First published in the Lake Champlain Weekly
Written by Quentin Langley
Catalonia has voted for independence from Spain. The vote was overwhelming (89%) but that is not surprising as opponents were encouraged, both by regional campaigns and by the Spanish government, to boycott the poll. A little over 37% of the registered electorate voted for independence. Of course, the electoral register includes people who have no interest in the topic, people who have moved to another area, and even people who have died since it was constructed. One cannot count all those people as being against the measure. If opponents had turned out they would probably have lost. Turnout would have to have exceeded 75% to defeat the proposal, even if we assume no additional supporters of independence would have voted in the alternative, closer, vote. The turnout in the last Spanish election was 66%.
The Spanish constitution forbids secession. It can only be amended by a referendum of the whole country. There is no doubt, therefore, that the vote is of no lawful effect. But that does not mean that Spain should not, or will not, negotiate over the issue.
It is rare for countries to even contemplate the possibility of secession. The US had a civil war over the issue, though the “votes” for secession in the South were undermined by the fact that a large fraction of the population was barred from voting by dint of being held in slavery.
It is more than a century since Norway voted to secede from Sweden. Greenland voted for autonomy within Denmark and is, effectively, an independent state. Czechoslovakia voted for its velvet divorce. Both Quebec and Scotland have held votes on independence which, though lost, would have been respected by Canada and the UK if they had gone through.
But Spain is not being, ah, as mature about this. The Spanish government not only denied that the vote had any legal status but insisted it was criminal to participate. Riot police were deployed to disrupt the vote.
The strength of feeling on this is high. It is unlikely that Spain will be able to hold out for a period of decades – as Britain did with Ireland in the Nineteenth Century. The world has changed a lot since then and Spain’s repression tactics are being reported globally.
Sooner or later Spain will allow a legal referendum and promise to respect the result. But Spain fears that other regions will follow. The Basque region, which is mostly in Spain but partly also in France will be in the lead.
And the European Union? It is sitting on the sidelines. It regards the matter as wholly internal to Spain. It is a grouping, of course, of member states, and several other states, including France, Italy and Belgium, fear that if Catalonia can secede so can other European regions.
But Britain (for now), Sweden, Denmark and the successor states to Czechoslovakia are all EU members. There are two republics which seceded from Yugoslavia and three which broke off from the Soviet Union.
National borders are not permanent, and never have been. The EU is going to have to deal with countries dividing.