Thursday, November 2, 2017

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: Catalonia and the growing clamour for ‘external self-determination’

Pro-independence Catalans would have the world believe that they have a democratic right to secession. Not so.

It’s not a matter of democracy when a group of like-minded people agree amongst themselves about what they want, even when they dress their demands up in what appears democratic garb such as an entre-nous ‘referendum’ [with no legal standing].

The Spanish government is entirely within its rights in adopting a hard-line stance towards the Catalan would-be separatists. The EU declined Barcelona’s request to act as mediators, taking the position that this is an internal matter and that involvement would amount to meddling in the affairs of a sovereign member-State.
With regard to international law, the issue of ‘external self-determination’ (i.e. the right to secede) is one that seemed fairly settled a few decades ago but has become somewhat murky since. Orthodox wisdom is that the right of external self-determination is trumped by the need to maintain the territorial integrity of sovereign States even when the drawing of national borders was a bit slapdash (see my article “Colonial boundaries here to stay”, Breaking Views 3 September 2014). Quite a few secessionist movements in the second half of the 20th century came to grief because the world wasn’t listening to their appeal to the right of self-determination.

The alternative to external self-determination is internal self-determination (you’d already guessed that, hadn’t you?). This involves giving regions inhabited largely by distinct minority peoples high levels of autonomy within a federal set-up. The Canadian Supreme Court told the Quebec separatists they’d have to be content with that. The Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq is another topical example. The problem with internal self-determination is that, akin to most if not all compromises, it satisfies nobody as it goes too far for some and not far enough for others – as recent developments in Kurdistan illustrate.

Occasionally, the principle of territorial integrity lording it over the right of external self-determination has been set aside when the moral case for secession has been compelling (or, it could be sardonically noted, when the State being broken away from isn’t in the West’s good books). Bangladesh and Eritrea exemplify these. But it was Kosovo that forced writers of international law textbooks to revisit the paradigm.

A cynic would say that Kosovo was a reminder to us all that international law is an illusion of convenience subject to geopolitical expediency and the whims of those who wield real power in the world. A more constructive commentator might say that Kosovo was a catalyst in an evolutionary process that sees international law, like all law, continually taking leaps forward. Many Catalans will be counting on hitching a ride on the Kosovo bandwagon.

Much has been said and written about how many developing countries are artificial entities created by arbitrary line-drawing on maps by European powers. What is not so often mentioned is that much the same can be said of the countries of Europe itself. France was cobbled together from numerous little kingdoms and fiefdoms including a Scandinavian (Norman) enclave. Belgium is an unnatural fusion of Wallonia and Flanders – they don’t even speak the same language. Germany, the borders of which saw a lot of to-ing and fro-ing involving neighbouring countries in the first half of the last century, is a federation of what were distinct national entities prior to 1872 – in many respects, Prussia and Bavaria are like chalk and cheese.

Catalonia, once a Frankish vassal, then part of the Kingdom of Aragon and subsequently a Principality, has arguably never been a natural member of the Spanish union. A short-lived Catalan Republic was declared in 1931. It was only under Franco that Catalonia became a reluctant fully-fledged member of the Spanish family. During that time, any manifestation of Catalan independence, including the use of the Catalan language, was forcefully supressed. 

I suspect the EU’s reaction to the proposal from Barcelona that it act as a mediator is attributable to not only a non-desire to get involved in the internal affairs of another State but also to a growing angst about the disintegration of the EU. Anti-EU sentiment is a menacing political reality in several member States. We now have Brexit, and although a Frexit or Nexit remains difficult to countenance in the immediate future, these possibilities cannot be summarily dismissed for the medium term. Add to these uncertainties the possibility of  the dissolution of member countries into new States some of which are intent on leaving the Union upon attaining nationhood.

It’s hard to say how this will pan out. The Catalan people are split over the matter – it is downright dishonest to claim that ‘Catalans want independence’. 
Shades of Brexit – the same proportion of eligible voters opted for Catalan independence as did for Brexit (see my article  “Brexit and the problematical issue of constitutional change”, Breaking Views 2 October 2016). Only in the Brexit referendum, all citizens were entitled to vote.

