Catalonia’s Independence: A Reply to Joseph Weiler

Written by

Nico Krisch (Hertie School of Governance, Berlin & IBEI, Barcelona)

Joseph Weiler’s polemic on Catalan independence has certainly stirred up debate (see the comments on the piece), which is always helpful. But as much as I admire much of Weiler’s academic work, I find this intervention heavily misguided in substance, in part because of a misunderstanding of the reasons behind the Catalan drive, in part because of a misreading of the nature of independence claims in general. I write this having spent a significant part of the last decade in Barcelona, with a growing appreciation for the concerns of Catalans and of sub-state nationalism in general, which has certainly toned down my earlier, perhaps rather naïve cosmopolitanism that had little time for nations and borders.

Weiler laments a return of Catalans to ‘an early 20th-century post-World War I mentality, when the notion that a single state could encompass more than one nationality seemed impossible’, and he finds it ‘laughable and impossible to take seriously Catalan arguments for independence’ when they have a statute of autonomy. He thinks that all Catalans could possibly complain about dates back to the Franco period and before, and that today they should leave this behind, drop talk of independence and work out their differences with the rest of Spain. But the latter is precisely what they have tried for several decades, and with limited success. Spain’s 1978 constitution is an awkward compromise, born out of a transition from dictatorship. It stops well short of establishing a federal state and, despite Spain’s enormous cultural diversity, has many centralist elements. Catalans are a structural minority in that setting – and less protected than the Basques who achieved a more favourable position in and after the constitution. While it is true that they don’t face persecution or any kind of grave human rights violations, discrimination can also take more subtle forms and result in systematic disadvantages when it comes to appointments to public office, investment in infrastructure or the distribution of resources in general. And even achievements in linguistic rights are called into question when the Spanish government can declare – as it has recently done – that it intends to ‘hispanicise’ Catalan school children.

All this does not reach the threshold for remedial secession under international law. But is international law, state-centric and state-made as it is, a good guide for our normative approach here? Probably not. Political theorists are engaged in an extensive and sophisticated debate about the grounds for secession, and not many hold as restrictive a view as international law does. In fact, quite a few support a voluntarist position, which is based on the mere choice of the relevant collectives. On liberal grounds, this is similar to the arguments for leaving divorce to the choice of each of the spouses. Political divorce is, of course, not so easy, and it always raises the question of which collective ought to decide. But there is little reason to privilege the historically often arbitrary shape of existing states and force minorities to accept the decisions of a much larger group, which will often be hostile or at least indifferent to their claims. If different demoi compete, they will indeed need to work out the situation among themselves – but on an equal footing rather than in a situation of subordination of one to another.

Weiler’s attack on a ‘regressive and outmoded nationalist ethos’ also misses the point because most of our political structure – and especially international law – is still based on nationalism. It is just the nationalism of those nations that have managed to find recognition as states. Given that structure, it is not surprising that minority nations would also aspire to the main organisational form of self-determination – statehood. Moreover, it is weird to think that it is the boundaries drawn by (Spanish, French, German, etc) nationalism that should determine the feelings of solidarity of all parts of a country. Catalans have no doubt that they owe solidarity to Europe as a whole, but they don’t see why they should owe that much more to people in Andalucia than to those in Southern France (who, geographically and probably also culturally, are closer). On what side of a border you live is often a mere accident of history, and we need a more fine-tuned instrumentarium than the binary inside/outside of a state to think seriously about obligations of solidarity.

The European Union, in fact, is a project that should allow us to do just that. As the people of Europe grow closer, the state structure in which we live loses importance – both for institutions of political representation and for structures of solidarity. This is what we mean when we say that Germans should help the South of Europe not merely out of self-interest but out of obligation. Just as solidarity in Europe no longer stops at boundaries, it does not always come in binary fashion. There are many shades of it, and there are many shades of ‘we’ in the European polity. Thinking that the Catalans only know their very own ‘we’ would seriously misunderstand the position of most of them. They feel part of a broader ‘we’, but not necessarily a Spanish one. Many would be satisfied with a significant amount of autonomy in a truly federal state, and they seek independence only because the Spanish state has frustrated efforts in this direction consistently over the years. If another status were available, they would probably be happy to take it. International law doesn’t have much on offer, but the EU might be the place to invent intermediate forms.

But until we’ve done so, we should be careful not to jump to conclusions. The Catalan drive to independence (just as similar movements elsewhere) is not some form of ‘tribalism’, as Weiler has us believe. It is a form of democratic self-government, born out of frustration with the processes of a larger entity that often enough ignore the wishes and concerns of minorities. If we are committed to some form of democratic liberalism – to a respect for the freedom of individuals to choose their own lives and to determine their political fate – we’d better take it seriously. And, just as in Scotland and potentially in Belgium, we’d better understand it as an attempt at redrawing the internal boundaries of the EU, rather than as a move away from the Union.

