Catalonia: Secession, Constitution, and Liberty

Catalonia has entered a critical phase in its attempt to secede from Spain, a process initiated by the regional government and parliament back in 2013. Secession in a Western European country in the 21st century necessarily draws attention. People all over the world feel that type of sympathy often induced by revolutionary movements in distant countries. But this is not a repetition of what we saw in the 18th, 19th, or 20th centuries. This is more complex.

This is about freedom—specifically, the freedom of individuals, which is protected by the rule of law, the maximum expression of which is the Constitution. Hence, we have to ask ourselves three questions:

  • Are the freedoms and individual rights of the people of Catalonia currently being oppressed?
  • As a general rule, do all secessions advance the cause of individual freedom?
  • In the specific case of Catalonia, would secession bring more freedom to its people?

First, as to whether the regional government is defending the people of Catalonia against a despotic assault on their individual freedoms, we would want to know if there any semblance here of a revolutionary movement or a colony struggling against an external power. The answer: No, Catalonia has been a part of Spain since its inception many centuries ago. Spain never invaded or annexed Catalonia by force.

Spain’s most recent constitution (1978) is relevant here. It put an end to Francisco Franco’s authoritarian regime; recognized and guaranteed the rights and freedoms of individual citizens; organized public power on the basis of consent expressed via free elections; and divided state powers by means of checks and balances. In addition to all this, it created a system of autonomous regions, chief among them Catalonia.

Thus, the modern geopolitical entity known as Catalonia emanated from the Constitution of 1978. Since 1979, it has had its own autonomous government, known as the Generalitat, as well as its own parliament and other attributes established by the Constitution and the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia. These all make for a more powerful regime than those of many federal states in other countries. Say what you will about Franco, he has been dead for over 40 years and nothing remains of his dictatorship. To use Franco as a means of explaining current events or as an excuse for destroying the Constitution is deeply disingenuous.

There are numerous confusions about Catalonia. The Spanish government has not been adept at clarifying the situation, although a few think tanks have published explanatory pieces.

For example, Catalans routinely display their flag and practice their local customs. The Catalan language, which has co-official status with Spanish, is in normal use everywhere. The exception, as a matter of fact, is anything controlled or influenced by the regional government, in which case only Catalan can be used. By contrast, Spanish sees limited use in official, educational, and cultural institutions.

In the last 37 years, the Catalans have held 11 free elections to choose their regional parliament. They have always elected Catalan nationalist parties, which have either ruled by absolute majority or in coalition with socialist parties. The ever-expanding regional claim to power has been constant, climaxing in a formal request for secession in 2013. Catalan rulers characterized the last election (in 2015) as a plebiscite on secession. Nevertheless, parties favoring secession received the support of only 35 percent of citizens entitled to vote.

The Generalitat has a lot of power when it comes to taxation and public spending. It receives 50 percent of the personal income taxes paid by residents of Catalonia, 50 percent of the value added tax revenues, 100 percent of the inheritance tax revenues, all on top of substantial percentages of the revenues from various excise taxes. In sum, the regional government of Catalonia draws from its citizens more than $23 billion per year, which it spends on whatever the Generalitat decides.

But that is not enough to pay for the deficit spending of the Catalan government. In recent years, Spaniards of other autonomous regions have subsidized the Catalan government to the tune of more than $75 billion. The rest of Spain does not live at the expense of Catalonia; it is the Catalan government that siphons off the money of the rest of Spain.

For the past 37 years, the Catalan government has had nearly absolute control over education, public and private. Successive Catalan nationalist governments have used this control to create future Catalan nationalists. Two generations of Catalans have now been educated in a school system in which it is forbidden to teach in Spanish. Private and public schools offer Spanish only as a subject, on a par with the study of English or French. It remains strictly forbidden to use Spanish as the primary means of instruction in all other classrooms. On this point, the Catalan government has always been unyielding.

Seven public television channels and four public radio stations in Catalonia receive roughly $300 million a year from the Catalan government. They are basically tools for promoting the secessionist movement. Many smaller media outlets with Catalan nationalist agendas also receive subsidies, thereby amplifying their influence.

Indeed, many have been saying for years that freedom of expression in Catalonia is limited. A regional law imposes fines on businesses that advertise in Spanish (68 companies were fined in 2016), and many people feel discouraged from stating non-nationalist opinions.

Nor does the Catalan government lack effective power. The police have been under its command since 2000. This means 16,654 police officers in Catalonia apply force according to the instructions of the Generalitat. A few months ago, the government dismissed Albert Batlle, the head of the police force, because he was not committed to the secessionist cause.

Movements for independence or emancipation typically have a culminating historical moment in which the oppressive ruler or his representative is expelled from his palace by those seeking to liberate their country from foreign or tyrannical rule. This simply cannot happen with Catalan secession because the one who lives in the palace is actually the president of the Generalitat, Carles Puigdemont, who is at the same time the head of the regional government and also the supreme representative of the Spanish state in Catalonia.

On to the question of whether secession advances freedom. Should secession always be celebrated as the triumph of individual liberty? We find ambivalence among classical liberals owing to differences of circumstance and experience. As F.A. Hayek wisely observed in The Constitution of Liberty (1960): “Though the concept of national freedom is analogous to that of individual freedom, it is not the same; and striving for the first has not always enhanced the second.”

