29 September 2014

Where Separatism is Illegal -- sort of

Now it's Spain's turn. The region of Catalonia wants to hold a referendum, emulating Scotland, on whether to secede and become an independent country. But the central government claims that the referendum will be unconstitutional if the Catalonians don't get permission from Madrid. Whether the Spanish government would give such permission seems unlikely, since the prime minister has said that "Nobody and nothing will be allowed to break up Spain."

Catalonia is described as one of Spain's richest and most industrialized regions, with Barcelona its showpiece city. BBC reports describe the independence movement in terms many might recognize as right-wing: the secessionists reportedly resent being taxed to support poorer parts of the country. There's probably more to it than that, since Catalonia had some degree of autonomy until about 300 years ago. Like Scotland, there's a "national" heritage cherished in contrast, if not in opposition, to Spanish national identity. Such vestiges probably can be found in all the modern nation-states of western Europe, all of which, after all, were founded in the forms we know today by one dynasty or principality subjecting several others in the epoch of "absolute" monarchy. These stirrings in a part of the world (western Europe as a whole, that is) widely regarded as the most civilized on the planet should silence some of the perhaps-bigoted sneering at apparently intractable tribalism in the Middle East, but that doesn't mean that a global trend towards "balkanization" isn't a matter of global concern wherever it occurs. Separatism most likely isn't just an outburst of tribal bigotry or nationalist ambition, but also a protest against misgovernment, real or alleged, tainted by the impulse to leave erstwhile fellow citizens to their fate. You can understand why national governments oppose separatist movements everywhere, but "separatist" shouldn't be used as a label that allows you to dismiss complaints that may have more legitimacy and universal relevance. Lately we've seen the extremes of China's imprisonment of an apparently non-violent separatist and the United Kingdom's successful gamble that a free vote on Scotland's independence would go the U.K's way. Spain now appears to be at a constitutional impasse, delaying the moment of truth more nations may face as more people question whether or not the forces of centralization and consolidation are irreversible, and others ask whether they should be.

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