There is another way this could go. The Catalonia independence movement gains momentum and the Spanish authorities become commensurately draconian in their attempts to suppress it. Nasty incidents of police cracking down on demonstrators become more regular on our TV screens. With cameras zooming in on attractive young blondes being manhandled by uniformed thugs (oh, you noticed that too, huh?), sympathy for the independence movement grows across Europe. Western Europeans start tut-tutting about the heavy-handedness of the Spanish State and wagging the finger about human rights.  Madrid tells the rest of Europe to mind their own business. Spain’s membership of the EU comes into question and threats are made about freezing it or even turfing Spain out should their pugnacious behaviour continue. At some stage, the continuing clampdown on Catalan independence becomes a political liability. And so the Spanish concede.
More pics like these and Catalan independence may well become a reality!

A long shot? Perhaps – it all depends on how tenacious the separatists turn out to be. Bear in mind in this respect that the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, while receding rapidly from living memory, remain festering sores in a corner of the national Spanish psyche. Many would regard national disintegration as preferable to a return to that cauldron.

Catalan secession would engender a snowball effect. The resurgence of the Basque nationalist movement seeking a new State carved out of parts of southern France and northern Spain is a given. It would give heart to those who want to see Flanders secede from Belgium, albeit with a view to rejoining the Netherlands. A move towards the break-up of Germany into its pre-1872 political configuration is not entirely unthinkable – the East/West rift has only grown since reunification. Thus saith my crystal ball.

External self-determination is in the air. A not unlikely development in the near future is a Rohinya separatist drive – the British had, after all, made an allowance for the secession of minorities in Burma that was scrapped by the majority Burmese shortly after independence. Closer to home, separatist movements in the Indonesian provinces of Irian-Jaya and Aceh are likely to have new life breathed into them.

Closer still, the North Queensland ‘Own State by ‘88’ movement that I recall from my time there 35 years ago may re-emerge and prompt the whole of Queensland to pursue independence – they’ve never really belonged, after all. The same can be said for Tassie and the Northern Territory, so look out Aussie unionists.

 And what was that I heard yonks back about the South Island becoming a separate country from the North Island? Probably pub-talk. But with a tsunami of external self-determination sweeping the globe, South Island secession could well be on the cards.

Then Stewart Island declares independence shortly thereafter. I hope I’ll still be around by then to join in the independence celebrations at that lovely tavern in Oban where I sank a couple of jugs back in 1986.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek BA, BSc, BEdSt, PGDipLaws, MAppSc, PhD is an associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and is a regular commentator on social and political issues. Feedback welcome at 


Brian said...

External self determination.
Enjoyable blog, with a message of what happens when everyone wants everything and trusts that the other person will supply!
Barend, I first noticed this in reading the account of the end of the 1914/18 World War and President Woodrow Wilson determination to make Europe safe from its centuries of internal squabbling and warfare.
His high moralist status as a world saviour, his eloquence which has been copied since by many Presidents and Prime Ministers. Most of all his self belief that he would go to Europe; draft the Peace Conference, and give all small countries the right to govern themselves. (Sound familiar in this day and age?)
As he said prior to his departure “We are to be an instrument in the hands of God to see that liberty is made secure for mankind”. Bold words eagerly take up by the World’s Press at the time. His Secretary of State Robert Lansing had misgivings as he noted down. “...that these demands on the Peace Conference...will cause misery”! Disillusion with President Wilson came from the three Allied statesmen who had expected a Statesman, and got instead a Cleric.
That 1920’s division of Europe sowed the seeds of ethnic and racial problems which led to World War 11 .Just how the Catalans would actually fair economically as separate state is debatable. Perhaps they hold slim hopes of an eventual E.U. solution; if and only if, the European Union survives as a Union and not as German financially controlled “Provinces”.
“Crystal ball gazing” has merit, North Queensland is far away from Canberra, and Pauline Hanson’s party has struck a nerve, which it seems the Liberal National coalition ignores. But Hey, Tasmania is a basket case, and I would suggest that independence would, at present be a Godsend to Canberra, especially so with the Greens in control.
As for the South Island, with the present continual demands by Maori for self government, who knows in 10 to 15 years head? Another bout of the Crusaders and Canterbury Rugby winning consistently..... “There are more things in Heaven and Earth Barend.......

Unknown said...

look lets give the rest of the north island to the maoris and have an independent south island