The Catalan question has starkly divided European politics in recent weeks. On the one hand, there are those who insist on the rule of law, constitutionality and anti-separatism. On the other, there are those sympathetic to self-determination, participatory democracy and regionalism.
However, we are not just dealing with different positions on this specific issue. The Catalan question illustrates a deeper divide in European politics between liberals on the one hand and radicals on the other. In a sense these are misnomers. Those called “liberals” here will include people who in no way are affiliated with liberal parties and the “radicals” will also describe some Christian democrats and other centrists and conservatives. Let me therefore clarify that these labels do not describe self-identified camps, but tendencies in European politics.
In any case, there is a need for a dialogue – not just in Spain, but in the whole of Europe – between these tendencies to counter the risk of losing common ground. This means acknowledging qualifications to our views and, even more so, to acknowledge that after those have been made there still are and will remain differences of opinion. What we gain from it is not the reaching of a consensus, but preventing the transformation of opponents into enemies; of safeguarding common ground. In that spirit, let’s start with picking apart some of the particular opinions amongst liberals and radicals on the Catalan question and then ask what this says about these tendencies
With regards to the outcome of the referendum the following can be said: liberals are right to qualify the “90%” outcome in favour of independence by pointing towards the turnout. In reality the pro-independence vote is closer to 42% on the eligible population and 31% on the total population. However, they forget two other points. First, the same turnout correction applies to the national government. For the national lower house Rajoy’s Partido Popular has only received 22% of the vote on the eligible population and 17% on the total population, compared to 33% on the voting population. In Catalonia the respective numbers for his party were 8,4%, 6,2% and 13,4%. Second, “the people” – the collective of citizens which give momentum and legitimacy to fundamental political change – has rarely ever consisted of the great majority of the population, but has rather been formed by a sufficient minority.
Liberals do well to free radicals from their mythical notion of the popular will. They would do equally well to recognize that this is an issue of all elections and that in practical terms the independentists have the support they need. Politics remains after all not the art of the admissible, but the art of the possible.
This is also what liberals need to accept with regards to the legal standing of the referendum. It is undeniably true that it is unconstitutional and in breach of the rule of law. It is also beside the point. By blocking a political solution earlier and by refusing to deal with this as a political matter the Spanish government has enabled this situation to develop. Appeals to constitutionality and the rule of law as the sole standards by which to measure this referendum forget that these need to remain in line with political reality. They remain, we should not forget, means to the end of peacefully resolving of political differences. By excluding a persistent, strongly held and fundamental political issue the Spanish government has perverted the rule of law by using it for the exact opposite purpose: to place issues outside of the realm of political deliberation. This frustrating of the political process through a legalistic blockade does not exclude independentist politicians from responsibility – they should face the appropriate consequences – but it does make the Spanish government complicit.
For anyone who would object that this is unduly in favour of the radicals let it be clear that this might be an opinion of radicals, but it is not a radical opinion. It is the same position voiced by, for example, the Economist and Foreign Policy magazine. Both not exactly bastions of radicalism.
Speaking of possibility, a common cry is that it is possible to be both Catalan, Spanish and European. This is undoubtedly true. However, we should not confuse the possibility of multi-layered identities with a necessity of having this reflected in institutional structures. With or without the European Union, we remain European. Our identity as Europeans is not so flimsy and weak as to cease to exist when the Union does. The same applies, I hope, to Spanish and Catalan identity. In this sense it does not follow that Catalonia should not be independent from the Spanish state, because one can be Spanish and Catalan at the same time. People will remain Spanish and Catalan regardless of whether Catalonia is part of Spain or not. It is simply not an objection.
An opinion less voiced outside of Spain is that the Catalan referendum transgresses the (constitutionally established) unity of Spain. The answer to this should be simple: constitutional articles establishing the “unity” or “indivisibility” of the nation are the nationalist parallels to the articles establishing the “leading role” of the Party in the Communist regimes of old. They are mystical fables which should be struck from any European constitution in which they feature. They are an insult to the principle of “united in diversity” since they more often than not are employed as obstacles to further unify Europe and simultaneously threaten the diversity within member states.
This insistence on Spain’s unity is also the other side of arguments on the historical merits of Catalan nationhood which radicals also indulge themselves in. This kind of historical pedantry is just as much a form of poisonous nationalism as the constitutional emphasis on Spain’s unity. The temptation of radicals to rely on essentialist forms of nationhood are rightly condemned. This same sort of appeal to history has been used by Russian nationalists to deny the legitimacy of Ukrainian independence and it deserves the same reply: if Catalonia is not to be part of the Spanish state it will be because of how Catalans living now feel; what was or wasn’t the case hundreds of years ago should not be of concern to anyone today.
What then, does all of this say about the European politics? It comes down to a difference between those inclined to propagate universalism and judicialization, on the one hand and those who lean towards particularism and politicization on the other. The former, who I have called liberals, hope for Europe as a vehicle to supersede nationalism – hence their opposition against new nation states. Taken to its extreme, their utopia is one of a world of one humanity without nations. This latent distaste of cultural difference stands in defiance of the fact that people desire, value and cherish their particularities and fails to recognize that it would rob the world exactly of one of the things which enrich it.
Radicalism, the latter tendency, wants Europe to protect regions against bigger nations. However, the romanticism of radicals at times threatens towards the essentialist and to go beyond protection towards the rectification of past “errors”; a Europe of regions is a legitimate vision, but shouldn’t lapse into vulgar nationalism.
Liberal trust in the judiciary, the rule of law and the constitution comes from a specific distrust in politics, associated with special interest and contrasted with reasoned neutral arbitration and consensus. The danger is when these associations lapse into the denial of the reality of different interests in which a neutral perspective does not always exist. The view of a Europe where the judiciary is used to neutralize politics has been the concrete form of European integration over the past decades. It is a dangerous course which threatens more turbulent situations later on – as the Catalan issue demonstrates.
Still, radicals who give too much room for politics ought to remind themselves of Foucault’s “politics is the continuation of war by other means”. Politics has to be bound or else it will tear society apart and opponents will turn into enemies again and, in the worst case, transform common ground into a battleground. This is why, as sympathetic as one might be to Catalan independence, it is better to hope against a unilateral declaration of independence.