They had a referendum in Hungary last year. The government did not want to accept European Union quotas for redistributing refugees marooned in inadequate camps in Greece and Italy. So they did the fairest thing and let the people decide on the issue. However, the government itself campaigned for a no vote, refusing its allocation of 1,200 refugees on the grounds that it would be a threat to Hungarian culture, unity, law and order.
In what was the most expensive advertising campaign ever in Hungary – five times over – every billboard along the streets and roads of Hungary was plastered with adverts depicting phrases such as “Don’t put Hungary’s future at risk!” against a backdrop of the green, white and orange stripes of the Hungarian flag. The ‘yes’ campaign was marginalised and advised its supporters to boycott the referendum as illegitimate. In the event, 98% of the voters voted ‘no’ against the refugee EU allocation scheme, but with a turnout of under 50% (45% to be precise). It is not against the interests of balance to say that this referendum was a sham of a democratic process designed to rubber stamp the government’s already-taken position.
They are trying to have a referendum in Catalonia next month. They want to vote on whether Catalonia should be an independent republic. There are some similarities with the Hungarian one; the Catalan referendum is being organised by a regional government that supports a ‘yes’ vote, and is mostly being conducted by independentistas who also support a ‘yes’ vote. The referendum has been poorly conceived, with no minimum threshold of voters necessary, and if a yes vote prevails, the Catalan government will declare unilateral independence within a number of days.
The political environment in Catalonia is highly febrile and fractious, with the independentistas hostile towards their non-independentista counterparts, and a tar-and-feather mentality against those who don’t support their objectives. One side is loud and vocal, while the other is perhaps a silent majority. It is certainly no environment for a fair and democratic referendum to take place in. But this is not exactly another example of the subversion of democratic processes to further a dubious political agenda.
This toxic political environment is a direct result of Madrid’s attitude towards the referendum and Catalan independence in general. The unilateral referendum was called in a bid to force Madrid’s hand and designed to bring them to the negotiating table. Madrid’s position is that the referendum is illegal and unconstitutional and secessionism in general is illegal and undemocratic. After all, Texas, Bavaria and Venice were never permitted an independence referendum by their respective national governments.
Faced with the prospect of an unsanctioned independence referendum and a unilateral declaration of independence, instead of dialogue, Madrid moved to arrest the public officials organising the referendum, confiscate the ballot papers and other associated actions. Madrid has refused to countenance a referendum on the matter nor even discuss the issue, until all notions of referendums and independence are abandoned. Complete capitulation is demanded before possible talks on putative concessions to increased autonomy. But in taking such a hard and rigid posture and completely stonewalling dialogue with the independentistas, it stifled equal debate and birthed the conditions that have given rise to the current conflict.
Madrid is taking an incredibly hard posture on the matter, and their thinking is quite understandable. Catalonia is an engine of the Spanish economy and one of Spain’s wealthiest regions, contributing greatly to the dynamism, exports and finances of the nation. Furthermore, Catalonia is not the only restive province in the country. It would be hard to deny an independence referendum to the Basque country if they grant one to Catalonia. Thus, Catalan independence is very possibly an existential threat to the Spanish state, and it’s not hard to see why they are such fervent believers in the inviolability of the Spanish constitution.
While Catalans cry foul over anti-democratic repression that harks back to General Franco, the Madrid government decries the referendum as illegal and anti-democratic, being railroaded through by a radical minority. But it also sees its prosperity and the very survival of the Spanish state as it’s presently constituted under threat. Both sides are trying to co-opt the language of liberal democracy for their own ends. But this is all much of a smokescreen, and the real question is: is the Madrid government strong enough to take such an intransigent posture?
A somewhat analogous situation can be found 7,000 miles away in the South Atlantic. Argentina considers Las Malvinas / the Falkland Islands to be Argentine territory and demands negotiations on sovereignty over them with the British government. The British government considers the will of the islands’ inhabitants to be paramount under the principle of self-determination (the same principle upon which they are demanding the referendum in Catalonia), and as those inhabitants do not wish for Argentina to have sovereignty over them, there is nothing to negotiate. London stonewalls the Argentine government in much the same way that Madrid has stonewalled the Catalan government.