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Xavier says

January 19, 2013

Brilliant, Mr Krisch.

Gemma says

January 20, 2013

Those who deny the right to Catalonia to become an independent state, would they renounce to the independence of their own state? Catalonia had a Parliament already in 1350, literature in prose in the XIIIth and a language that still is spoken by ten million people all over the world. Are we guilty of having lost wars against big empires like France and Spain or of being forbidden under fascism for 40 years? Or of having the only democratically elected president executed by Franco's fascism after being arrested by Gestapo. Or of being the first city with bombings affecting civillians in 1937 and 1938 as an experiment before WWII? Or of having our major law nearly vanished due to Spanish Constituional Jury? I think we've got exactly the same right Quebecois and Scottish have and more if the people willing a new state are nearly sixty five per cent of population against thrity per cent not wanting it. It's a case of being democrat or not. And we do know a lot about fascism and absolutism. We've got enough.

Stefan says

January 20, 2013

For those of you in the greater Barcelona area who are interested in an immediate precedent to the referenda that are now discussed in several parts of Europe, there is a conference scheduled on Monday 21 January, 7 p.m., at the Ateneu Barcelonès (c./ de la Canuda, 6) with Pof. Xavier Arbós (Constitutional Law, UB) and Prof. Marc Sanjaume (Political Sciences, UPF) on Québec's second secessionist referendum. Both scholars will introduce the documentary "Référendum Prise 2" by Stéphane Drolet (1996, French original version). Free entry.

Rosa says

January 20, 2013

Thank you for this good article, Dr. Krisch. I am Catalan and feel only Catalan. Although we tried to live in Spain we don't feel we are part of it, because of many impositions on language, culture and economic afairs. We are a nation and we wish to be opened to the world and dream on having our cultural rights respected and this can only be in our own state, and you have noticed this while you staying with us. Thank you again.

Denis says

January 20, 2013

Sehr guter Artikel!!! Vielen Dank!! Freedom for Catalunya

Maria Ar says

January 20, 2013

Thanks very much, Mr. Krisch, voices like yours help us enourmously to spread the word... We do suffer from many subtle forms of discrimination which many of us have endured with no awareness of its nature for too long, with help from biased clichés sometimes accepted even by the most brilliant minds at home and abroad, dumbly reapeated ideas that still soak parts of our society to the bone.

Visca Catalunya Lliure! And of course, before that and more importantly, everybody say YES to democracy, say YES to the right of a people to organise themselves as they see most suited... Unless we are ready to give up on our pretension to be respectfully and democratically organized societies.

Walker Hammond says

January 21, 2013

Very convincing arguments, Dr. Krisch. I would like to share an article that I found very useful to understand what's going on in Catalonia, "Catalonia: Which Way Forward," by Oriol Vidal-Aparicio:

It includes some helpful historical background, which is what I was missing when I started reading about Catalonia and its political conflict with Spain.

Monica G.Salmones Rovira says

January 21, 2013

With regard to this issue I have often wondered what is it about the current international legal order that makes it important to have territorial and not ‘fluid’ states, and why each state always aims at keeping its territory intact (see the pending cases at the ICJ the majority of which are related to territorial issues and certainly not at losing it? I find this a fascinating question. Perhaps the redrawing of EU internal boundaries of which Krisch writes is something that will occur soon. However it seems to me that analysis of the question requires also the external, or global and not only the internal (EU) international legal point of view.

Narcis Ribot says

January 21, 2013

Thank you Dr Krisch

Vitoria says

January 21, 2013

Dear Prof. Krish:

Your smart reply provides the best possible counter-arguments to Prof. Weiler's editorial comments. But they are far from being convincing. Of course, it is always possible to look for historical, political or sociological reasons to justify what is going on in Catalonia (that's a discussion for which our opinion as international lawyers does not bear much weight). Moreover, as you correctly point, law should not have the decissive word in this delicate matter.

However, in the end, Prof. Weiler's underlying idea always strickes back harder: separatist micro-nationalist movements are the most old-fashioned expression of the egocentrict identities behind Europe's growing decadence in today's world.

Naïf cosmopolitanism? I personally do not think Monnet, De Gasperi or Delors where naïf. But even if you thought so, at least concede me that, were they alive today (and even though they would surely take the matter seriously as you claim), they would not feel much sympathy for the Catalonian cause.

Europe, Spain and Catalonia have much more important problems to face. Separation is the least obvious solution.

Vitoria says

January 21, 2013

Just for the shake of clarity: where I said "the Catalonian cause", I meant "Catalonian independence". Of course there are some problems between Catalans and Spaniards (mainly financial) needed prompt response.

