By Jessica Weiss
On Oct 1, the government of Catalan held a binding referendum on independence from Spain, which the Spanish government deemed illegal. Catalonia, a region with its own dialect, flag and regional government, is home to one of Spain’s largest cities: Barcelona. Through a vote that sparked fear and condemnation across Spain, long-standing tensions that differentiated Catalonians bubbled over with this election, resulting in massive crackdowns at the voting polls by police and national guard leading to around 900 injured.
Ultimately, independence won with around 90 percent of the vote, although turnout was heavily slated to those who would most likely vote for independence anyway given the illegal nature of the vote. Thus, voter turnout stood at around 42 percent according to estimates. The resulting fallout however is not to be downplayed. Spain has vehemently spoke out on the issue, and the European Union has virtually turned its back on Catalan, acknowledging Spain’s sovereignty.
These conflicts reveal a longstanding philosophical inconsistency regarding self-determination in the “free world,” a problem that seems to be affecting more established western liberal democracies in modern times. In the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to self-determine is explicitly stated in article 21(3): “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
You would expect that in a document so ingrained in principles touted by countries like the United States and United Kingdom, countries that recognize these rights would not object to self-determination, or at least would be better equipped to provide better representation in cases where groups feel like they are not represented.
But no, across the so-called free world we are seeing independence movements flourish, coincidentally (or not so much so) in line with rising nationalism. Why are countries so bad at addressing the needs of organized minorities, and why do independence movements pose such a threat?
Love for democracy seemingly ends at the point where a nation state is threatened, even though the embodiment of that nation state is often rooted in a history of revolutionary change to address the needs of those being unheard. Perhaps this new wave of independence movements, from Scotland to Catalonia, needs to be recognized as that.
Sure, there are all the arguments about economic success, political stability and geopolitical security, but in a world that is becoming increasingly liberal and interconnected through supranational organizations and regional frameworks, it seems that the only thing holding new smaller regions back is the very resistance from the states they are breaking from.
The Brexit vote won, but the United Kingdom has no clue what it is doing in regards to leaving the European Union, and the party behind it took a big hit. Liberalism’s narrative continues to fight nationalistic narratives at the nation state level, so what is holding back the breaking up of nation states into smaller bodies that are more representative of the people in them?
Why must countries be large to be successful in a world where states are working together to decrease the influence of realist, realpolitik, state versus state narratives? It all seems inconsistent with the goals and shifting values of 21st century nation states, and the problems all seem to lead back to fear of losing sovereignty as a large state.
Not only is it a bad look for a western liberal democracy to be violently suppressing people doing what you told them to do and exercising what you defined as their fundamental rights as humans, but it also seems pointless. Let people vote, let our conception of the nation state change. Historic progress requires this, so the question now relies on how violent and resistant will that change be.