That's the question that seems to be floating around in my head quite a bit, watching the news from Spain as the showdown over Catalonia's declaration of independence continues to unfold. I think, from the outset, Madrid bungled this. In fact, they bungled it in such a way that honestly, Prime Minister Rajoy shouldn't have a job right now. Had they confronted the Catalan question head on and allowed a free and democratic referendum on the question, then the result (which could have well have gone their way) would have reinforced the stability of Spain's democracy and integrity of the Spanish state itself for at least a generation.
Instead, they bungled it. They sent in the police to break up the vote and we were treated to sights of riot police handcuffing old ladies and attempting to disrupt a peaceful democratic vote. The optics alone demolished any constitutional case that Madrid might have made against independence- and strictly speaking, they had a pretty good legal case. Whether you agree with it or not, Spain's constitutional court had ruled the referendum illegal, but the regional government went ahead and did it anyway. The severity of Madrid's reaction was revealing: apparently they either are convinced that they have to hold the line or see a slew of their Northern Provinces follow Catalonia out the door or that the Spanish state is no where near as stable as they think it is. All of which strikes me as somewhat silly, given then fact that 300,000 people turned out for a pro-Unity rally in Barcelona over the weekend.
This was an argument that Madrid could have won- easily. Membership in the EU for an independent Catalonia was not guaranteed. You're going to need to get a new currency off of the ground, fast- and make sure it's stable. Then there's the question of health care, pensions and a general divorce from a Spain that would have no reason to be magnanimous with you. The poetry of independence might be nice, the realities are a lot harder. (The economics of this can get complicated, as Quebec learned in the run up their referendum.) That's the line that Madrid should have taken. Instead, they're filing charges against the dismissed Catalan government, which I think is only going to keep the independence question alive and might, in the long term, make things worse. Authorities in Madrid locking up Catalans fighting for their freedom? Stop me if you've seen this movie before.
There was a practical and strong argument to be made against independence. And had Madrid bothered to make it, I suspect we wouldn't be in this mess. But there's a demographic problem with this as well: in the vote itself, two million Catalans voted, (despite the police interference) and 90% of them voted yes. Which amounts to about 42% of the electorate. That's troubling math if you break it down... so less than half of your electorate bothered to show up and 90% of them voted yes- is that a clear mandate from the Catalan people? (This stands in contrast to the Scottish referendum where 84% of the electorate turned out to vote, and the Kurdish referendum- also causing headaches in the Middle East, which had 72% turnout.) I don't think it is- and if it's not, then can you really claim that people want out?*
Which brings this back to the original question: when is it okay to secede? As an American, there's an uncomfortable contradiction with unpacking how to feel about all this. On the one hand, we are a country born of secession. We dumped a bunch of tea in Boston Harbor and said 'fuck all this King shit.' And one Revolution later, here we are. But then came the Civil War and secession gets slapped with a whole other set of connotations that we're still wrestling with today. The slavery question having been settled (here in America, anyway), now for a lot of these regions out there, it's an economic question, instead of a Nationalist one. Catalonia doesn't want to pay for the rest of Spain. Northern Italy doesn't want to pay for Southern Italy. Flanders doesn't want to pay for Belgium. Alberta doesn't want to pay for Ontario. California doesn't want to pay for Republicans and Texas doesn't want to pay for Democrats.
Personally, I don't think 'I don't want to pay for that' is a good foundation for a new Republic. It's hardly Lexington and Concord, is it? And while yes, there might be some good, strong cases in favor of Catalan independence out there, I don't think they've made their case to their own people today. While the reaction of Madrid might ensure that the tantalizing poetry of independence remains alive for future generations to come, I don't think Catalonia can claim a mandate for it now. That's not entirely their fault, given the idiocies of Madrid in not embracing the question and fighting the issue on it's merits. But if you're going to declare independence and not have things like 'money' and 'a plan' ready to go right off the bat, that's a massive strike against you in my book. My sympathies are with the Catalans in this, and if at some point they actually get a free and open vote on the question and decide (with turn out similar to what Scotland and Kurdistan brought to the table) to leave, I'd say Viva Catalunya! But that day doesn't appear to be today.
*Puerto Rico keeps having these issues with their periodic questions about statehood. It's either a ridiculous two part question- like, 'Do you want to change?' and 'If so what should we change too?' Which is confusing, because people might not want to change right now, but think that if they do change, it should be option a. Or option b. Which doesn't send a clear mandate at all. Or there's little to no turnout. If it's me, I'm giving PR a waiver from the Jones Act for 15 years to get it's economy up and running post-Hurricane. Then I'd require a simple, three part question to be asked every ten years or so: Statehood, Independence or Status Quo. This floating in limbo shit is unfair to Puerto Rico and Constitutionally murky at best.