Baffled by the goings-on in Catalonia? Former British Ambassador Charles Crawford answers your Frequently Asked Questions:
Can Catalonia be an independent country?
In principle, why not? It has a population of some 7.5 million people, so as an independent state it would be comfortably in the top half of the world’s country population league rankings (just above Bulgaria, Paraguay, Libya and so on). It’s wealthy enough to survive on its own as a European state.
So, what’s the issue?
Under international law Catalonia is part of Spain. So unless it follows international law norms to become independent, that’s how it stays.
But it’s had a pro-independence popular vote?
Interesting, but not decisive.
The nub of it is here. Being an independent state has two aspects: what you call yourself, and how far if at all others agree with you.
So Oxfordshire or Hemel Hempstead or Scotland or Catalonia or Chechnya can all proclaim themselves to be independent whenever they like. But if no-one else recognises them as such they promptly get stuck and look ridiculous. It’s a serious, responsible business being a state. Other states (and the global investment community) want to know that you’re up to it. This typically means their being very confident that you control your own defined territory and have a serious prospect of surviving indefinitely as an independent state. If not, why recognise you?
Isn’t that a bit ad hoc if not cynical?
Yes. But life does not fit into neat categories. If (say) Vermont proclaims independence from the USA and somehow gets itself established without the rest of the USA physically intervening to stop it, over time more and more countries may recognise it and allow it into the international family. Of course Vermont joins the UN only if the USA accepts that.
What about Kosovo?
Good question. Kosovo is the classic example of what can go wrong when there is no international consensus on recognition. 111 UN member states have recognised Kosovo, but many key states (Russia, India, China, Brazil etc) have not. Even within the EU views are divided: Spain, Romania, Cyprus and Slovakia have not recognised Kosovo’s independence. This means that Kosovo struggles to get into many international organisations as an equal member, above all into the United Nations itself.
The Kosovo case shows what happens when part of a state tries to break away in defiance of the views of the majority of that state and its legitimate government. Other states don’t like that precedent. Who knows how it might affect them down the road?
However, IF Serbia finally heaves a deep sigh and finally accepts Kosovo as an independent neighbour (maybe after some negotiated border-tweaks), everyone else including Russia/China etc (probably) will accept that and let Kosovo into the UN. The crucial principle that independence comes only by agreement will have been upheld.
Note that when Czechoslovakia and the USSR broke up, it was all done by agreement (of sorts) among the leaders concerned. Thus the new states emerging were easily accepted by the rest of us as new UN members and full independent international subjects.
Note too that within that process Chechnya declared itself independent along with the the fifteen republics that comprised the USSR but it was never recognised by the rest of the world and in due course took a horrible beating from Moscow.
That’s why Scotland went to great pains to negotiate an exit path with London. Alas for Scottish independence fans, the Scottish masses rejected that path.
But NB that even if Scotland had voted for independence and the rest of the UK had recognised Scotland as a new independent state, Scotland would still have to make its way into the EU and UN and myriad other organisations, perhaps in the face of stern objections from some states who disliked the whole business.
Spain suggested that it would not easily or at all accept Scotland into the EU for its own Catalonia reasons. This was clear but illogical: why not accept Scotland as a new state if England and Scotland politely negotiated a divorce? That would set no relevant precedent for Catalonia/Spain, given that Spain WON’T accept Catalonia’s independence.
Why doesn’t Spain let Catalonia go?
Ask the Spanish. Countries don’t easily accept getting smaller. It’s a psychological thing. See also Chechnya.
Yes, but Crimea had a referendum and left Ukraine?
Completely different, and anyway makes my point. Crimea’s moves to leave Ukraine were illegal under international and Ukrainian law, and aimed NOT at making Crimea independent but in joining Crimea to Russia. Russia effectively annexed (ie stole) Crimea from Ukraine. Almost no countries other than the usual hopeless suspects (Nicaragua, North Korea, Syria, Zimbabwe etc) recognise that Crimea is part of Russia as a matter of law (de jure) even if Russia is busy consolidating its de facto grip.
Note too the footling illogic and DOUBLE STANDARDS of the Russian position on Crimea/Kosovo. Russia has accepted Crimea’s referendum in defiance of Kiev’s wishes, because it wants to snaffle Crimea. Yet Russia refuses to accept Kosovo’s parliament’s 2008 independence decision in defiance of Belgrade’s wishes.
But why do we accept the Kosovo independence outcome and not the Crimea one?
Fair point! The key and relevant difference is that Kosovo itself was under varying international mandates, whereas Crimea was not. Kosovo’s independence decision met at least some serious democratic internationally supervised standards. Crimea’s did not.
It’s a really bad idea to proclaim independence if you have not deeply thought through what happens next, and tee’d up in advance a serious raft of prompt recognitions to get off to a strong start.
Catalonia boldly adopted this really bad idea. It held its popular independence vote in defiance of Madrid’s wishes (and maybe/arguably/definitely of Spanish law too). It has no prospect of getting recognised by other EU member states in the face of unwavering Madrid opposition, and without that it barely matters much if it finds a few mischievous capitals that do recognise it.
That’s why as of the time of writing its leadership is ducking and weaving on what exactly Catalonia has proclaimed, or not. Absurd.
Not really. Mediation requires the parties to agree to mediate and to agree that there is something to mediate about. Spain does not accept either. Why should it? Catalonia is making a complete fool of itself, and any external mediation looks like an insult to Spanish Pride. The only issue for Madrid is the terms and speed of Catalonia’s climb-down, and thus the basis for (perhaps) looking again at Catalonia’s status within Spain as and when Madrid feels like it.
Oh, and Spain is an EU member so the EU is not neutral.
Madrid nonetheless has to be careful. If it imposes direct rule on Catalonia (whatever that means in practice) and people there start pushing back against that on the streets, the whole problem could take a much nastier turn and threaten wider stability.
Can Catalonia BOTH be independent and somehow stay with or within Spain?
Ah, nice one.
Maybe. Spain might be persuaded to accept that Catalonia is an ‘independent’ state in return for Catalonia and Spain joining in an Eternal Union under which there is only one UN seat as now, and Madrid runs the Union’s external trade, security and diplomatic business with Catalonia’s fair participation.
Rather like Scotland within the UK. Life goes on. Vital point: the Union has an integrated football space (unlike England and Scotland) so that Barca and Real Madrid stay together in La Liga and can represent the Union in European club matches as now.
Nothing wrong with that result under international law: Catalonia’s membership of the Eternal Union is an expression of its independence and sovereignty, not a diminishing of it. The issue here is rather a pragmatic internal one. What about other parts of Spain that might start clamouring for a similar status?
It’s one thing to be determined and bold. It’s another thing to be convincing and wise.
Look before you leap.
Former Ambassador Charles Crawford retired from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the end of 2007 after nearly three decades in the UK’s Diplomatic Service. He is a founder partner of The Ambassador Partnership LLP