Sep 11 2014

Is an independence referendum the appropriate political tool to address the Catalan problem?

By Jose Javier Olivas

The question whether Catalonia should be allowed to hold an independence referendum can be approached from different angles. In addition to important legal and procedural issues, the organisation of this referendum is highly problematic from both a deontological and a consequentialist perspective.

On 12 December 2013 the Catalan regional government Generalitat announced the organisation of an independence referendum to be held on 9 November 2014.[1] The referendum would contain two questions: ‘Do you want Catalonia to become a State?’ and ‘In case of an affirmative response, do you want this State to be independent?’ This has been another step on the ‘national transition process’ launched earlier by the Generalitat with the support of several nationalist parties.

Referendum de independencia

A multitude of criticisms have been expressed about the procedural and legal validity of the political process through which the Catalan government have sought to bring about a referendum. The questions proposed for the referendum were defined and approved by Catalan nationalist parties without the participation of non-nationalist parties. Their wording is ambiguous and the two-question design may lead to results which can be difficult to interpret. The thresholds required for the validation of the secession process have not been clearly defined.

It is also peculiar that the ‘national transition process’ was initiated and some institutions for an independent state were created without waiting for the results of such a referendum. Moreover, the purpose and questions of the referendum clash with the Spanish Constitution which explicitly states the ‘indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation’ and received 91 per cent support in Catalonia in 1978. Claims of Catalonia being a sovereign entity have been unanimously rejected by the Spanish Constitutional Court. While the British Parliament validated the organisation of the Scotland independence referendums, the Spanish Parliament rejected the Catalan one by a very large majority.

Through negotiation and persuasion the Spanish Constitution could be theoretically modified and the abovementioned procedural errors mitigated in order to organise another referendum. But even in that case it would be necessary to assess whether holding an independence referendum in Catalonia is a desirable option.

Deontological arguments against a referendum

As previously argued in this blog, many of the justifications for Catalan secession are based on misrepresentations of the history and current situation of Catalonia. From a deontological perspective, systematic oppression or exploitation may justify the right of ‘self-determination’ of a territory. Nonetheless, Catalonia’s situation is far from that of a territory subdued to a colonial power and its citizens enjoy the same rights and opportunities than those of the rest of Spain. It would be difficult to deny the right of self-determination to a territory that has historically mostly been independent. But Catalonia has never been independent except from 1640 to 1659, during the so-called ‘Reaper’s War’.

Difference (or singularity) is another deontological justification used. The argument goes like this: ‘Catalans are different from other Spaniards; therefore, Catalans should have the choice to decide whether to have or not an independent state’. There are several problems with this argument. First, it overemphasises the differences between Catalans and the rest of Spaniards and the similarities among the inhabitants of Catalonia while downplaying the singularity of the people in other Spanish regions. Second, it is almost impossible to measure the degree of difference between regions or communities and more so to agree on a threshold. Aren’t Andalusians, Galicians, Canarians or Valencians singular enough to be entitled to that same right? Third, if difference justifies self-determination for a region like Catalonia, couldn’t other sub-regional entities, such as provinces or towns, claim the same rights, and shouldn’t the citizens of the rest of Spain have a similar right to split from Catalonia or any other region considered ‘different’? In fact, ethno-linguistic and cultural differences do not seem a sufficient reason to separate people and create borders within modern democratic states.

The unilateral right of secession also collides with the principles of equality and redistribution, which are core to the modern conceptions of democracy. People should be entitled to similar rights regardless of where they live and of their ethno-linguistic or cultural backgrounds. Attributing the right to decide over the division of a country only to the citizens of some areas is problematic. Since Catalonia’s secession would have a considerable socio-economic impact in the rest of the country and hinder redistribution, denying the rest of Spain the capacity to participate in an eventual referendum could be deemed discriminatory.

Consequentialist perspectives

Consequentialist arguments should also be taken into consideration. Granting the power to the Generalitat to organise an independence referendum would create a legal precedent for the future. Afterwards, it would be almost impossible to deny similar referendums in Catalonia and other regions turning Spain into an inherently unstable political entity. In addition, allowing an independence referendum is a de facto recognition of the sovereignty of Catalonia and a restraint on the Spanish sovereignty as defined by the 1978 Constitution. That is why pro-independence nationalists are not as concerned with the result of the referendum as they are with the capacity to organise it.

Referenda are instruments of direct democracy that empower citizens and provide legitimacy to decisions. However the risks and costs associated with them have made their use marginal in modern representative democracies. An independence referendum frames a complex social problem in a reductionist way. It forces people to choose among two diametrically opposed positions and eliminates middle ground options, which are often the preferred choice of the majority. The political campaigns that accompany independence referendums tend to revolve around passionate discourses and contribute to a further polarisation of the society.

Arguably the result of the referendum, either ‘yes’ or ‘no’, would not serve to solve the socio-economic problems of Catalonia neither to soothe the tensions and frustrations generated in the process. All economic studies warn that Catalan independence would be economically damaging for Spain. Many of them also forecast economic losses for Catalonia too. An independent Catalonia would be a more centralised and smaller state which would unlikely serve to mitigate its current problems of clientelism and corruption. Many Catalans would rejoice from a ‘yes’ victory but many other Catalans and the large majority of Spaniards would find it a frustrating result. Moreover, the secession of Catalonia may be considered a contradiction in the already fragile process of European integration and could produce negative spill-over effects. On the other hand, a no-vote would not make pro-independence nationalists abandon their claims either. They would continue their nation building process and prepare for other bids in future consultations. Thus, for the large majority of Spaniards (including many Catalans) the potential outcomes of an eventual referendum range from not positive, in the case of a no-vote, to negative or very negative in the case of a yes-vote.

In sum, referendums are powerful tools but politicians and academics should remember Maslow’s ‘law of the instrument’: ‘[…] it is tempting, if all you have is a hammer, to treat everything as it were a nail’. Overreliance on a particular tool can be dangerous. Referendums, like hammers, cannot fix every problem and can have harmful consequences. The Catalan independence referendum is being inadequately devised, and insufficiently justified. Most importantly, this referendum would likely aggravate rather than solve the complex social problems that have emerged during the recent economic crisis. Fortunately, Catalan and Spanish policy-makers have other instruments at their disposal. Institutional dialogue and collaboration between Spanish and Catalan governments and parliaments is probably a less traumatic and more efficient way to tackle these problems.


[1] Officially termed as ‘consultation’ but meant to have legally binding effects.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Euro Crisis in the Press blog, nor of the London School of Economics

This article is an extended version of a commentary published in EUROPP


José Javier Olivas is a Fellow and Associate to LSE IDEAS and the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is also editor of Euro Crisis in the Press.


Related articles on LSE Euro Crisis in the Press:

The Spanish government has to engage constructively with a rising Catalan secessionist movement

Language rights in Catalonia

Catalan Separatism, a European Problem

On the “right to decide”

A Bandwagon with a Purpose: The independence of Catalonia

The independence of Catalonia: jumping on a bandwagon

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6 Responses to Is an independence referendum the appropriate political tool to address the Catalan problem?

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  3. Alfons says:

    Totally partidist view from a spaniard who (of course) doesn’t want to see the richest region of Spain go away. If you a democrat and the people wants to vote you only can agree with this plaid. The only reason for them to don’t aloud the referedum is BECAUSE THEY KNOW YES WILL WIN. And that’s it! Everything else is BEATING AROUND THE BUSH.

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