This article was originally published on October 6, 2017 and republished after Catalonia's regional parliament declared independence from Spain.
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Barcelona, a favorite tourist destination for Israelis (and in general), recently joined the Middle East: Demonstrators beaten by police, a referendum ending with 90 percent in favor, and a leader denying reality on live TV (there was no referendum because there is no referendum). But now that the dust has settled, it seems that the Catalan separatists, who for years were far behind similar movements around the world, have overtaken their Middle Eastern counterparts, who have been drawing most of the attention in recent years.
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In international relations, conventional wisdom says that independence movements flourish in the contradictions between the different clauses of international law, which on the one hand upholds the agreed-upon country borders but champions people's right to decide their own fate on the other. Within this vacuum, independence movements with significant international support are more successful – particularly if they succeed in framing their struggle as one for democracy and human rights and not for independence. The weakness of the central government they are rising up against also increases their chances of realizing their dream of a new state.
Barcelona may indeed be a favored tourist destination, but the Catalan separatists’ bad luck is their lack of international support. Since Francisco Franco's dictatorship fell and Spain became a democracy, the government in Madrid has enjoyed international legitimacy and a stable regime, even during the severe financial crisis of the past decade. Even the parallel and much more violent separatist movement in Spain's Basque Country has raised a white flag in recent years, with its underground announcing in April that it had given up its weapons. Moreover, opinion polls in the region show that there is no decisive majority that supports independence.
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But the political dramas of recent years have made the impossible possible and turned the reasonable into the unreasonable. If Donald Trump can be president of the United States, Britain can decide to leave the EU, Marine Le Pen can get over a third of France's votes and a racist party can enter the German parliament, then Catalan independence and the crumbling of Spain (since the Catalans won’t be the last to demand it) may still be far off, but looks less like a hallucination.
Along with the increasing uncertainty in European and international politics, the government of Spain gave the Catalan separatists a gift they could only dream about. The decision by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy not to negotiate with the Catalan authorities on the referendum and his subsequent attempts to suppress the vote by force gave the separatists a double shot of energy.
Firstly, Madrid’s position put the residents of Catalonia who opposed independence in a bind. If they refrained from voting, their voices would not be heard; if they did vote, they would be breaking the law, which they still respect. Second, photographs of police violence against citizens who “were trying to exercise their democratic right to vote” gained international sympathy for the separatists. The fact that under Spanish law, they need the backing of two-thirds of all Spain's voters to secede from the republic was forgotten.
Ninety percent voted to support the Catalan secessionist movement, while images of police brutality against voters silenced those who opposed independence, particularly in Europe, where most leaders first avoided responding and – after recovering from the shock – conveyed a uniform message about the need for “dialogue.” Now Catalan leaders have threatened that they plan to declare independence by the end of the week.
The Catalans’ success stands out especially when compared to the results of another independence referendum – the one held recently in Iraqi Kurdistan. There, too, the referendum went ahead despite opposition from the central government, and there, too, the separatists won a majority of over 90 percent. But unlike in Catalonia, the referendum in Iraq has only distanced the Kurds from independence, and now some of the autonomy they had enjoyed is in danger: Baghdad is threatening to seize control of Kurdistan's borders, the region’s airspace has been closed and Turkey has shut the spigot on the Kurds’ independent oil sales.
In a mirror image of the Catalans’ success, the Palestinian national movement has lost its way. This demonstrates just how much the conventions of international relations on achieving independence no longer apply. The Palestinians, who are seeking to establish a state without changing any borders recognized by the international community, and who ostensibly have the support of all the major world powers, are only getting farther and farther from realizing their dream. Even Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the leader who had nailed his old age to the altar of the two-state solution, stood at the podium of the United Nations last month and spoke about a one-state solution. While the Catalans have a long way to go before achieving independence, it looks like they have overtaken the Palestinians.