Tension has been slowly accumulating in a battle of political wills on the idyllic coast of the Balearic Sea. On October 27th, the Catalan parliament led by Carles Puigdemont, unilaterally declared independence based on the results of the referendum (deemed illegal by Madrid) two weeks prior. Though it was greeted on the streets by joyous celebrations by those who supported a formal break from Spain, the party was inevitably doomed to not survive the night. In this piece, Eamon Driscoll examines Catalonia’s breakaway dreams through the lens of both European geopolitics and his background of studying breakaway republics in Russia, the Balkans and the Commonwealth of Independent States.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.


To date, the would-be Catalan Republic has received neither formal nor informal recognition from any state, with the notable exception of a fake Twitter account in The Gambia. The reaction to Puigdemont’s referendum from Madrid was wholly predictable, raising the possibility of his being charged with rebellion and him potentially seeking political asylum in Belgium. The situation has sparked a constitutional crisis in Spain, having already forced the hand of Prime Minister Rajoy to deploy police forces against the referendum on October 1st. Despite being an autonomous community and enjoying considerable political freedom within Spain, the day’s events marked a pivotal shift in the country’s internal politics.

The basis of the parliamentary vote was the referendum, which resulted in a superficially emphatic Yes vote, with over 90% of voters supporting a full independence from Madrid. Even before a formal statement from Madrid had been made, the evident fact that Spain would not recognize the results of any referendum dampened turnout considerably. Less than half of eligible voters in Catalonia participated; a clear indication that this referendum had no basis in law. Compared to turnout in other referenda in Quebec (93.5%), Timor-Leste (98.6%), Montenegro (86.5%), South Sudan (97.6%), and Scotland (84.6%), the fact that only 39% of Catalans both participated in and supported the referendum clearly shows that there is not currently a majority in support of independence. As the Catalan referendum lacked recognition by Madrid, there was no reason for those opposed to independence to bother participating at all. The same applied to the now-dissolved Catalan parliament, in which the fifty-three parliamentarians who opposed the vote simply walked out, knowing that participation in the vote could be seen by Madrid as recognition of the vote’s validity and be met with legal consequences and the risk of being charged with rebellion.

Puigdemont’s actions to lead his aspirant nation to attempt separation from Spain may not have been entirely organic, however. Though the referendum had been promised as part of his election campaign, he appeared to equivocate on the matter, drawing the ire of supporters of independence. Bloomberg reported that Antonio Baños, leader of the far-left CUP, responded by posting a picture of Puigdemont upside-down on Twitter, while students gathered to protest and demand an independence referendum. Ultimately Puigdemont cracked and Rajoy made it clear that Article 155 would be invoked and Catalan autonomy would be revoked. This is precisely what unfolded, fully legal within the bounds of the Spanish Constitution.

Spanish law is not the only legal obstacle preventing Catalonia’s unilateral declaration of independence. Citing its right to self-determination as established in Article 1 Section 2 of the UN Charter, the nascent Catalan Republic has nevertheless failed to earn recognition from any state. Scotland and Corsica, both of which are host to separatist movements of their own, have given their encouragement but have no international influence in these matters. Catalonia does not even qualify to join the ranks of de facto states such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Artsakh, as it has no effective hold on the land over which it claims sovereignty.

Furthermore, in international law the right to self-determination comes second to the principle of territorial integrity. The former doctrine had its day during the period of decolonization after the Second World War, but required the consent of the mother country and the capacity to fulfill the requirements of the Montevideo Convention of 1933 for statehood. The other referenda listed in the second paragraph of this article all enjoyed the recognition of their respective countries, and those which were successful were quickly met with international recognition. Another situation in which self-determination is valid is when the central government is actively hostile towards a regional government which comprises a clearly defined nation. Kosovo is the most recent example of this, though was not without controversy as Serbia had been threatened by the United States, potentially undermining Serbia’s free ability to consent. In very recent history, Russia applied the precedent of Kosovo to Crimea, citing the hostility of the new government against Russians in Ukrainian territory. The 1990s may also have been a window of opportunity, now closed, when multinational states such as the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia all disintegrated and Spain was engaging in negotiations with the Basque National Liberation Movement (ETA).

Catalonia considers itself to be in the latter category. Not being colonized territory, Puigemont cited historical grievances and the suppression of regional identity under the Franco regime, but his legal argument is weak as Catalonia does enjoy political representation in Madrid and even the substantial freedoms that come from status as an autonomous community within the Kingdom of Spain. It is a harsh truth, but given its already-established autonomy, Catalonia enjoys no more legal right to declare itself independent than I do to declare the Republic of My Apartment. The only possible ways for Catalonia to become an independent state are 1) if Spain relents and recognizes the results of the referendum, or 2) if Catalonia took up arms and fought for independence, which might then lead to independence being recognized in a peace treaty. The former case would require a significant reversal of policy from Madrid, which is extremely unlikely to happen. The latter case is just as unlikely, as it would require a largely peaceful region to mobilize for war, establish control over television and radio stations, police and fire brigades, and enforce border controls, all while repelling the national government’s forces.

The likelihood of Catalonia successfully negotiating or fighting for its independence being is low. At this stage what is far more likely is that elections will go forward on December 21st to reinstate the Catalan parliament in accordance with the Spanish constitution. It is likely that the pro-independence parties will lose seats based on the crisis that they have caused and the urgency that pro-unionist voters may now feel to ensure their voices are heard.

Lessons of this constitutional crisis will echo for generations and serve as a reminder to those who imagine that the right to self-determination is absolute. Europe is now less likely to experience another such referendum in the near future, while Puigdemont may well flee to Belgium and even form a government-in-exile if he is not arrested by Spanish authorities first. In time, Catalonia will return to normality, markets will stabilize, and life will go on. Independence may yet come as circumstances evolve and develop, but the lesson is clear: unilateral declarations of independence carry no weight in law.


Eamon Driscoll is a graduate of the University of Ilinois who is currently completing his postgraduate studies in Geopolitics, Territory and Security at King’s College, London. Eamon currently focuses on issues in Russia and the wider Commonwealth of Independent States, which has furnished him experience on the topic of breakaway states. His current academic focus is on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and how its unique position has forced the region to develop differently from other Russian territories, especially in the shadow of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.


Photo credit: Jessica Mouzo

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