How to save Catalonia

With the world in the grip of the Coronavirus, most previous squabbles and issues seem insignificant. One interesting issue Europe saw in recent years was a move for more autonomy, even as European countries moved closer together in the form of the EU. One example is Catalonia and its bid for independence.

Were they right to consider independence? How will this affect a post-Coronavirus Europe?


Catalonia has had a distinct identity to the rest of Spain for most of recorded history. We could start with Charlemagne’s March Hispanica, or with the Kingdom of Aragon. We could choose any part of Catalonia’s history but the pattern is simple. The story of Catalonia is not the same as the story of the rest of the Iberian peninsula.

These stories are two sides of the same coin because no nation, race or people lives in isolation.

Flag of Independent Catalonia

In the early 2000s the issue of Catalonian independence started to hit the news more often. This was the first time I became aware of the issue because it hit international headlines.

It is interesting that we didn’t see this happen only in Spain. Scotland started muttering the word independence too, as did the Lega Nord in Italy. In the latter’s case it was political bluff.

We’ve heard more about regional independence in Europe since the turn on the millennium. Coincidence has it that this is when Europe started its ‘United in Diversity’ campaign.

I’m not going to suggest one caused the other.

But I do think we should focus on what we have in common, not on what separates us.

The Catalonian issue reached boiling point with the 2017 independence referendum. The question was a simple, “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?”

The flag of Spain

90% of voters supported independence.

Simple logic dictates that Catalonia should now become an independent country.

So why isn’t it?

The devil in the detail

A quarrel of lawyers quibbled about the legal niceties. They debated the legal system as if, say, showing the referendum is illegal will suffice. It’s as if lawyers think they can make a good point and their opponent will agree with them, discarding any sense of Catalonian identity in the process.

I am bemused that one critical legal point is rarely raised in the whole Catalonian debate.

Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

There is no such thing as a Unilateral Declaration of Independence.

A unilateral Declaration of Independence is one-sided. It happens when a region decides to go it alone without first consulting the larger entity it forms part of. There are a few grand examples in history and they’re all tarred with bloodshed and war.

  • The United States of America declaring independence from the British Empire.
  • Northern Cyprus declaring itself independent from the rest of Cyprus.

In each case, the new state decided to do things on its own. It wasn’t like, say, India declaring independence from the British Empire. In that example there were lengthy discussions and agreements before India became a new member of the family of nations. There are many examples of bilateral discussions leading to independence, and in most cases they averted war.

Catalonia chose a unilateral approach.

But there’s no guarantee this approach will ever work.

Reductio ad absurdum

Let’s take a simpler example first.

The Catalonia issue is a quagmire of identity politics, language issues and economic troubles. Let’s focus on a simpler example to get rid of all these points which may distract our attention.

Let’s say I buy a plot of land and build a house on it. I make sure there is a clear border around my house to have a garden. I build a fence around the perimeter of my property to safeguard it and to be able to take care of it.

Many people have done this – this is nothing new.

It is obvious that I am bound by the laws of the country I live in. I am obliged to pay taxes and to obey the laws, whatever they may be. If the taxation system is onerous to me, why shouldn’t I declare independence and pay no taxes at all?

This sounds silly but it’s possible.

Of course if I take a decision to do so on my own there is no reason for my country to accept my claim or to pay attention to it. I could argue till I’m blue in the face but the country will treat me with disdain.

If my territory was larger I could drum up some support but it still wouldn’t make much difference.

If I had some natural resource I could bargain with that. But there is no obligation for the country I live in to accept any of my arguments.

Has this happened before?

There are examples of such unilateral declarations that have been ignored, or which are still being debated

  • Northern Cyprus
  • Palestine (from Israel)
  • Somaliland (from Somalia)
  • Kosovo (from Serbia)

These all want to be independent, and they made unilateral declarations of independence. Their situation is not clear because the larger entity refuses to accept this.

To be clear, a unilateral declaration isn’t illegal, as the International Court of Justice points out. I’m explaining such a declaration has no weight or meaning.

The International court of Justice – The Hague, The Netherlands

Is Catalonia destined to end up like these “states” if it continues insisting on independence?

Proposed solution

Some people argue their Catalonian identity is stronger than their Spanish one. They use this sense of identity to argue that Catalonia should be an independent entity. Others point to history and insist that Catalonia is not ’Spanish’. Some say Spain is ‘jealous’ because Catalonia is an economic powerhouse, or that Spain needs Catalonia because of the region’s tax haul.

These arguments may or may not be true.

But even if they are settled, the fact remains that no nation has an obligation to recognise a unilateral Declaration of Independence.

If such an obligation existed, we wouldn’t have a divided Cyprus, or keep hearing about the Palestinian issue. We wouldn’t have seen a lot of the fighting in the Balkans in the late 1990s either.

Divided Cyprus

If Catalonia is serious about independence it should negotiate with Spain first.

Because without Spain’s agreement, there never will be independence.

All other issues are moot points.


At the beginning I queried whether this will affect a post-Coronavirus Europe.

We can see signs of strain in the European project with each country protecting itself and its own. There’s nothing wrong with this because this is the job description of each government. When you’re in need and your friends don’t help you, it’s hard to be rational about things.

The line between what the EU could or should have done, and what national governments could or should have done is also under the magnifying glass.

During my election campaign I pointed out that Europe-level problems need Europe-level solutions.

Federal solutions do work guys, no matter how much you dislike them.

These debates make sense at a macro level, but all politics is local. If you can apply the argument at a European level, then why not at a smaller level?

All politics is local

Catalonia will see how Spain criticises the EU and then will use the same argument against Spain. If the number of dead or infected in Catalonia are higher than in other regions, this will fuel the flame of anger.

There already are indications that this will be the case in other countries too. In Italy the mortality rate is high because the lessons of the north were not applied in the south. We may see similar patterns emerge in other countries too.

Catalonian nationalists can use such arguments to their advantage.

And as we were all getting used to a single united Europe, we will see borders being redrawn over indefinable nationalistic elements such as ‘identity’.

It’s the same logic that led to the map of Europe after World War I.

And that’s a chilling parallel to make.


  1. The EU motto; European Union; 2020-03-25
  2. Resultats definitius de l’1-O: El ‘sí’ obté el 90,18% dels vots amb un 43% de participació; Politica; 2017-10-06
  3. Declaration of Independence, The; David Armitage; Harvard University Press; 2009
  4. Declaration of Purna Swaraj (Indian National Congress, 1930); Constitution of India; (Retrieved 2020-05-30)
  5. Accordance with international law of the unilateral declaration of independence in respect of Kosovo; International Court of Justice; 2010-07-22

All references were valid and correct when this article was published. Changes to referenced websites or web pages may render some references invalid. If this is the case, please leave a comment below.


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