Thursday, March 29, 2018

Psephology Rocks: 44 Messages from Catalonia

The Intercept posted a fascinating, short little documentary on the independence referendum in Catalonia last year called '44 Messages from Catalonia' that combines documentary footage with WhatsApp messages from the tumultuous few weeks between the vote and the brief declaration of independence before Spain essentially squashed it.

Catalonia's been back in the news this week: exiled Catalan President Carlos Puidgemont was arrested in Germany. Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks remains holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, but lost his internet access after this Tweet was apparently deemed a bridge too far by the Ecuadorians:
So, while it's faded from view, the debate over Catalonia hasn't gone away. And while I usually focus on an actual election going on in any given month when I do one of these posts, March hasn't been helpful. Russia held an election (Spoiler Alert: Putin won) and Egypt held an election (Spoiler Alert: Al-Sisi won) and Italy held an election (Spoiler Alert: somebody won?). The whole mess of Catalonia remains interesting to me because it raises all kinds of tricky questions to consider. Is secession okay? Do people have an inalienable right to self-determination? If you're going to vote for a new country, how can you get off the ground running?

Let's take the questions one at a time: is secession okay?

The only answer I can come up with to this one is: I don't know. There's a weird contradiction running through American history about the whole question of secession. On the one hand, as a nation, we were born of secession. The Revolution was about throwing off a tyrannical government and declaring independence as a new country. Yet, on the other hand, the Civil War was a direct result of the South seceding over the issue of slavery*. To get all crazy up in here and add a mutant third hand to the proceedings: whole states have been created through secession- West Virginia, Maine and Kentucky were all split off from existing states and admitted to the union**.

It's a hard topic to unpack, but kind of dovetails into the next question: do people have an inalienable right to self-determination? Here, I'm going to answer: yes. I think we're very conditioned to believe in the nation states that we live in, so it's a hard sell for a lot of people. (A lot of that goes back to educational systems that promote conformity and good citizenship- we're socialized to believe in our countries.) But if the people vote in a free, fair and universal mandate and they vote to leave, I think they should be allowed to leave. I don't think there's a good argument against it- but I do think it comes with a catch: unless it's a velvet divorce like the Czech Republic and Slovakia, then if you want out, then you're out.

Which brings us to the third question: if you're going to vote to start a new country, how can you get off the ground running? I think this question more than anything else is probably what doomed the Catalan attempt. One of the last messages in the documentary is from the man himself, President Puigdemont, who said 'we are witnessing the last days of the Catalan Republic.' Well, you never really had a Catalan Republic. You had a vote saying that you wanted to have one, but voting for one and getting one are two different things. The emotional arguments in favor of secession are strong ones, but they can be easily countered by rational economic arguments: what money are you going to use? who is paying the bills? who is paying for health care? who is paying for pensions and defense? I hope that the Catalans had thought about some of these questions ahead of time- I'm guessing they probably did, but you literally had to have a new currency ready to go as soon as you declare independence and without it, the Catalans never really had a chance.

Velvet divorces will probably continue to create new countries for the foreseeable future, hard divorces (like the one Catalonia tried and Scotland voted against) are less likely to happen- especially in the European context. The EU has no interest in pissing off it's member states by recognizing breakaway regions like Catalonia and Spain would have every reason to veto Catalonia's entry into the EU- which wouldn't happen right away either. Now, post-Brexit, if Scotland voted to leave again, that calculation might change- but it still wouldn't mean immediate accession to the Eurozone or adopting the Euro right off the bat (at least I don't think so.)

The Kurds tried an independence referendum of their own last year and a combination of yet another worldwide shrug at the results produced more direct economic pressures that the uncertainty the Catalans faced. They lost 25% of the territory they had held post-ISIS and that included the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and that as they say was that. (At least for now, though with Turkey launching an offensive against them, I think the dream of the Kurds is going to continue to wait.)

At the end of the day, I think both sides in Catalonia messed this up. The pro-independence Catalans don't appear to have been ready to run once the votes were in and Madrid messed up a once-in-a-generation opportunity to squash the independence movement through democratic means. The argument to stay would have outweighed the uncertainties of independence. Using the police and sending in the batons doesn't solve the problem, it merely delays it.

*The more I sort of look at the historical timeline of the Civil War, the more I'm convinced that the South was fighting a losing battle on the issue from the start. The British had begun to move against the slave trade with their Abolition Act of 1833 and when the pre-eminent world power abolishes slavery, the writing is kind of on the wall. By 1872, slavery was even in decline in Brazil- where 75% of black and mulattoes were freed and it would be legally abolished by 1888.  The moral repugnance of the institution was it's downfall and by the 1860s it was dying anyway.

**Apparently, you might be able to add Vermont onto this list, since it was claimed by New York for awhile and there was some kind of issue with a land claim that New York eventually gave up? It's complicated.

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