Home / Europe / Catalonia’s bid for independence and the Western Balkans: Role model or cautionary tale?
The recent moves by Catalonia to obtain independence have generated speculation that regions of other nearby states will follow its example. However, the referendum and its aftermath serve more as a lesson than a model for other European separatist movements.

Catalonia’s bid for independence and the Western Balkans: Role model or cautionary tale?

19th October, 2017

By Irena Baboi – Junior Fellow

On 1 October, three years after the first one, Catalonia held a second referendum on independence from Spain. Spanish police were sent to stop the voting by force, resulting in almost 900 people being injured. Despite this, the European Union declared itself on the side of Spain, and made it clear that an independent Catalonia will be out of the organisation. The media’s attention was divided between the developing events themselves and the international community’s reaction to them on the one hand, and comparisons with other separatist movements in Europe – particularly some of the Western Balkan ones – on the other. A closer look at these movements, however, shows that the influence of the Catalan referendum on the Western Balkans is likely to be far from straightforward – and that highlighting their differences rather than their similarities ultimately reveals more about the future of both sides of the comparison.

Amid the violence and chaos, and awaiting an official response from the international community, both Catalonia and Spain sought to strengthen their respective positions. The Catalan vote was declared successful by the regional authorities, and it was announced that just over 90 percent had voted in favour of independence. The referendum was immediately deemed illegal by the Spanish government, and the just under 43 percent turnout can now be used by both sides to defend the legitimacy of their claim. On 10 October, Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont announced that the independence declaration will be suspended for a few weeks, and the autonomous region’s leadership declared itself willing to enter negotiations with the Spanish government. The outcome of these negotiations is likely to have a significant influence on separatist movements around the world – but the vision of a Pandora’s box of secessionist struggles being opened is premature at best.

The events in Catalonia are being followed closely by the Western Balkans, and the mixed reactions to them give us an important insight into each of the interested parties’ stance on independence claims. As the main object of comparison, Kosovo’s response was naturally going to be of considerable interest, but the Balkan state decided to be largely quiet on the subject. Halil Manushi, head of Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj’s Information Office, refrained from commenting on the events, claiming no desire on the part of the Kosovar government to get involved in the internal affairs of another country. The youngest country in Europe knows that not declaring itself for the Catalan cause would be hypocritical, but publicly supporting it would antagonise Spain even further, particularly since the latter is yet to recognise Kosovo’s independence precisely because of the Catalan issue.

Kosovo’s decision to distance itself from Catalonia may also be due to other practical considerations. Although the usefulness of a precedent is understandable, Catalonia’s current situation is very different to that of Kosovo almost a decade ago. Kosovo was granted independence in 2008 because their status quo at the time was acknowledged as unsustainable, and the Western powers made it clear that the Balkan country is a special case as far as secessions are concerned. Moreover, unlike Kosovo with Serbia, Catalonia cannot accuse Spain of ethnic cleansing and systematic discrimination that led to mass outflows of refugees, and Spain is a democratic country as part of which Catalonia has enjoyed and continues to enjoy substantial economic and political autonomy.

Invoking Kosovo as a precedent is also unlikely to help Catalonia’s bid for self-determination in the long-term. Kosovo gained independence almost ten years ago, yet its current standing on the European stage is still far from its end goals. While the young Balkan state has come a long way internationally in a relatively short space of time, the reality is that, without willingness on the part of Serbia to advance their relations, it will remain in the same place for the foreseeable future.

As Spain’s counterpart in this widespread comparison, Serbia had anything but a muted reaction to the Catalan referendum. Serbian foreign minister Ivica Dacic accused the international community of double standards, while President Aleksandar Vucic invoked the absence of a Kosovar independence referendum in 2008 to question the European Union’s decision to invalidate the Catalan one. Serbia’s alleged outrage at the European Union’s response to the events is most likely merely an attempt to buy time and delay the much-needed negotiations with Kosovo, but it is also a useful way for Belgrade to make its position clear when it comes to any self-determination struggle in which the country is directly involved.

One of these self-determination struggles has been taking place in the Serbian province of Vojvodina, a region that has been demanding a return to its formerly far-reaching autonomy for years. Vojvodina emerged as one of the more vocal supporters of the Catalan referendum, with Nenad Canak, leader of the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina (LSV), declaring that the Spanish constitution should be amended and give Catalans the right to stage a vote on independence. Vojvodina’s testing of the self-determination waters, however, received an indirect response through Serbia’s reaction – and a return to its 1975 level of autonomy also looks likely to be off the table for the foreseeable future.

