Brexit and Catalonia: Why Is Leaving the EU Easier than Seceding from a Nation?

This article first appeared on the Foundation on Economic Education site.

Last week, the Spanish constitutional court decided to put a fine of over $14,000 on the organizers of the Catalonian independence referendum, for every day that it continues.

Prior to this decision, thousands of referendum ballots had been seized by the central government, as Spain considers its rebellious region to behave unconstitutionally.

Catalonia, currently a part of the Spanish Kingdom, has been seeking independence from the Iberian state for almost 100 years now, with no indication that Madrid will ever allow to let them leave.

As a matter of fact, Spain would lose 6 percent of its territory, 16 percent of its population, more than half of its start-up investments, and 20 percent of its GDP.

Far more interesting than the actual struggle for independence is the incoherent position of EU-advocates towards this issue. Across Europe, most people seem to sympathize with the Catalan secessionists.

While the EU has vowed to not intervene in the independence dispute, the European public seems to have picked a side in this fight, especially since the Spanish government has shown to be particularly stubborn.

The Scottish National Party (SNP), which was a major contributor in organizing the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, is also a major supporter of Catalan secession, as it would increase its own chances of being heard in the United Kingdom. Famous Scottish secessionist Alex Salmond even vowed his support on Twitter by holding a sign saying, "Si."

GettyImages-855851234 Protesters hold Spanish flags during a demonstration against independence in Catalonia called by the xenophobic far-right party 'Platform for Catalonia' (PXC) in front of the Spanish National Police headquarters in Barcelona, on September 30, 2017. Hundreds of people, many waving red and yellow Spanish flags, rallied in Barcelona in favour of Spanish unity, a day before a banned independence referendum in Catalonia. PAU BARRENA/AFP/Getty

Despite there being no polls conducted in other EU countries about the support for these secessionist movements, there is also a consistent lack of criticism towards the independence movements in both Scotland and Catalonia. It seems odd that after the harsh criticism at the mere concept of a referendum after Brexit there would be so little concern about other secessionist movements.

It surely couldn't be claimed that the general public position is that "the concerned people should make this decision for themselves." Brexit saw large commentary from all over the world, with even President Obama arguing against it.

The reason for this lack of opposition is due to the clear pro-EU stance of both of these independence movements. The SNP continuously points towards the fact a majority of the Scottish electorate voted to remain in the European Union and combines its marches with numerous EU flags.

Catalan secessionists have also made it very clear to EU-leaders in Brussels that a secession from Spain would be " a good thing " for the Union. And in fact, Catalonians seem to be more excited for the "European project." While about half of Spanish voters were confident that the EU improved the situation of the continent, Catalonians have consistently voted for pro-EU candidates as the regional presidents.

The incumbent Charles Puigdemont, in a recent article for The Guardian, even believes that it is the role of the European Union Commission to intervene, by which he likely means the EU overruling the Spanish government and its constitutional interpretations.

Moral Inconsistency

Let us just imagine for a second that Brexit hadn't happened, but that a eurosceptic movement in Wales (which majoritively voted to leave the European Union) asked an international body to overrule the United Kingdom's government and let Wales secede. Would people dress up as the Welsh dragon and call for the right of the people to decide for themselves? It seems highly implausible.

But we don't even need to imagine secessionist movements coming under fire for purely political reasons. The secessionists in Flanders, the Northern region of the Kingdom of Belgium, have the same demands regarding independence but don't generate any comparable support from abroad. The reason, once again, is their stance on the European Union: the New Flemish Alliance (NVA), the secessionist party arguing for independence, is a center-right movement which specifically states that it wants Flanders to remain in the EU.

However, it also says that: "We are not afraid to question how the EU works." That, in the eyes of the rest of the continent, is the deal-breaker. The NVA is often labeled as far-right or " threatening stability " for Belgium.

This is the problem with most of European politics overall: it never stands on any sort of principle. Fervent defenders of self-determination painting Scottish flags on their cheeks turn into angry protesters accusing people of fascism once growing Euroscepticism manages to get one country to leave the EU or makes people even slightly question the legitimacy of some of the union's policy.

Secession is not a convenient political product marketed for a specific short-term political goal. The self-determination of people is their right to make their relationship with government as consensual as possible.

Bill Wirtz is a Young Voices Advocate. His work has been featured in several outlets, including Newsweek, Rare, RealClear, CityAM, Le Monde and Le Figaro. He also works as a Policy Analyst for the Consumer Choice Center.

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