Europe

Catalan Separatists Are on a Path to Failure

Separatists don't have the support of Spain, nor the desire to take on its army.

Flag waving.

Photographer: David Ramos/Getty Images

There's a hard truth to understand for the many Catalans who intend to vote for independence on Oct. 1: Regardless of the legality of their vote, its result can only stand if they are ready to fight for it -- and if they can win in a violent conflict.

QuickTake Catalonia

As things stand before the independence referendum, Catalonia and Spain are locked in a legal conflict. The local parliament has decreed the vote, and hundreds of mayors have vowed to facilitate it. The Spanish courts and government have declared the referendum illegal, essentially on the grounds that only all of Spain's people can vote to change the nation's constitution. Catalans have complicated legal arguments against that position. What they don't appear to have is the resolve to fight Spain.

The Catalan nationalist movement has always been largely peaceful. The only notable exception is the Terra Lliure group, which was active between 1978 and 1995. Its attacks only killed one person, and it dissolved soon after a massive government crackdown. It never had the strength or violent determination of the Irish Republican Army, the Basque Country's ETA or even the Quebec Liberation Front, not to mention the separatist fighters of Chechnya, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, South Sudan, Eritrea or Timor-Leste.

That kind of determination is not strictly necessary for a successful secession. As an alternative, public opinion in the country from which a region is trying to secede must be in favor of the change (as was the case with Norway's splintering from Sweden in 1905), or at least willing to accept the will of the region's population (the case of the U.K. and Scotland, had the latter voted for independence in 2014). But such consensual situations are rare, and the Catalans don't benefit from one of them. The rest of Spain -- at least those Spaniards who have voted for the major political parties -- is not in favor of Catalan independence.

Under these circumstances, separatists need escalation dominance. That, in the end, prevented major violence when the Soviet Union fell apart: Moscow let its constituent republics go only reluctantly, but it realized it didn't have the military strength to hold them all back. If the separatists cannot persuade the bigger nation that it's too weak to resist, they must be prepared to fight a bloody war. All the successful secessions in recent decades, and a few unsuccessful ones, were marked by violence.

When it comes to separatism, there are certain pay-offs even to terrorist methods. In both Ireland and Quebec, the desperate nationalist fighters lent urgency to the independence cause and forced authorities to seek peaceful solutions, including strong autonomy for the regions. But full secession is usually achieved through full-scale conflict. In it, it's best if the seceding region's people can stand on their own two feet. If foreign powers get involved, there are usually recognition problems because these powers' ability to redraw borders is usually resented by their geopolitical rivals. Thus, Russia and China, as well as a number of other nations, have failed to recognize Kosovo despite an International Court of Justice ruling in favor of its secession: They see Kosovo's statehood as the result of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization power play. On the other hand, hardly anyone has recognized the Russian-backed "independence" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which seceded from Georgia, and only 10 nations have accepted Crimea as part of Russia. 

When secessionists do realize that they'll have to fight it out, the wars they get into often last for decades, as they did in South Sudan, Eritrea and Timor-Leste before the issues were resolved with a vote. And a victory, of course, is not guaranteed. The Basque separatists of the ETA, whose intense terror campaign lasted for half a century, lost. The Tamil Tigers waged war on the Sri Lankan government for a quarter of a century before they were defeated. The Chechens fought for independence from Russia for 15 years; they, too, were beaten. 

Catalan separatists don't have the capacity or the desperation to take on the Spanish army, or even the Spanish police, which recently confiscated referendum-related materials near Barcelona, demonstrating that it controls the situation in Catalonia. Nor do they have superpower sponsors or much international support at all. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has escalation dominance when he threatens interference by Spanish security forces and possible criminal proceedings against separatist Catalan legislators. No one dares threaten him with a violent response. So there is no reason for Rajoy to back down, and no way for the secession to succeed even if the vote takes place with a large turnout and a majority of Catalans vote for secession (contrary to recent polls, which show a narrow preference for the status quo).

Unless the Catalan separatists are prepared for long-term armed resistance, the only way they can achieve their goal is by convincing the majority of Spaniards that they're better off without Catalonia. That'll be hard for the same reasons the secessionists hold up as proof that Catalonia can be successful on its own: The wealthy region is a net financial donor to the rest of Spain. 

The separatists, headed by Carles Puigdemont, have painted themselves into a corner. They are not prepared to take the long and dangerous route to success, and they have no arguments for a consensual scenario -- or even overwhelming support in Catalonia itself. They have also gone too far in their confrontation with the government in Madrid to bargain successfully for broader autonomy within Spain. With these leaders, and with their approach to seeking independence, the Catalan people won't see more freedom from Spain any time soon, whatever happens on Oct. 1.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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