When is a vote for self-determination legitimate? – Catalonia, Spain and the 1st October referendum


On the 1st of October, Catalonia – one of Spain’s richest regions – had a referendum. It was quickly declared as ‘unconstitutional’ by Constitutional Court of Spain since the country’s 1978 Constitution affirms the ‘unity of the state’ – but this is hardly surprising. What is surprising, however, is that despite the initial excitement and commotion that it inspired, the referendum does not seem to have had quite the effect on the global community that the Catalonian Parliament was probably looking for. Most seem to have settled on the side of the government of Spain.  

Part of the reason for this is that most international observers seem to agree that the referendum does not meet the minimum international standards for transparency. And there were other irregularities: for instance, the repeated blocking by the police of the computer programs used for the voting – this apparently resulted in some votes being counted multiple times while others were not counted at all. Another factor is that by some estimates – most notably The Economist’s – only around 47% of the Catalonian public actually turned up to vote. And these consisted overwhelmingly of those who wanted secession – their detractors simply stayed away, not wanting to give credibility to a referendum they saw as illegal. But the most interesting point raised by this entire episode is this: for a region to be confident in its decision to secede, it needs a reasonable amount of international support. This is especially true of a region in Europe – a continent that has become increasingly inter-dependent in the last 50 years or so. But when will this international support be received? When will a vote for self-determination be considered truly legitimate?

There is one thing that is certain – the threshold must be higher than the simple development of a unique ‘identity’.  

Most countries agree that certain minimum standards of the kind alluded to in the previous paragraph must be met. But at least from the perspective of international law, it seems to be a ius cogens rule (i.e. universal) that such a right exists and once the above basic standards are met, it must be recognised by all States if exercised. Yet politics is a totally different species of animal. Almost every sizable country has a region threatening to split for a variety of reasons. In France, the Corsicans wish to secede, and in Germany, it is the Bavarians. Outside of Europe, there is Tibet in China, Kashmir in India, and Balochistan in Pakistan. Politicians risk serious destabilisation if it accepts anything but a high threshold for the recognition of separatist movements. In Spain, regardless of what the courts say, there could conceivably be a point where in the face of international pressure its government would have to recognise Catalonia – but if the threshold for recognition is not high enough, the country would risk losing its Basque region as well where there are other separatist movements. The same applies to all the countries mentioned above and others. There is one thing that is certain – the threshold must be higher than the simple development of a unique ‘identity’.  

The main reason why the ‘identity’ argument is not convincing on its own is that it fails to explain the functioning of certain nations that already exist. From a European point of view, it does seem reasonable that an ‘identity’ – perhaps on the basis of a common language, or a common culture – is enough to justify a separate nation. After all, the division of existing countries in Europe is based on cultural and linguistic divides. However, many nations do not work that way. India for instance, has no common language – each of its 29 states has a language of its own. Arguably, there are major differences in culture as well – in fact North India has more in common with Pakistan than it does with South India. Basically, being ‘different’ is not a powerful enough reason – many different people can learn to live and work together for their mutual benefit. In fact, it is desirable. However, in certain situations it can safely be said that it is not in a region’s mutual benefit to remain in the union – at which point their claim for self-determination becomes truly legitimate. For instance, if they are being kept from practicing their religion or culture. Or if overwhelmingly, the pattern is that resources are being leached from their area for the benefit of others. Or if they are being racially or ethnically subjugated and thus kept from deciding the direction of the greater whole that they are a part of. All these factors were present with respect to most of the countries in Africa and Asia that declared independence in the latter half of the 21st century. And hence these declarations of independence are still seen as the paradigm examples of self-determination today.  

It would be difficult to argue that the above factors exist in the case of Catalonia. While it is true that a large part of Spain’s wealth comes from this region, the situation is far from an institutional leaching away of wealth for a prolonged period of time. Rather, it seems to be more akin to the necessary redistribution of wealth that is part and parcel of what it means to be part of a greater whole. And they would have an even tougher time arguing that they were being oppressed in some manner or prevented from participating in governance. At the end of the day, to most people, Catalonian independence just seems unreasonable 


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