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2017-11-10 17:34
By Helder do Vale



Redrawing the boundaries of countries has often led to prolonged conflicts. While there are fewer territorial conflicts in the 21st century than in past centuries, they remain critical in several countries. Spain is a case in point, where one of its regions, Catalonia, is actively seeking independence.

Several other countries in Europe have on-going territorial contentions, but it is fair to say that Spain remains the only one where the conflict has escalated to a point where the ability of its democratic system to respond to the crisis is questionable. In recent decades, Spain’s response to Catalonia’s reaffirmation of its identity has been one of largely decentralized power.

Catalonia already enjoys a higher degree of self-government than almost any other region in the European Union, yet public support for independence is increasing and currently approximately 40% of Catalonians endorse independence. Amidst higher mobilization of Catalan separatists, an illegal referendum was held in early October triggering a unilateral declaration of independence of Catalonia on October 27th.

The Spanish Prime-Minister Mariano Rajoy has responded to calls for independence with an appeal to respect the rule of law. In spite of the calls for law abidance, the regional government of Catalonia has unilaterally declared independence. In the meanwhile, the central government has approved in the Senate a law allowing Madrid to restore the rights of Catalonia to function as a regional government until new regional elections are held in December 2017. The current scenario represents one of the deepest ruptures of the constitutional order since the country transitioned to democracy three decades ago.

As it stands today, this territorial conflict has turned into a full-blown constitutional crisis requiring an urgent political solution. And a solution to the crisis will be difficult as Madrid promises to prosecute the main members of the Catalan “rebel” government, including the now ceased Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, who recently fled to Brussels. As a response to Madrid’s resolve, the Catalan separatist leadership has accused the Spanish government of being “undemocratic”.

The region of Catalonia, one of the economically wealthiest regions of Spain, has had shaky relations with the central government in Madrid since 2005 when regional politicians unsuccessfully attempted to include the word “nation” in the preamble of its regional statutes to refer to Catalonia. Ever since, the Catalan roadmap to independence began developing with growing radicalization in the Catalan political arena. This radicalization consists of creating a conflictive discourse to antagonize the Spanish government. 

Clearly, the territorial model that has held Spain together as a regionally diverse nation since 1978 has come to an end. The consequences of the deepening Spanish territorial crisis are many for the rest of Europe including the weakening of the image of an integrated EU. 

While the crisis is still unfolding, lasting solutions will rely on a constitutional reform that is currently being negotiated. Fortunately, in its recent history as a modern democracy, Spain has done well in finding solutions to complex problems.


Helder do Vale (helderdovale@gmail.com) is a professor at Hankuk University’s Graduate School of International and Area Studies.


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