Secession in Liberal Democracies: the Catalan case

We are proud to publish here the fifth post of our “Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives” series, which looks at majority-minority relations in a multi-disciplinary and diachronic perspective. Today’s contribution, by Ferran Requejo (Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona), examines the reasons for the rise of demands for independence in Catalonia in the last decade. The series is a collaboration with H-Nationalism.

History matters. Current political conflicts display historical roots. Perhaps with history we do not explain everything, but without history we do not explain anything.

Having lived through a bloody civil war in the 1930s followed by four decades of General Franco’s dictatorship, the Spanish state carried out a transition to a democratic system at the end of the 1970s. The 1978 Constitution was the legal outcome of this transition process. Among other things, it established a territorial model – the so-called “Estado de las Autonomías” (State of Autonomous Communities) – which was in principle designed to satisfy the historical demands for recognition and self-government of, above all, the citizens and institutions of two minority nations: Catalonia and the Basque Country. This territorial model occupies an intermediate position between the classic federal and regional models of comparative politics, but has more regional than federal features[1]. Forty years later, many Catalan and Basque citizens and political and social actors show a deep disappointment regarding the development of this territorial model in terms of collective rights, political recognition and self-government.

In recent years support for independence has increased in Catalonia. Different indicators show that pro-independence demands are endorsed by a majority of its citizens, political parties and civil society organizations. This is a new phenomenon. Those in favour of independence had been in the minority throughout the 20th century. Nowadays, however, demands of a pro-autonomy and pro-federalist nature, which until recently had been dominant, have gradually lost public support in favour of demands for self-determination and secession

What has happened?

The reasons for this change are to be found in Catalonia’s political evolution over the past fifteen years, especially in the shortcomings with regard to constitutional recognition and political and economic accommodation displayed by the Spanish political system. The latter have been exacerbated by the reform process of Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy (Constitutional Law) (2006) and the subsequent judgement of Spain’s Constitutional Court regarding this Law (2010).

Before going into this case study, it is important to point out two theoretical elements that are behind the current political debates about secessionist processes in current liberal democracies:

  1. Like Canada, Belgium or the UK, Spain is a plurinational country. At the beginning of this century, the United Nations clearly established that a politics of recognition is an integral part of the struggle for human dignity (Human Development Report, 2004). Moreover, it established that national and cultural freedoms, which include both individual and collective dimensions, are an essential part of the democratic quality of a plurinational society. As a result, values such as dignity, freedom, equality and pluralism become more complex in plurinational contexts than in those of a uninational nature. In this sense, the overall challenge of plurinational democracies can be summed up in the phrase “one polity, several demoi
  2. An established academic typology divides theories of secession into two basic groups:  Remedial Right Theories, which link secession with a “just cause”, in other words, they regard secession as a remedy for specific “injustices”; and Primary Right Theories, which regard secession as a right belonging to certain collectives that fulfil a number of conditions. These latter theories are subdivided into those of an adscriptive or nationalist nature and those of an associative or plebiscitary nature. A third group of theories consist of a revision of traditional political liberalism that tries to establish a formal and deep recognition of national minorities and their accommodation in the constitutional and political rules of present-day democracies.

Launching the reform of the Catalan Statute (2003-2006)

As laid down in the Spanish Constitution, the reform process of the Statute of Catalonia had to be carried out in three stages: it had to be passed by the Catalan parliament (majority of 2/3), by an absolute majority of the members of the Spanish parliament, and finally it had to be approved in referendum by the Catalan citizens. After a rather baroque process, finally a referendum was held (2006) to approve the new Catalan Statute in which it received the support of 73.9% of the Catalan electorate, although the turnout was really low (48,8%). Its final content disappointed many Catalan citizens. Two important parties, the secessionist Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and the Spanish People’s Party (PP) recommended the “no” vote, although for opposite reasons. This referendum should have marked the end of the reform process by closing a legislature devoted to this issue. However, the appeal of unconstitutionality lodged by the PP caused the controversy to drag on and ended up hindering the deployment of the powers contained in the new text.

The judgement of the Constitutional Court (2006-2010)

The judges of the Constitutional Court (appointed by the Spanish parliament, central Government and the General Council of the Judiciary) took nearly four years to deal with the appeal, generating constant uncertainty regarding the final outcome. Over these four years, the process became increasingly convoluted and politically convulsive. The Court’s impartiality was questioned, seriously damaging the institution’s legitimacy. Finally, the Court published its ruling in July 2010. It affected the constitutionality of 14 articles of the Catalan Statute and “interpreted” 27 others. The aspects revised by the Court can be divided into three areas:

  1. Recognition: the judgement states that the Preamble (in which Catalonia was defined as a nation) had no legal value. Regarding the Catalan language, the wish to make it the preferred language within the administration and the media, and the duty to know it were eliminated; the linguistic rights of consumers and users and its role as the primary language in the education system were limited.
  2. Powers: in this area the Statute’s regulation limiting the scope of “base laws” (the central government’s main way of invading Catalonia’s autonomous powers) was cancelled. Moreover, the concepts of exclusive powers, executive powers and spheres such as international relations, culture, civil law or immigration were reinterpreted.
  3. Finance: in this area, two articles referring to the levelling of incomes taking into account similarity of fiscal effort and legislation on local taxes were declared unconstitutional. The interpretative part affected regulations regarding the ordinal principle and state investments according to GDP, among others.

