It’s not just Catalonia: Who has the right to break away?
After nearly 900 people were injured by police attempts to prevent voting in last week's referendum, protestors took to the streets of Catalonia to be heard. Credit: Almagro/ABACAPRESS

Okay, buzzers at the ready: Since 1900, how many countries in Western Europe have gained (or regained) independence?

The answer is six – Norway (1905), Finland (1917), Ireland (1922), Iceland (1944), Austria (1955) and Malta (1964). Scotland might have become the seventh, but its people decided against independence in 2014.

Now Catalonia demands the same right of self-determination. The question is whether it is entitled to it. Last weekend, the Spanish authorities delivered their answer via the medium of violence. But what should those of us who prefer reasoned argument think?

Writing for Project Syndicate, Richard N Haass argues that the best approach is conditional not absolute:

“…there is not and should not be any automatic right of self-determination. It was one thing for people in colonies ruled by governments thousands of miles away and deprived of many of their rights to opt for independence in the wake of World War II. It is something else altogether for a region to secede from an existing independent country. A world of frequent secession would be in even greater disarray than the world we already have.”

Rather, the right to self-determination should depend on meeting certain criteria:

“There is no universally accepted set of standards, but let me suggest some that should be applied:

  • A history that indicates a clear collective identity for the people in question.
  • A compelling rationale, in the sense that the population must be able to demonstrate that the status quo is imposing a large political, physical, and economic price.
  • The population makes clear that it strongly favors a new and separate political status.
  • The new state is viable (the last thing the world needs are more failed states).
  • Secession does not jeopardize the viability of the rump state or the security of neighboring states.”

In his article, Haass applies this framework to the Kurdish question, but it is just as applicable to the case of Catalonia. So do the Catalans meet the five tests?

On the first test, the answer is a clear ‘yes’. Linguistically, Catalan is as distinct from (Castilian) Spanish as Norwegian is from Swedish. Catalonia’s history may be bound up with that of Spain, but the same could be said of Britain and Ireland or England and Scotland. Cultural distinctiveness can survive centuries of political entanglement.

The second test can only really be answered by the Catalan people themselves, but the pro-independence case focuses on the opportunity cost of having your laws and finances controlled by others when you’re demonstrably capable of controlling them yourself. Norway, Finland, Ireland, Iceland, Austria and Malta, have all prospered as independent states. And even when they’ve been governed unwisely, they’ve at least had the dignity of making their own mistakes.

As for the crucial third test, that of popular support for independence, Catalans regularly vote for pro-independence parties, they have a pro-independence regional government and have rallied for independence in their millions. Does that mean that a majority favour independence? Well, there’s only one way to find out…

The fourth test – of viability – is easily answered. The Catalan economy is substantial, bigger than that of Portugal, for instance; and bigger than that of every single eastern European country apart from Russia and Poland. In terms of per capita wealth, it is richer than the rest of Spain and is centred on one of the great European cities – Barcelona. The only thing that could compromise that Catalonia’s viability is a concerted campaign of trade blackmail by its neighbours.

That brings us to the fifth and final test – would Catalan independence destabilise its neighbours? The answer is not unless they chose to destabilise themselves. The rest of Spain is several times the size of Catalonia, it would remain a great nation without it.

It may be that in a properly organised, above-board referendum (you know, one without armed police ripping ballot boxes out of the hands of screaming civilians), the people of Catalonia would decide that they had more to gain from staying in than getting out – as did the Scots.

To allow a people to make that decision calmly and respectfully is not a sign of weakness, but of strength.


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