soon after a massive government crackdown. It never had the strength or violent determination of the Irish Republican Army, the Basque Country’s ETA or even the Quebec Liberation Front, not to mention the separatist fighters of Chechnya, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, South Sudan, Eritrea or Timor-Leste.

That kind of determination is not strictly necessary for a successful secession. As an alternative, public opinion in the country from which a region is trying to secede must be in favor of the change (as was the case with Norway’s splintering from Sweden in 1905), or at least willing to accept the will of the region’s population (the case of the U.K. and Scotland, had the latter voted for independence in 2014). But such consensual situations are rare, and the Catalans don’t benefit from one of them. The rest of Spain — at least those Spaniards who have voted for the major political parties — is not in favor of Catalan independence.

Under these circumstances, separatists need escalation dominance.

Yesterday, Spanish leaders arrested a few regional government leaders for organizing the October 1st referendum on independence. Tens of thousands of Catalan separatists then took to the streets.

As many critics of Catalan independence are quick to point out, the main driver of this movement seems to be a 19th-century brand of tribal identity politics.

So let me pose a question: Which is more likely, that a growing, modern tribal-identity political movement will be silenced by arresting some of its leaders for holding a peaceful referendum, or that those leaders will be treated as martyrs and that the movement will use the arrests to further fuel its tribal-identity political movement?

My money is on the latter.

What’s more, as a broader international community, I would think there would be some value to establishing a protocol for autonomous regions to achieve independence, if that is what they want to do. It is unrealistic to expect the boundaries that existed in 2000 to be the boundaries that are in place for the rest of history. And while you and I might think that the desire to separate from a one developed democratic political entity to another developed democratic entity based on a sense of nationalism is foolish, it’s not our decision. It’s the decision of the Catalan people.

It strikes me as a bit perverse to say that those looking to achieve self determination in the 21st century must achieve a certain threshold of violence to achieve their aims. I’d like to think we could do better than that in 2017. But I am skeptical that we will.

My prediction is that some sort of referendum happens on October 1st. Catalans vote en masse to leave. Most moderates or anti-leave voters don’t bother to vote, because they don’t think it’s legitimate and know it’s going to be rout.

Spain and the EU will ignore the vote.

The Spanish government will continue with more actions like the ones we saw yesterday. The question is whether Catalan separatists will continue to remain non-violent if their political will is ignored over time. Perhaps some combination of boycotts/non-violent strikes or other such actions could help them achieve their aims without violence, but I doubt it. My fear is that after years of non-violence that leads to no political changes, you’ll see a more violent arm of the movement develop.

The Catalan independence movement will not fail any time soon. I believe that there are two ways that this ends: either with complete, violent repression similar to what we witnessed under Franco or with independence. Bershidsky argues that Catalonia lacks to the political will to fight Spain. I disagree. The bigger question to me is whether the EU and/or Spain has the political will to kill this growing movement. I don’t think Spain is ready to go to war over this. But I fear that some in Catalonia will eventually shift in that direction, if things continue as they have.

I’d bet on seeing an independent Catalonia, eventually. But I think it might take 10-20 years and a lot more drama before it finally happens.

[Update Oct. 2: In my opinion, the strongest rational argument for independence stems from a deep-seated Catalan belief that democracy in Spain is inherently unstable, and that sooner or later, a Madrid government will always devolve into fascism or autocracy where Catalonia is treated as a suppressed minority. Francoism was bad for Spain as a whole, but it was particularly bad for the minority regions. Democracy in Spain is only about 40 years old, which means that many people in Catalonia remember living under fascism with Franco, and everyone knows people who did live under that regime. Many Catalans want to take advantage of this relatively stable time in history and see this as their best chance to escape the possibility of Madrid-based fascism forever. I would not say that yesterday’s events would do any favors in dispelling that fear.] 

[1] I could write another (very long) article parsing this polling data. Polling data in Catalonia is invariably biased, and unreliable, but the overall trend leans toward independence. Spanish and Catalan papers are not renowned for neutrality. That said, having lived in Barcelona, if there were a source I would trust in terms of polling, it would be polling from La Vanguardia, which locals would consider center-right. And since Catalonia skews left, that makes it about as centrist as you’re going to get in Barcelona.