As of the time of writing these lines, it is still very much unknown what will happen with the issue of Catalan independence. They declared it, but it’s not clear how sustainable that’s going to be. What is known, is the response given to the idea of Catalan independence by virtually all Western countries – complete rejection, present and future. Essentially the same response as that given to Kurdish independence. And that response will ensure that our current world order, forged after World War II, is determined to keep its unflexibility. In my opinion, this will ensure that the next world war is coming; it is only a matter of time.
The message sent by the refusal is this – you have no hope. Surrender now, because you’ll never get what you want. Every European politician keeps referring to “negotiations” or “dialogue” like it is a magic word, but what is that going to do? A negotiation is a type of communication. It is a way for each side to inform the other of their demands in a certain transaction. Well, Spain and Catalonia have both made their demands quite clear. Baghdad and Erbil have made their demands quite clear. Not everything is a spectrum where “we can meet in the middle” like we like to teach kindergarten children – sometimes a conflict is a zero-sum game, where a decision has to be made to favour one side. The Catalans have already had all the autonomy they can want; Obviously they want something else. They want a country, and there is no “negotiable” halfway point here. They can either have a country, or not have one. Same thing with Kurdistan. This ridiculous lip-service to “negotiation” is not new – people are still calling for “negotiation” between Israel and Palestine, as if after thirty years someone will finally come up with a way for a Jewish state to both exist (the Israeli demand) and not exist (Palestinian demand) at the same time, all we had to do is negotiate more until we found it. And this not only makes a mockery of Western diplomacy, but is truly dangerous, for several reasons.
First of all, it sends an important message to anyone who is not happy with their borders: be violent, or give up your dream forever. By rejecting any peaceful means for secession, Western leaders are ensuring that the only way secessionists will see to fulfill their aspirations are violence. Because the West has not shown full objection to secessionism – only to peaceful secessionism. The only new countries that have received the support of the West in the post Cold War era are those who either fought violently for it, or suffered violence from their occupier (usually both) – Kosovo, South Sudan, East Timor, Eritrea, and of course the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Let me be clear – I am not saying Catalan independence should necessarily be accepted now. But if you reject the current Catalan independence declaration, you must point out another peaceful way for them to achieve it. If you reject it forever, you’re only postponing the problem. National borders are formed out of some particular balance of powers at a certain point. The more discrepancy between the borders and the current balance of power, the less stable the political situation gets. The more people have an incentive to break things up when they have a chance. And when a war comes, all of these people can find in it an outlet to achieve their dreams. Whatever small war is enough to shake things enough for them to rise, they will rise and make it a bigger war. This bigger war will trigger other points of instability, and world war comes.
All previous great wars were based on territorial claims – justified or not. In the long run, this is our next big issue to solve, after we embraced democracy – democracy gave us a way to peacefully solve our conflicts over power within a state, saving the need for civil war; But until we have a peaceful way to solve territorial disputes between states, we cannot avoid international wars. So far the only ones who get it seem to be the British – their decision to accept Scotland’s right to secede was not only extremely progressive and received much less credit than it deserved, but it was also probably the main reason why the Scottish decided to vote against seceding. It was very clear that Spanish oppression of Catalan independence greatly increased the desire for that independence, and that only makes sense – if you have a choice of staying or leaving somewhere, you can judge both options objectively. If you have the same option, but staying means staying forever, no matter what – you might come to the conclusion that it’s better to leave when you have the chance.
And the same goes for Spain – If borders are sacred, then Catalan independence cannot be undone. If the issue could be resolved with “try alone for a while, then see if you want to come back” – then maybe the Spanish need for oppression would be reduced. They would have a peaceful option for regaining the territory – by performing well economically and culturally, and being an attractive state to be part of. If that is not an option, then violence is the only one remaining. And regarding that violence, the Western reaction is doubly wrong – in both rejecting Catalan independence and denouncing Spanish oppression. If you want to be honest in your “support for Spanish territorial integrity”, you must realize that this territorial integrity requires the use of state violence to enforce – any rule of law, just or tyrannical, requires state violence to enforce. But they are going to eat their cake and have it too – they are not responsible for violence. All they said was they support “territorial integrity”. That would presumably be achieved with some stern convincing, maybe some flowers.
(Just to be clear – talking about “the West” in this post does not suggest anyone else is any better – but it seems like no one really expects any better from non-western countries (which is a whole other problem, for another time). The West seems to be, in its own eyes, better than others – therefore it is worth mentioning here. Also, outside the West there seems to be more tolerance for violence, which means more chances for small-scale conflicts rather than gradual build-up of pressure until it explodes in world war; if that’s better or worse, you decide.)