Perhaps the most under-covered story in the U.S. press right now is Catalonia’s independence referendum. Catalonia has had a somewhat fractious relationship with Spain for some time, and the independence movement in Barcelona is nothing new. What is new is the degree to which both sides seem willing to escalate during this particular crisis. Only a few days ago, Spanish police were deployed to brutally shut down the illegal polling stations registering Catalonians’ votes. This provocative move was then followed by Catalonian independence leaders announcing that they will formally declare independence this coming Monday. Of course, how this crisis ultimately ends is far from clear. However it ends, though, there will almost certainly not be a free and independent Catalonia now or in the near future.
As someone who focuses more on Northern Europe, I am hesitant to weigh in too heavily on the specifics of the Catalonia crisis. Instead, I want to address some of the broader problems with referenda highlighted by this incident.
First, it is far from clear to me that referenda and secession are legitimate, legal or even desirable. The Catalonian referendum certainly isn’t. Fundamentally, referenda are premised on the ludicrous supposition that voters are sufficiently informed to select rational policies that are in their interest. The problem of stupid, ill-informed, myopic voters exists in all democratic systems, of course, but most developed democracies utilize representative republican forms of government to mitigate this problem. Instead of letting the masses govern directly, voters’ demands and priorities are mediated through deliberative legislative bodies designed to (at least in theory) moderate extremist views and excessive demands. Referenda bypass these republican institutional safeguards by giving the mob direct control, and this almost always leads to disastrous consequences, as Brexit just keeps on demonstrating.
Second, referenda are almost always unrepresentative, especially when, like in Catalonia, they are pushed by interest groups and unsanctioned by the state. This is because it’s easier to get people to go out and vote on a particular issue that motivates them than it is to mobilize people in favor of the status quo. This probably explains why Catalonian independence leaders have decided to declare independence despite only 40% of the Catalonian population actually supporting a split with Spain. Furthermore, as Tyler Cowen recently pointed out, “referenda on such big questions may under-represent the interests of the young or the interests of business (and in turn real wages), or they may favor expressive voting too much.”
Third, this kind of secession referendum is infinitely regressive: it’s not just regions that can split away, but cities, neighborhoods, and individual blocks. This seems obviously ridiculous both for economic reasons – a proliferation of microstates would lead to poor allocative efficiency by introducing all sorts of different regulations, laws, and customs, and they would also prevent large economies of scale from forming by limiting the size of internal markets – and stability/security reasons. But many of these referenda are crazy in another way as well, they tend to keep occurring over and over. As I mentioned previously, this is not the first time Catalonia has witnessed an independence referendum. Indeed, they held one as recently as 2014. This kind of behavior does not seem democratic or representative at all. Instead, it seems like voting again and again until one gets the result one wants. It’s worth pointing out that this iterative process of voting on the same issue every other year also favors the motivated minority over the uninterested majority, as all but the most dedicated supporters of secession will simply stop showing up at the polls after the nth round of voting.
Fourth, why doesn’t the rest of Spain get a vote? After all, they have already agreed to a number of compromises and accommodations with Barcelona: Catalonia has a type of devolved parliament and was granted broad and generous language rights that they have arguably exploited to suppress and disenfranchise Spanish speakers. Given these unilateral concessions, shouldn’t the other regions of Spain have some control over a decision that will impact all of Spain (especially economically)? If you are an American who disagrees with this view, what do you think about the Civil War? Should the Union have simply given up its southern holdings because an unrepresentative and unsanctioned secession movement declared independence?
My final point has less to do with secession referenda generally and more to do with the E.U.’s influence on secession movements in Europe specifically. Many of these regional movements have existed for decades if not centuries, so one can’t necessarily draw a clear line from Brussels to Scotland, Catalonia, and Wallonia. Nevertheless, I think that the E.U. and, to a lesser extent, NATO have quite obviously exacerbated regional conflicts by creating an economic, political, and military safety net for Europe. Before these institutions insulated Europe from war and discord, smaller territories were forced to merge with neighbors in order to create strong, self-sufficient states. England and Scotland fully merged in the 18th century, France – though unified relatively early on – continued its state-building efforts into the 19th century, and Germany and Italy were both unified by the 1870s. Meanwhile, those states that failed to reform or merge with other regional powers – the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, for example – were annihilated. In short, European states had very strong incentives to consolidate and reform because, if they didn’t, they faced an existential crisis. This process of amalgamation culminated during the end of World War II, as the devastated Western European states were forced to cooperate with one another or face destruction at the hands of the Soviets. These pressures led to NATO, the European Coal and Steel Community, and, eventually, the EU. Ironically, these institutions are now creating the very problems they sought to address decades before because, by providing security, a large and open continental market, and deep interstate political cooperation, there is now little incentive for weak regions to subordinate themselves to a larger nation-state. This doesn’t mean that Europe will fracture into hundreds of microstates, of course; NATO and the E.U. can refuse to extend membership to breakaway regions, and individual nation states can induce/coerce restive regions to remain a part of their country. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more regions attempt to follow in Catalonia’s footsteps, betting their future security not on a strong state, but on the stability provided by European institutions.