Secession and Liberal Democracy: The Catalan Case

Global Centre Stage

The current political situation in Catalonia is an example of tension between legality and democratic legitimacy. The future prospects of Catalan and Spanish politics regarding the territorial question remain open. Spanish opposition to a referendum in Catalonia leads the current political process into unknown territory. This 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 globalised world, insists Professor Ferran Requejo

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. Thirty-six 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 organisations. This is a new phenomenon. Those in favour of independence were 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 (see graphic).

Evolution of Territorial-System Preferences: 2005-2013

The reasons for this change can be found in Catalonia’s political evolution over the past decade, 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:

• Like Canada, Belgium or the UK, Spain is a plurinational country. About 10 years ago, the United Nations clearly established that 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’;

• 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.

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 had to be approved in a 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 percent of the Catalan electorate, although the turnout was really low (48.8%). Two important parties, the secessionist Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and the Spanish Popular 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.

Constitutional Court Judgement: 2006-2010

The 12 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:

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.

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.

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 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 was stripped of all legal value by the end of the process. Secondly, greater depth and protection for self-government had been sought in order 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 that ended a system regarded as unjust (quantified as between seven percent and 10 percent of Catalonia’s GDP, figures that have provoked use of the term ‘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 widespread feeling of lack of institutional legitimacy in a large part of the Catalan citizenry.

Increased Support to Secession: 2010-2014

Since the Constitutional Court ruling on the Catalan Statute, events speeded up. Catalan elections established a new minority government (led by Convergència iUnió, a centre-right nationalist federation of two parties), which sought stability through an ‘Agreement of Government’ with ERC (2012). This Agreement includes aspects connected with the economic crisis as well as three aspects pertaining to the ‘right to decide’ the Catalan constitutional future:

• A 'Declaration of Sovereignty' (2013) in the Catalan Parliament;

• The creation of the Advisory Council for National Transition (CATN) (2013), which has been tasked with advising the government on 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 are university professors, mainly from the areas of political science, economics, and constitutional and international law; and,

• 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 implemented in November 2014: it was based on civil society ‘volunteers’ who counted on legal protection and some infrastructure of the Catalan government (this referendum had no legal consequences, but it mobilised more than 2.3 million voters; around 80 percent of them voted ‘yes’ to secession).

With regard to the legitimising positions put forward by 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 money transfers that enable the Catalan government to pay everything from the salaries of its employees to its suppliers. The economy is currently one of the central government’s key instruments for putting pressure on Catalan institutions.

On the other hand, Catalan actors put forward two kinds of legitimising arguments depending on whether the aim is to justify the holding of a referendum on secession, or to justify the advisability of Catalonia becoming an independent state. The fundamental reason used to justify the 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 legitimising arguments for the right to decide usually combine the perspective of national theories of secession with the perspective of democratic and plebiscitary theories. Moreover, the legitimising arguments in favour of independence add to these two avenues 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 €15,000-20,000 million euros a year, according to several studies; the accumulated negative balance since the year 1986 is calculated to be around €230,000 million – lack of infrastructure, centralism with regard to Barcelona’s airport and other infrastructure, lack of recognition of the distinct national reality of Catalan society, linguistic policies (absence of linguistic pluralism in state institutions and practices, etc), marginalisation from European and international spheres, shortcomings in the use of political symbols, etc.

To sum up, the current political situation in Catalonia is an example of tension between legality and democratic legitimacy. The future prospects of Catalan and Spanish politics regarding the territorial 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, or through the mobilisation of citizenry and a secessionist institutional 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 globalised world.

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Ferran Requejo

Ferran Requejo is Professor of Political Science at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, where he is director of the Research Group on Political Theory and the Research Group of Political Science and has been Director of the MA on Political Philosophy and the MA on Diverse Democracies: Federalism, Nationalism and Multi-culturality. He is currently a member of the National Transition Advisory Council (Catalan Government).

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