On Saturday, 21 October, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced plans to remove Catalonia’s regional government and rule the region directly from Madrid. The situation faced by Spain is that of the right to self-determination. This right is enforced by United Nations General Assembly resolution 1514, which states that ‘All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.’
The UN being the go-to organisation for legal disputes of an international nature, it seems the writing is on the wall. Catalonia, using international law, legally has the right to determine its political status and become independent. However, we have an issue. The Spanish Constitution, created in 1978, gives autonomy to the regions of Spain, but affirms ‘the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation.’ According to the constitution, an independence referendum is illegal and not legally binding if carried out, and yet the UN resolution 1514 states that all people have a right to self-determination. Herein lies the problem. Ideally, there should never be situations where a UN member’s constitution contradicts a UN resolution, and when this happens, there is no clear-cut way of enforcing one law over another.
Woodrow Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points were principles that he believed were vital for international peace. Upon announcing them, he stated to Congress on 11 February 1918 that ‘national aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. ‘Self-determination’ is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action.’ Whilst many have criticized his idealism, I believe following this statement remains the best way in which to ensure peace.
The principle of self-determination, as is illustrated in the issue between Catalonia and Spain, challenges the principle of territorial integrity. The issue with the idea of territorial integrity is that it prevents the economic and cultural evolution of states. If we are to take Catalonia, as an example, there is a huge difference in terms of economic prosperity between Catalonia and Spain. Territorial integrity is holding back Catalonia. The region accounts for 19% of Spain’s GDP, and whilst Spain has been suffering from a financial crisis for the past decade (famously illustrated by the BBC’s Top Gear visiting a totally abandoned international airport), Catalonia has remained strong; there is a feeling among Catalans that Spain is holding the Catalonian economy back, and that independence is the best thing for the region’s development. Their unemployment is well below the national average, and Catalonia’s annual exports (€65.1bn) are over twice as valuable as any other Spanish region. Whilst Madrid’s position is illegal, I can understand it; if Catalonia becomes an independent state, Spain will lose almost 20% of its economic output.
Denying states self-determination has, historically, not gone well. Crimea and Chechnya are two regions of Ukraine and Russia respectively that voted for independence, but had their wish denied, and consequently rioting and war broke out. I am not suggesting we are headed for war in North Eastern Spain, but the issue of national identity is an emotional one. People do not like having their national identity dictated to them, not just because self-determination is a legal human right, but also because it is a moral one. For the Spanish government to completely disregard the views of two million Catalonians who wish to become independent of Spain would be incredibly damaging for their democracy, and would only create greater divisions in Spain.
Democracy brings me onto the EU. The European Union markets itself as the pinnacle of democracy. Twenty-eight (soon to be twenty-seven) great democracies working together using democracy as a tool to further their development. And yet, throughout this crisis, the EU has remained almost silent on the issue of Catalonian independence. For an organisation which prides itself on its democracy, staying silent when one of their member nations ignores the views of over two million of its citizens seems rather weak. The only comment from the EU has been from the European Commission, declaring the referendum illegal.
This brings me back to international law, and ethics. International law, as we know, states that all people have a right to self-determination. Morally, one should be able to have a say in their national identity. And one must not forget the wise words of Woodrow Wilson declaring that allowing self-determination is the best way to ensure peace. And yet the EU declares this right to be illegal. President Juncker stated that this was an internal matter for Spain to deal with themselves. One would assume that Juncker would be keen for his member states to abide by international law, but not so.
I end with the Falkland Islands. The context here is different, but it still boils down to the issue of self-determination. In 1982, the Falkland Islands were invaded by Argentina, disregarding the islanders’ desire to be British. The Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher fought a hugely successful war based on one principle: people have a right to determine their national identity, and that right must be protected. 255 British military personnel, including my grandfather, were killed fighting for the islanders’ right to self-determination. Not only is denying the people of Catalonia independence against international law, but from a moral standpoint, I feel strongly that they have the right to determine their nationality, and strongly oppose any government ignoring a peoples’ wish to become an independent state. ‘’Self-determination’ is not a mere phrase,’ as Wilson said, ‘it is an imperative principle of action’.