But there is one key difference: London can afford to stonewall Buenos Aires. Those in unassailable positions do not need to negotiate. Today the islands are better defended, but more importantly Argentine offensive capabilities have withered decisively. Diplomatic pressure by the Kirchner government was ineffective and only served to damage its own credibility, and Argentina already attempts to isolate the islands economically. London faces negligible-to-zero consequences for its refusal to negotiate. Unlike Madrid.
Recent polls have put support for independence among Catalans at around 41%, with 49% being opposed. However, 70% wish to hold the referendum, if just to vote ‘no’ but have their voice heard, and put the issue to bed. In refusing to even meet the Catalan government and discuss the matter until it abandons all its plans (essentially give up its negotiating leverage), the Madrid government is stoking the resentment and fervour that drives the independence movement.
In refusing dialogue on the matter, the government in Madrid is liable to create a situation in which there is a clear consensus among Catalans for independence. The will of 41% can be ignored with convenient allusions to whatever law. But at over 60%, it would clearly become an injustice, and intolerable in a liberal democracy. At which point, hiding behind constitutions and the law will no longer suffice, and planting tanks in Placa Catalunya will not be acceptable. The simple fact is that Madrid desperately does not want to lose Catalonia, regardless of the constitution and the legality of the issue.
Sometimes, the status quo is no longer viable. In 1941, Japan faced an economic embargo from the USA that would have neutered its expansionist ambitions in Asia. But, if it went to war to seize the resources it needed to replace those under embargo, it would be defeated and neutered. Sadly – although perhaps understandably (for the time) – Japan chose the most destructive path to arrive at this inevitability. As any military tactician will tell you, you only attack your enemy head-on to demonstrate overwhelming superiority – it’s not wise to attempt this tactic without it. Otherwise you attack the flanks or the rear. Given what’s at stake for the Spanish state, with a potential conflagration of independence referendums scattered around its most restive autonomous regions, their refusal to even talk on the matter is understandable. But is it the smartest tactic?
They appear to have four broad negotiating strategies open to them; offer nothing, demand abandonment of all secession ambitions and then offer talks, offer concessions (eg. fiscal autonomoy a la the Basque country), or allow the referendum to go ahead in the proper way and campaign against it (a la the Scottish independence referendum). Their strategic goal should be to avoid alienating anti-independence Catalans, inflaming the situation and ultimately escalation. Escalation can only work against them.
The binding referendum was a gambit designed to bring Madrid to the negotiating table; demanding its abandonment in return for talks could be deemed a victory for the independentistas. However, the independentistas are also intransigent and might not be willing to give up on their dream of an independent republic. Offering greater autonomy may placate the status quo Catalans and deflate separatist pressures for the moment. Having a Scotland-style referendum would be a calculated gamble but a good one; the economic arguments for independence are weak and currently polls indicate the independence vote would lose, and the issue would be resolved. However, it might open up Pandora’s Box. So, is their refusal to talk with the separatists until all plans to secede are abandoned a shrewd negotiating strategy given what’s at stake, or self-defeating obstinacy? The answer to this question will be proven in due course.
On a moral level, the fact is that the argument of national sovereignty, and the indivisibility of the Spanish state, is entirely contingent upon everyone being willing members. Sure, neighbouring countries do not permit their ‘restive’ regions a referendum, but that’s because in Texas and Venice it’s still a loony, fringe idea without widespread support. On the other hand, there are examples of where a separatist movement did have widespread support and were granted a referendum by their national governments; Scotland, Quebec, Montenegro. Two out of three voted against independence. Madrid’s refusal of dialogue is the equivalent of the UK saying to Scotland, “you can’t leave because we need you,” or even the EU saying the same to the UK. It’s not a question of constitutions, or legality, or even just forbidding what is against against your interests. You can’t keep people against their will; you have to convince them to stay willingly. This is the reality that underpins the negotiations.
Independence is not a loony, fringe idea in Catalonia. Madrid is guilty of ignoring or trying to deny this reality and trying to inhabit a fantasy, constructed reality in which public opinion is irrelevant and Spanish law is akin to a law of nature. But the Madrid government is not in an unassailable position – neither morally nor tactically – and it is the failure of insight to grasp this situation that might be its undoing.