This presentation is based in part on the Legal Opinion by an International Commission of Legal Experts addressing the question of Catalonia: The Will of the People and Statehood. The Commission was composed of Professors Marc Weller (UK ), John Dugard (South Africa), Richard Falk (USA) and Ana Stanic (Slovenia). Although the Opinion was commissioned by Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, its findings represent the agreed and independent views of the authors. While based on the Opinion, which will be published in due course, this contribution does not purport to give an authoritative rendering of it, but instead represents the views of the author.
This contribution assesses the claim to statehood of Catalonia, addressing in turn:
- The criteria for statehood;
- The legality or otherwise of unilateral declarations of independence;
- The issue of self-determination;
Objective criteria of Statehood
Catalonia can easily meet the classical, objective criteria for statehood. It has a clearly defined territory of some 32,000 sq km, featuring clearly defined boundaries. Its stable population numbers around 7.5 million, far in excess of many recently independent states in Europe and beyond. It is the most economically viable region when compared to other parts of Spain. Even under autonomy within Spain, Catalonia has exhibited most of the functions of effective government.
Whether Catalonia would in fact exercise fully independent powers of government can only be assessed if and when it decides to implement its declaration of independence, at present suspended in application. Catalonia has generated a substantive transitional law, to apply pending the adoption of a new constitution once independence proceeds. That law would assign all public powers to the new state, including foreign affairs powers (‘capacity to enter into international relations’). Hence, Catalonia is, at least potentially, capable of statehood.
Negative subjective criterion
In addition to the classical, objective criteria, there are negative and positive subjective criteria of statehood. The negative criterion, confirmed by the International Court of Justice in the Kosovo Opinion, demands that statehood must not be tainted by jus cogens violations. There is no suggestion of such conduct by Catalonia in this instance.
First positive subjective criterion: A manifestation of popular will
The positive subjective criteria come in two guises: first, there must be an act of will of the population, and second, that will must be enacted through a declaration of independence.
Any change in the social contract of a political community as dramatic as an act of secession from the established legal order must be based on the will of the people. Ordinarily, this would take the form of a referendum, although in some instances (dissolution of Czechoslovakia), concurrent decisions of the elected national and regional assemblies have been taken to be sufficient.
The international legal requirements for a valid referendum are only emerging. Still, in analogy to emerging standards on democratic governance, at least within Western Europe, it is clear that there must be a free and fair campaign and a transparent and open balloting process. In this instance, any intimidation came from the side of the Spanish government, including arrests, raids and other measures against pro-independence campaigners and officials. (more…)