Ever since the World Wars, territory after territory has fought for independence in Europe—sometimes peacefully, often violently—and usually succeeded in their effort to depart. The fragmentation process, however, has not ended. Catalonia, Scotland, and South Tyrol represent the desire of millions to break free and escape a supposedly oppressive power. With the desire for separation often comes along a mindset that opposes some principles of liberalism.
The image of a battle between oppressors and freedom fighters is appealing, and exactly what those promoting secession need to win the support abroad. The reality, of course, is usually far greyer. Separatist movements have operated with lies and half-truths just like those they are battling. But more concerning is that below their superficial motif hides a substantial distrust into what has made the European Union and post-war Europe successful and resistant against the turmoil of our time.
In theory, the right to self-determination is the search for statehood whenever the inhabitants of a territory make it known, usually by a plebiscite, that they no longer wish to belong to a state, but wish either to form an independent state or, in some cases, to attach themselves to another one. That being said, what we witness today is not just the right of self-determination of inhabitants of a particular territory, but the so-called right to self-determination of nations.
From the outside, it might appear that the people of Catalonia, just like the people of other territories, are undisputedly united in their wish to form an independent state, yet in reality, they are highly diverse in their positions towards a potential split. The concept of nation and tendencies of nationalism restrict the will of the one in favour of the many. What the leaders of separatist movements often criticise in regards to the oppressiveness and artificiality of the current state they are part of can apply to ‘their’ territory just as well.
Once an artificial ‘box’ is created and labelled as a nation-state, the rightfulness of its existence is up for debate. There are no clear-cut parameters to determine the validity of a nation-state. Is it language? (Then there is no hope for Scotland.) Is it tradition and history? Is it just the overwhelming feeling of nationalism at one point in time? On the contrary, to carry the right to self-determination to the extreme would probably mean that small groups of individuals, barely large enough to form independent administrative units, could break loose. A version of severe fragmentation that might sound appealing to radical deconstructionists, but not feasible for the level of political and economic organisation the European society has developed up until this moment. The European Union might provide the appropriate conditions for a highly fragmented continent and organise trade as well as harmonisation of law where it is useful. That, however, is not what many movements want—and the European Union has unfortunately revealed many flaws in the past and earned a perception that will be hard to change.
The right to self-determination is meant to be limited to decolonisation processes and undemocratic regimes that do not respect the rule of law, subject to conditions established by the United Nations. Spain, with all its faults and shortcomings, is far from being an undemocratic state. The Economist Democracy Index groups Spain among ‘full democracies’, akin to the United Kingdom, which barely held on to Scotland a few years ago.
Those who call for secession the most are often those who think the big wigs do not care about the people—similar to the distrust into the European Union, a soulless and faceless administration thousands of miles away. The support for secession reached its peak in Catalonia at the end of 2014 and has decreased since then. The rise in support for secession coincided at the time with the worst point of the economic crisis. Uncertainty and social unrest tempted many to think that secession, that self-governance within a small entity, might be the answer. The economic crisis and the discomfort with seemingly uncontrollable powers in a globalised world gave a reason for retreat.
While the right to self-determination is inherently a cornerstone of liberalism, separatist movements across Europe have been somewhat romanticised almost to the point that the shortcomings and the negative tendencies were being overlooked for a while. The call for self-determination can turn into or be caused by an anti-liberal attitude and offer an ostensibly easy solution for complex issues. Those who make false promises might just grab at power they cannot reach right now.