Meritxell Grau-Balaguer says

January 22, 2013

Dr.Krisch, from the heart a big thank you that goes back and forward and around the universe from me.Thank you for taking the time, thank you for the interest, thank you for the respect and love and thank you because you light a dark and hard way for us to make people around the world understand that 'Horton hears a who'

Safford A.S. says

January 22, 2013

I don't know who's writing under the name "Vitoria," but certainly s/he is missing important points of the centuries-old Catalan struggle with Spanish central governments. Catalonia's problem with Spain is obviously not just an economic one. It's essentially a problem of self-government, it's about having a government that defends your interests, just like any political community aspires to. It's about representation, about discrimination (subtle or brutal depending on the historical period, but always there and undeniable in the economic and linguistic fields), about verbal abuse and disrespect.

The fact that you refer to the Catalans' struggle as a "micro-nationalist movement" is very telling, especially if we take into account that Catalonia's population is greater than eleven EU member states. Some people just refuse to see what's obvious: when the majority of a people perceives its current state government as exercising some type of foreign rule, especially with a history of brutal discrimination, intolerance, and dislike of cultural diversity like Spain's, they tend to prefer to govern themselves directly. This is a conclusion that peoples never arrive to lightly (Locke said it, Jefferson restated it in the American Declaration of Independence), but "after a long train of abuses" it just does not make sense to continue to "take it."

Catalonia has "much more important problems to face"? Please... what a cliche! As if who governs a people is not related to their problems! Ask the American Founding Fathers if they had "more important problems" than declaring independence! Excuse me, but dismissing discussions about current borders as if they had nothing to do with optimal administration sounds a little peculiar. Independence may or may not be the ideal solution for the Catalans (a lot of the evidence seems to indicate that they have a pretty strong case), but the best approach to the issue (the most honest, even the most logical) is to allow the Catalans to decide whether they have had enough of the Spanish inability to satisfy their needs as a society or they'd rather give Spain another chance. This was the Canadian government's approach with Quebec (twice), and Quebec stayed. That is the British government's approach with Scotland right now. About 60% of the world's current states got their independence during the last seven decades. I don't know how this can be depicted as "the most old-fashioned expression of the egocentrict [sic] identities behind Europe’s growing decadence." First, I don't know where you're writing from, but I'm sure Europeans will not appreciate your tone. Second, identity feelings are obviously not exclusively a European problem. Third, identity only becomes a problem when someone tries to negate it; that's why seminal scholars of nationalism like Gellner correctly theorized that peripheral nationalisms (like Catalonia's) only arise as a logical response to nation-building nationalisms (like Spain's) that try to impose a "national identity" on them.

Rosa Ras says

January 22, 2013

Very good article. Catalans need international help to succeed to the independence.

Miquel Strubell says

January 22, 2013

Vitoria concedes graciously that it is "always possible to look for historical, political or sociological reasons to justify" an independence process such as the Catalan one, as if there were other ways of justifying them. Such processes do not tale place in a vacuum. People in an advanced society such as Catalonia do not just go mad and follow the nearest wild-eyed caudillo they bimp into. On the contrary, Catalans are a "nation of shopkeepers", as pragmatic and down-to-earth as they come. What is going on in Catalonia has been coming slowly to the boil over decades. In the context of an undoubtedly increasing centralist sentiment in most of the rest of Spain, Catalan federalists (and make no mistake, federalism in Spain was born 150 years ago... in Catalonia!) has run out of support - and steam -, even at home, in the face of repeated displays of centripetalism and lack of loyalty and respect for the Catalans. There is a widspread feeling that Catalonia has just one big, huge, vast problem, and that is Spain. Moreover, and significantly, most Catalans have stopped believing any promise, any hint of searching for solutions, from Madrid (a truly beautiful city nevertheless!). Witness to this has been the utter failure by anyone there to do anything about the 2010 constitutional court ruling, or to reach out to the 1•5 million Catalans that chanted "Independence!" in the largest demonstration in western Europe since the end of WW2 and say "hey! What's up? Let's sit down and find a solution. Instead they've even threatened to stop sending organs to catalonia for transplants. Literally. In any other civilised country that gentlemen would have been sacked on tbe spot. Catalan-bashing has long been a fruitful pastime, bolstered by negative stereotypes fostered in the 17th century, during the war that allowed the Portuguese to regain their sovereignty. Many Catalans clamour for that same aim, with the voting card as their only weapon. And by the looks of things, the Spanish government will continue to do all it can to prevent that happening.

Maria Ar says

January 22, 2013

In response to Vitoria:

The matter here is not whether Monnet, De Gasperi or Delors would agree with what you call the Catalonian cause (which is not independence, but the right of a people to self-determination, that can eventually call for independence) but whether Catalans agree for independence and that in a society that prouds itself on being democratic they should be granted the possibility do decide on those terms.