In short, the process resulted in a clear watering down of the objectives of recognition, self-government and political accommodation that had been established at the beginning of the reform process. This new practical content of the Catalan Statute has never been approved by Catalan citizens in a referendum. This is a key element to understand the subsequent emergence of secessionist demands in Catalonia. First of all, the reform had demanded the legally binding recognition of the national reality of Catalonia within the framework of the Spanish Constitution. This demand had been stripped of all legal value by the end of the process. Secondly, greater depth and protection for self-government had been sought so that the Catalan government could further develop its own distinct powers, but this demand resulted in extremely modest gains. Thirdly, it was not possible to attain a finance model which ended a system regarded as unjust (quantified as between 7% and 9% of Catalonia’s GDP and described by some commentators as “fiscal despoliation” in political debates), nor respect for the “ordinal principle” once the territorial transfers have been made.

The combination of the extremely long-drawn-out process to reform the Statute (7 years) and its final disappointing outcome generated a widespread feeling in a large part of the Catalan citizenry of a lack of institutional legitimacy.

Increased support to secession (2010-2019)

Since the Constitutional Court ruling on the Catalan Statute events speeded up. Catalan elections (2012) established a new minority government (led brecognition, a center-right nationalist federation of two parties) which sought stability through a “Agreement of Government” with ERC. This Agreement included aspects connected with the economic crisis as well as three aspects pertaining to the “right to decide” the Catalan constitutional future: 1) a “Declaration of Sovereignty” (2013) in the Catalan Parliament; 2) the creation of the Advisory Council for National Transition (CATN, 2013-2014) which was tasked with advising the Catalan government on the different scenarios, procedures, legal frameworks, international experiences, institutions, etc., relating to the exercise of the right to decide and secession—most of its 14 members were university professors, mainly from the areas of political science, economics, and constitutional and international law; and 3) the calling of a referendum on the constitutional future of Catalonia which was suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court, although a “participative process” was finally organized (November 2014). This “process” was based on civil society “volunteers” who counted on legal protection and some infrastructures of the Catalan government. It had no legal consequences, but mobilized more than 2,3 million voters and around 80% of them voted “yes” to secession.

After a new electoral period (2015-2017) a pro-independence coalition (Junts pel Sí – Together for Yes) obtained an absolute majority in the Catalan Parliament (72 seats out of 135). The main point of the programme was to call for a referendum of independence, ideally established in agreement with the Spanish central government, following the Scottish experience in the UK (September 2014) and the Quebec experience in Canada (1980, 1995). Finally, after the rejection of the Spanish Government to enter in negotiations regarding this referendum and the subsequent rulings of the Spanish Constitutional Court, a referendum was celebrated organized basically by civil society organizations. All the practical difficulties notwithstanding, which included a strong and violent repression by Spanish police forces, the referendum was held on October 1st, 2017. The results (source: Catalan Government) were as follows:

 Support (%)Number of Votes
Yes90.182,044,038
No7.83177,547
Blank1.9844,913
Turnout43.032,286,217

With regard to the legitimising positions put forward by the different political actors, there is a clear contrast not only between the values and objectives they defend, but also between the different language and theoretical frameworks they employ. On the one hand, the central government and the main Spanish political parties put forward reasons of a legal-constitutional nature: in the Spanish case, they say, it is not legally possible to enter into a dynamic similar to that which occurred in the case of Canada or the United Kingdom (based on negotiation and bilateralism). Moreover, a number of actors have employed arguments relating to the potential economic decadence of an independent Catalonia or its automatic exclusion from the European Union (in contrast with empirical evidence and the Scottish debate). In practical terms, macroeconomic decisions remain in the hands of the central government, as do decisions relating to the management of the main taxes and fiscal transfers which enable the Catalan government to pay everything from the salaries of its employees to its suppliers. The economy is currently one of the key instruments used by the central government to put pressure on Catalan institutions.

