This post is part of an editorial that appears in the issue of EJIL (Vol. 23/4) that is published today
‘Vive le Québec libre!’ Who can forget de Gaulle’s mischievous and irresponsible speech in July 1967 during his visit to that hapless province, a catchphrase which has become since then the eternal rallying cry for Western tribalism. And now, joining the ever lengthening queue is Catalonia – the subtext of whose recently called elections is, once again, ‘independence’. The Basques are lurking in the background and the Scots are not even lurking but quietly forging ahead. And there is ‘Padania’ led by the awful Lega Nord in Italy, and the list does not end there.
Feeding this frenzy for secession and independence in Europe is the premise that all these new states will somehow find a safe haven as Member States of the European Union. Absent that assumption, appetite for independence would be significantly muted, the rough seas of ‘going it alone’ far more threatening. The Canadian Supreme Court, in its careful and meticulous decision on Quebec the reasoning of which remains valid today, clearly showed that none of these cases enjoy a right of secession under public international law, since all of them enjoy extensive individual and collective liberties enabling the full vindication of their national and/or cultural identity within their respective states.
But the issue is not one of rights, of law. It is simply ethically demoralizing to see the likes of Catalonia reverting 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 – hence the special treaties on minorities which abounded in the break-up of the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian Empires. These arrangements were well-intentioned but lacking in political imagination and eventually, let us not hide the ugly facts, feeding and leading to that poisonous logic of national purity and ethnic cleansing. Make no mistake, I am not suggesting for one minute that anyone in Catalonia is an ethnic cleanser. But I am suggesting that the ‘go it alone’ mentality is associated with that kind of mindset.
Yes, Catalans and Basques suffered serious historical wrongs in the pre-democracy era in Spain. And I have huge, truly huge, empathy and sympathy for Catalans who want to live and vindicate their cultural and distinct political identity. For thousands, maybe the majority, this is really all it is about. But to play the ‘Franco card’ as a justification for secession is but a fig leaf for seriously misdirected social and economic egoism, cultural and national hubris and the naked ambition of local politicians. It also runs diametrically contrary to the historical ethos of European integration. The commanding moral authority of the Founding Fathers of European integration – Schumann, Adenauer, de Gaspari and Jean Monnet himself – was a result of their rootedness in the Christian ethic of forgiveness coupled with an enlightened political wisdom which understood that it is better to look forward to a future of reconciliation and integration rather than wallow in a past, which, notably, was infinitely worse than the worst excesses of the execrable Franco.
It is sometimes said that the principles of democracy and self-determination require decision by referendum. But this of course begs the question of who is the ‘political self’ that has the right to determine whether or not the historical nation – even if composed of several peoples – will be broken up and secession allowed. Do we allow every distinct national, cultural and linguistic ‘minority’ in Europe to hold a referendum about secession and independence? The Corsicans? the Bretons? The Welsh? The German speakers of the Alto Adige? The list is endless, given the wonderful cultural richness of Europe. Why should it not be the French as a whole, or the British as a whole, or the Italians as a whole who get to decide the future of their state? Why should it be the Catalans rather than, perhaps, all citizens of Spain who get to decide about the breakup of the Kingdom? There is no self-evident answer to this question. I would argue that it is only under conditions of political and cultural veritable repression that a case for regional referenda can convincingly be made. With its extensive (even if deeply flawed) Statute of Autonomy it is simply laughable and impossible to take seriously Catalan arguments for independence, arguments which cheapen and insult meritorious – if inconclusive – cases such as that of the Chechens.
The European Union is struggling today with a decisional structure which is already overloaded with 27 Member States, but more importantly with a socio-political reality which makes it difficult to persuade a Dutch or a Finn or a German that they have a human and economic stake in the welfare of a Greek or a Portuguese, or, yes, a Spaniard. Why would there be an interest in taking into the Union a polity such as an independent Catalonia predicated on such a regressive and outmoded nationalist ethos which apparently cannot stomach the discipline of loyalty and solidarity that one would expect it owed to its fellow citizens in Spain? The very demand for independence from Spain, an independence from the need to work out political, social, cultural and economic differences within the Spanish polity, independence from the need to work through and transcend history, disqualifies morally and politically Catalonia and the likes as future Member States of the European Union.
Europe should not seem like a Nirvana for that form of irredentist Euro-tribalism which contradicts the deep values and needs of the Union. The assumption of automatic membership in the Union should be decisively squelched by the countries from whom secession is threatened and if their leaders, for internal political reasons, lack the courage so to say, by other Member States of the Union, France in the lead.
It would be hugely ironic if the prospect of membership in the Union ended up providing an incentive for an ethos of political disintegration. There really is a fundamental difference in the welcoming into the Union of a Spain or a Portugal or a Greece emerging from ugly and repressive dictatorships and a Catalonia, part of a functioning democracy which at this very moment is in need of the deepest expression of internal and external solidarity. In seeking separation, Catalonia would be betraying the very ideals of solidarity and human integration for which Europe stands.
I hope it never comes to it, but the only merit in a Catalonian referendum would be to allow the Catalans to have the good sense decisively to reject the proposal. If there is a referendum all Europeans should hope that that is what they will do. And if they do not – well, let us wish them a Bon Voyage in their separatist destiny.