James Buchanan famously fixed unanimity as the ideal for passing constitutional legislation. By the way, in Catalonia 91 percent voted in favor of the Spanish Constitution of 1978, about as unanimous as it gets in modern politics.

Secession is not provided for in that document. Not that it would be impossible, but the Constitution would have to be amended for it to happen. That is precisely what the Catalan government has avoided here. The Generalitat did not want to make a reform proposal, which it legitimately could have done. For the past four years, it has preferred to telegraph its intention to violate the Constitution, this in spite of the Constitutional Court’s decisions and warnings against going down that path. Put simply, the Generalitat has opted to break the Constitution in order to fulfill its political objectives.

We are now at the heart of the problem. Who granted anyone the right to decide which part of the law applies and which part does not? Allowing the Constitution to be violated by a governmental body that itself emanates from said Constitution subjects all of us to the arbitrary application of public power. If we short-circuit the limits that the Constitution places on governmental power, then there is no limit on those who rule us, and freedom, property, and life are all at risk.

Some say, “Let them vote, let them decide.” Are all votes everywhere always just? Should we, for example, allow referenda to decide whether or not the Constitution stays in effect?

Majority rule has never justified the sacrifice of individual freedom. Besides, what majority is this? Are those who attend the Generalitat’s North Korea-style demonstrations the majority? Or are those simply large gatherings? Either way, we should recognize the almost one million people who demonstrated the other day in downtown Barcelona in order to simply say that no one has the right to deprive them of their country, their Constitution, or  their personal freedom.

There exists no right to act against the law, most especially when this imposes on others obligations or costs to which they have not agreed or consented. Individual freedom cannot be made contingent on just when and where a government wishes to stop in its transgressions of the Constitution.

This brings us to our third question: Would secession mean more freedom in the specific case of Catalonia?

An anti-freedom tendency on the part of the Catalan nationalists is a final factor to consider. Market dynamics often express a certain realism. Now that the Generalitat has taken the last steps toward secession, hundreds of large, medium, and small companies have moved their headquarters out of Catalonia. We are talking about companies that one thinks of as Catalan, such as CaixaBank, Banco de Sabadell, Aguas de Barcelona, ​​Seguros Catalana Occidente, among others. In less than a week, companies whose stocks are worth more than 50 percent of Catalonia’s annual GDP have chosen to leave.

The economic consequences of the secession of Catalonia would be devastating for Catalonia itself. This is not only because it would damage commercial and business networks, but because the Catalan government and its parliamentary allies will have shown very little respect for private property and the free market. As mentioned above, Catalonia is already one of the most heavily taxed regions of Spain, while also being one of the most indebted and most heavily subsidized.

As one indication of how things might go, the members of the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP), who are strategic allies in the coalition that sustains the current Catalan government, have already signaled that they plan to solve secessionist Catalonia’s fiscal problems by imposing controls on the withdrawals of money in the region’s banks.

CUP’s members are radical leftists whose support for Catalan secession is fanatical. The party’s platform is anti-capitalist. In August, when Islamist terrorists committed a horrific attack on the famous Las Ramblas promenade of central Barcelona, CUP laid the ultimate blame for the attack on “all those forms of fascist terrorism that are the fruit of the international logic of capitalism.”

For some parties, secession is not even the ultimate goal. The goal is radical revolution. This is evident in the so-called “Law of Transitional Jurisprudence” announced in August. This law, which the Constitutional Court immediately annulled, articulates a provisional constitution for secessionist Catalonia. This law creates a Social Constituent Forum to be populated by representatives from civil society and political parties.

The key word here is “creates,” in other words, the forum would not be elected. Moreover, this Social Constituent Forum would be entrusted with debating and articulating the principles and issues to be addressed by the future Catalan Constitution; this same forum would constitute “a mandate that will be politically binding on the Constitutional Assembly.”

This is the familiar trait of so many populist regimes: An unelected de facto power writes e a constitution that is to be imposed on Catalan citizens. Thus, the answer to our third question is also negative. In the specific case of Catalonia, secession will not make its people freer.

The only question now—and perhaps the most difficult to answer—is what does the future hold? What is already happening is ominous: Catalonia is experiencing a revolutionary coup.

Meanwhile, King Philip VI has done something unusual for a Spanish monarch. His recent speech succeeded in strengthening the resolve of millions of Spaniards. But the King, although the constitutional symbol of Spain’s unity and continuity, does not wield any governmental power nor should he in a parliamentary democracy.

Rather, it is the Spanish government that has executive power, although in recent years it has employed every conceivable means of tossing the hot potato of executive measures against the Catalan government to judges. But the judiciary is not the executive branch, nor should it be. It has enough trouble issuing rulings on what is left of the Constitution.

One thing is certain: The secession of Catalonia from Spain will not be in defense of freedom but against it.

Leonard P. Liggio once wrote: “Self-determination makes sense not as a collective concept, but as an individualist concept.” Freedom is for individuals, not for groups, even if we break the latter into their smallest possible components. Is freedom only possible in the smallest of states or only in those states that can be broken into smaller states? How then does freedom persist in places like the United States? Is it not by way of that nation’s Constitution? This is the issue that is being played out right now in Catalonia.