On the other hand, the Catalan actors put forward two kinds of legitimizing argument depending on whether the aim is to justify the holding of a referendum on secession, or to defend the soundness of Catalonia becoming an independent state. The fundamental reason used to justify an independence referendum is its democratic nature. The prior assumption is that Catalonia is a specific demos that has the right to decide about its future according to liberal-democratic values and rules. The differentiating roots of this demos are of a historical and national-cultural nature (Catalonia was an independent state some centuries ago; Catalans have their own language and culture). Thus the legitimizing arguments for the right to decide usually combine the perspective of adscriptive or national theories of secession with the perspective of democratic and plebiscitary theories. Moreover, the legitimizing arguments in favour of independence add to these two avenues those associated with theories of just-cause secession. In this case, “injustice” is present both in relation to the systematic mistreatment at the economic and fiscal levels that Catalonia receives from the Spanish government—Catalonia’s fiscal deficit with regard to the state is in the order of 15,000 million euros a year, according to a number of economic and fiscal studies; lack of infrastructures, centralism with regard to Barcelona’s airport and other infrastructures, lack of recognition of the distinct national reality of Catalan society, linguistic policies (absence of linguistic pluralism in state institutions and practices, etc.), marginalization of Catalonia from the European and international spheres, shortcomings in the use of political symbols, etc.

A formal but rather “symbolic” and non-implemented Declaration of Independence followed the referendum in the Catalan Parliament (October 27, 2017). As it is well known, the Spanish central government reacted immediately applying article 155 of the Spanish Constitution which implies the control of Catalan institutions by the Spanish central government, which also called for new elections in Catalonia (December 2017). The results did not change the previous situation, with an outright majority obtained by secessionist parties (70 out of 135 seats). This elected a new president, Joaquim Torra, who acts in accordance with former president Carles Puigdemont who lives in Belgium. In 2018, a Spanish euro order to arrest Puigdemont was refused by the Court of the German land of Schleswig-Holstein, where he was provisionally arrested. In parallel, a political trial in the Spanish Supreme Court has emerged against members of the former Catalan government and the President of the Catalan parliament that remained in Catalonia. In contrast, other members of the Catalan government and MP’s, including the president of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont, preferred to live “in exile” in different countries (Belgium, UK, Switzerland) in order to avoid being judged in Spain. Although the “autonomous government” in Catalonia has been formally reinstituted the practical situation is far from being “normalized” in political and democratic terms. In October 2019 a new central government was built by the Socialist Party (PSOE) and a leftish party born in the last decade (Podemos). A “table for dialogue” has been created in February 2020 between the Spanish and Catalan governments. However, the programme and calendar are undefined and a clear scepticism is present about its potential as a way to solve the deep historical, national and political problems that are at stake. Not to mention that the fact that Catalan leaders remain in jail or must live in “exile” is not the best framework to obtain a realistic solution. There is a deep divergence between the objectives, language, values and procedural rules shared by the different actors on either side of the “dialogue table”.

To sum up, the future prospects of Catalan and Spanish politics regarding the territorial-national question remain open. Spanish opposition to a referendum in Catalonia, in contrast with the agreement between the British and Scottish governments, leads the current political process into unknown territory. There are a number of different possible scenarios: either through agreements within the context of the Spanish state—which currently seem unlikely—, through agreements with European or international mediation (following, for example, the procedural rules established by the Canadian Supreme Court in 1998 in relation to the relationship between Quebec and Canada, or through the mobilization of Catalan citizenry in a reinforced new secessionist institutional attempt at disconnection).

The lack of national recognition and accommodation shown by the Spanish state has played a decisive role in causing the predominant Catalan demands to shift from being regionalist or pro-autonomy towards secessionism. The Catalan case constitutes a clear empirical point of reference within the sphere of comparative politics on secessionist processes in liberal democracies, and constitutes a dynamic element in the European Union in an increasingly globalized world.

Ferran Requejo is Professor of Political Science at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, where he is director of the Research Group on Political Theory. His main fields of research are theories of democracy, federalism, multinational democracies, political theory and political liberalism after World War II. In 1997 he was awarded the Rudolf Wildenmann Prize (ECPR), in 2002 he received the Ramon Trias Fargas Prize, and in 2006 the Spanish Political Science Association Prize to the best book (Multinational Federalism and Value Pluralism, Routledge 2005). He has been furthermore member of the Spanish Electoral Board (Junta Electoral Central, 2004-2008), of the executive committee of the European Consortium of Political Research and of the Comparative Federalism Research Committee (International Political Science Association). He is currently a regular contributor to the newspapers “La Vanguardia” and “Ara” (Barcelona) and other Catalan, Spanish and international media.

The Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective series is organized by the Myth of Homogeneity Research Project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva.

Scholars interested in contributing to the series can contact:

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle: emmanuel.dallemulle-at-graduateinstitute.ch

Mona Bieling: mona.bieling-at-graduateinstitute.ch


[1] See Ferran Requejo, “Is Spain a Federal Country?”, http://50shadesoffederalism.com/case-studies/spain-federal-country/. See also K.J. Nagel-F.Requejo, “Democracy and Borders: External and Internal Secession in the European Union” inJ.Jordana-M.Keating-A.Marx-J.Wouters (eds), Changing Borders in Europe, Routledge, 2019: 146-162.

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