Last Sunday, the Catalonians organised a referendum to secede from Spain, which was illegal under the Spanish Constitution and thus opposed by the Spanish government. Such an opposition was not merely a statement of principles, and the police’s interventions in Barcelona produced riots and injuries.
As some readers may remember, I consider in general terms the Catalonian secession to be a positive development, for Catalonia and Europe, too. This is consistent with a stream of classical liberalism, which tends to view secession positively.
In his 1927 splendid little book Liberalism, Ludwig von Mises made the point that:
The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars.
Other classical liberals tend to be more suspicious of secession, because they think that a smaller and more homogeneous state will make it easier for local majorities to crush with the sheer force of numbers local minorities. It is indeed true that a smaller state is not necessarily a smaller government, but if states were smaller one could expect the cost of “voting with their feet” to be lower too for people who don’t like particular political arrangements. That is, leaving Barcelona for Madrid is certainly less demanding, both financially and culturally, than leaving Barcelona for Kuala Lumpur.
On the other hand, I think “government by the consent of the governed” is rather difficult to define: nobody has ever “consented” to tremendously arcane regulations like Dodd-Frank, and even matters far dearer to the general public like the scope and aim of military interventions are seldom put to the test of the general electorate.
At the same time, it is easy to recognise “government without the consent of the governed” when someone sees it. People who want to secede and part ways with their national government are not holding referendums on complex issues nobody really knows much about. They are seeking to change nationality on their passport, they’d like to leave a club to form another (see also this article by Jennifer Maffessanti at FEE).
Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy argued that no referendum took place in Catalonia. Indeed, the overbearing presence of governmental police and paramilitary forces did probably lower the turn out, which was *only* 42%, and in very difficult circumstances. The referendum was won by the secessionists with an overwhelming 90%.
In these circumstances, Rajoy has hardly proved to the international community that no referendum took place. He did perhaps exactly the opposite, gaining for himself a reputation of brutality.
Nafees Hamid and Clara Pretus argue that
The actions of the Spanish government reveal a deep misunderstanding about the psychology of the independence movement. Authorities are attempting to wear down the movement by denying a vote. Our findings suggested that Madrid’s current approach may well backfire: The government’s muscular response to Catalans’ desire for self-determination could increase the number of independentists and heighten their passion, which, in the long run, may further erode the stability and reputation of Spain’s central government. Allowing a vote to proceed, meanwhile, could actually strengthen Madrid.
They therefore stress that “Madrid’s strategy of denying a referendum will not cool the independence movement. Its obstinance will backfire, inflaming the passions of some Catalans and further maligning the undemocratic image of the central government in the eyes of other Spaniards”. This seems rather common-sensical to me.
The Achilles’ heel of the Catalonian referendum, to me, was the fact that it was supposed (by the Catalonians) to be binding in case it won a simple majority of the votes and regardless of the turn-out. There are good reasons to have super-majorities when changes of this magnitude are envisaged. Were European governments, the European Union, or the international community not so silent as they have been on the issue of Catalonian secession so far, they might have tried to convince Barcelona to hold a referendum with more sensible rules – a move which would have entailed an analogous move to convince Madrid to allow the referendum.
I see that the Spanish Constitution does not allow for such a referendum, but “legal” secessions are rather rare. Perhaps naively, I think European institutions would have something to gain, in promoting the right of self-determination of the people living within their territory. It is true that there is no such right in European treaties. But trying to make secession a more procedurally ordered process may have benefits for everyone. Minorities would feel better safeguarded and secessionist would feel incentivised to appeal to them, instead of crashing them with numbers’ superiority.
So far European authorities have chosen to be silent, which means they substantially backed Madrid. If Hamid and Pretus are right, this is hardly a good bet.
Alberto Mingardi is Director General of Istituto Bruno Leoni and Adjunct Scholar at the Cato Institute.