Like Vojvodina and Catalonia, the western Croatian region of Istria is one of the wealthier regions of its patron-state, and consequently enjoys similar levels of political and economic autonomy. Istria, however, dismissed the parallels with Catalonia drawn by the media, and Ivan Jakovic, one of the leaders of the Istrian Democratic Assembly (IDS), made it clear that his party has sought and continues to advocate for a high degree of regional autonomy and fiscal decentralisation, not an independent Istrian state. Istria has a further incentive not to consider independence – Croatia is a member of the European Union now, and the advantages that come with that outweigh the costs of not being the sole decision-maker over its internal affairs.

On the other side of the border, the Serb-dominated entity Republika Srpska was bound to become involved in the discussion. Predictably, President Milorad Dodik declared that the Catalan referendum represented a good opportunity to start a conversation on the peaceful separation of the entity he represents. Bosnia’s Serb leader, however, has been threatening to hold a referendum on the secession of Republika Srpska for years now, but even Russia has made it clear that it does not encourage this type of future for the region. Moreover, Dodik’s calls for independence have always been tactical, and the leader is best known for using them for political gains at crucial moments. Without this alleged desire for independence, his party would not have been able to hold onto power for more than a quarter of a century – and the international community is almost as aware of this as his own citizens.

All eyes in the Western Balkans and elsewhere were also on the European Union, whose prolonged quietness served as a preview of its position not just on this matter, but on all other similar matters throughout Europe. Aside from an obligation to support the territorial integrity of its member states, the European Union’s official stance is also due to more practical reasons. If Catalonia would separate, the European Union will not only be faced with the prospect of a new European state for which it has no place, but also be left with a fragmented and even more economically weak Spain. By condoning Spain’s violent reaction and making it clear that it will not support the Catalans, the European Union is showing that, as things stand, having an internal political crisis in one of its member states is preferable to potentially contending with an economic one within its organisation. Supporting an independence bid publicly means also supporting it materially – and this is something the Western powers were reluctant to do again even before Brexit.

The events in Catalonia and Spain provide a number of important lessons, both for the autonomous regions themselves, but also for their patron-states. If the Spanish government had stood back and waited to see how the events in Catalonia unfolded, this could have been an entirely different conversation. Instead, the unnecessarily violent reaction drew significant international attention and raised doubts over Spain’s treatment of the Catalans, and the 770,000 votes that were allegedly lost during the clashes all but invalidate the claim that referendum turnout was below 50 percent. Spain should have taken a leaf out of the United Kingdom’s book with Scotland and let Catalonia conduct its referendum peacefully – even if the result had been favourable for the Catalan government, the precedent for declaring the referendum illegal existed, and the European Union’s response shows that the organisation would not have accepted it.

For the separatist movements themselves, the message is clear: unless there is a humanitarian crisis, there will be no outside support. The international community only responds to emergencies, and financial considerations fall on deaf ears. Politicians in these regions understand this perfectly well now, and they also understand that independence means that the regions they represent will be left to their own devices. This means renouncing a chance they are likely to never have by themselves – and European integration, even where it is only a prospect, is not something they are willing to sacrifice.

The ongoing crisis in Catalonia and Spain also shows the importance of dialogue and political compromise. The negotiations could have taken place peacefully, as the Catalan leader’s readiness to suspend the independence declaration and enter talks with Madrid suggests that it is concessions and increased rights rather than all-out separation that were in fact higher on the Catalan agenda. Spain, however, insisted in entering the talks from a position of superiority, and even threatened to impose direct rule if Catalonia does not abandon its independence push altogether. The European Union member state reacted forcefully on the belief that it will most likely face no repercussions – and that belief has so far been proven well-placed.

The Catalan referendum and its aftermath serve more as a lesson than a model for other European separatist movements – that international support is crucial, and that this is what happens when it is virtually non-existent. The most likely scenario now is that, if negotiations are at least partially successful for Catalonia, separatist movements in the Western Balkans will attempt to push merely for increased financial and political autonomy rather than independence, and opt for talks over actions that are meant to draw attention to their position. Catalonia now offers a different kind of precedent – and it is differences rather than similarities with its case that are likely to be more helpful for the future of the separatist movements to which it has been compared.


Image: Protests over Catalonian referendum in Barcelona (source: Màrius Montón/Wikimedia)

About Irena Baboi

Irena Baboi is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, researching the future of European Union involvement in the Western Balkans. She also obtained both of her previous degrees from the same university, having completed an MA in Politics and Central and East European Studies and an MSc in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. Irena’s previous work experience includes internships with AKE Intelligence Group in London, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and United Nations Information Centre in her hometown of Bucharest, Romania, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support, freelance writing and editing for Oxford University Press. She has also been a volunteer with the British Red Cross since 2013. Irena’s research interests include human rights, peacebuilding and statebuilding, conflict prevention, management and resolution, transitional justice, and post-conflict development.