And of course I couldn't disagree more - all of the great minds or souls that genuinely deserve such praise would be sympathetic to the democratic progress that such processes like the catalan entail. And if they weren't it wouldn't be because of their greatness and brilliancy but because of poshness and sophistication that so often make us lose contact with the most essential and down-to-earth human aspirations.

Spain is not prepared to take the matter seriously, something that has become blatantly clear over the past decades. Instead it has tried to asphyxiate and dilute Catalan nationality - and it has failed, because we are a people and because we too want to have a go at the ultimate expression of that, having an own state in communion with so many other states in our world today.

Do not mistake freedom for egocentrism.

Josep Z says

January 22, 2013

We catalans pay Sweden-like taxes, but ~40% of these, which amounts to ~10% of our GDP, is used to subsidize *other* parts of Spain. Spain has for years refused to re-negotiate. To me, and to many Catalan independentists, this continuous drain of resources is the core of the issue. Add a total disregard (even direct attacks) to our language, culture, educational system and political aspirations, and you start to get the picture. I see no reason to continue to belong to a State that undermines us. Whatever State we belong to, it should work FOR, and not AGAINST, us the taxpayers.

Montserrat says

January 22, 2013

Thank you.
Hope my sons will grow up in a better Catalunya. hope my sons will love their country, their language and their culture as I do.
thank you very much for your article.

sira capdevila cuagat says

January 22, 2013

Thank you Mr. Krisch,

I suppose for Europeans that live in countries with high levels of democracy like Germany, Holland, England... it is hard to understand that Catalan people have never been treated respectfully yet, not even for the last 30 years after Franco died in our so called "democracy".
We can't feel Spanish, since we have never been equally treated within Spain. They don't love our language, they don't promote our culture, they don't accept us the way we are. This is a big mistake, now we want to peacefully separate and become good neighbors.
Now they say they have the right to vote in our referendum because we are the "hand" of their body. Can you imagine something more insulting? we belong to them and we are a part of them.( These words were said by the ex president of Spain, Felipe Gonzalez!!!).

Thank you very much for your understanding and explaining it in an international platform. We will need loads of international help.

yours thankfully and sincerely from the heart.

Ramon Sanz says

January 22, 2013

Thank you, we need the international understanding.

I'm 49, I was born Catalan (nothing else), but, so far, I haven't able to live as a catalan person. I've been always forced to be, first of all, Spanish. Why can't I live as catalan person? Who can't understand this?

Again, many thanks for your molehill.

andreumaresme says

January 22, 2013

Thank you Mr.Krisch for your understanding.
We, the people in Catalunya want to vote, to feel free from a state that rules against us. The problems in democracy must be solved with more democracy. So, let's vote.
Thanks again !

Asier says

January 24, 2013

Thank you for the article. It is a very interesting point of view. Just a comment about the "we". Me as a Basque, feeling Basque but acknowledging that I am legally speaking Spanish, I see myself more linked with those Basque in France than with those Spaniars in Andalucia. Even though I admit cultural links with Andalucia or Extremadura, I also find links with all the peoples living at the Atlantic coast and on both sides of the Pyrenees. Therefore my "we" is floatant, open and very European, going beyond borders, being linked with the dreams of De Gasperi, Delors or Monnet... However, I also feel closed to Garibaldi and his dreams about unifying while getting the independence of Italy, I also share the dreams of De Valera in Ireland, of those Norwegians, Finnish, Estonian, Latvian, Slovaks, Slovenians, Polish or Lithuanian who were able to get free and unified during the XXth Century. Why them could do it and why we cannot? Beacuase of a state of faits agreed in Westfalia during the XVIIIth century by France, Spain, UK and the German kingdoms? Anybody knowing our societies know that "we", Catalans and Basques, have been and are open to the world, open to new commers, respect differencies, respect and promote multylinguism and travel all around the world looking for learning about different cultures... so, why should we be considered more "nationalist" than others? More tribal than other "volks" in Europe? Less ready to decide about our fate than our neighbours? Why should we restrain ourselves from dreaming the same dream than many thousands of Europeans have dreamed not that long ago? Why an Internal law made by States for States, made by nationalist Nation-States for keeping their conquest, should silence us? I hate victimism and I wouldn't be complaining if just "we" would have the same rights as "you"... "We" v. "you": the seed of hate... But who imposes me my "we", my "me", myself not being legally able to decide who do I want to be? or you, who imposes me a Constitution and an International Law, condemning me to silence?

Joana says

January 28, 2013

Thank you prof. Krisch. Well understood and very well explained. We really need this!

Marko Milanovic says

January 28, 2013

The comments to this and the other post on Catalan independence are now closed, since the discussion seems to have run its course.