"Self-determination", Robert Lansing once wrote, is a phrase “loaded with dynamite”. The identification of one set of people with a territory shared by diverse populations creates a hierarchy of belonging. And the quest for self-empowerment culminates in exclusion, turning supposedly oppressed minorities into unashamedly oppressive majorities. Humans are composite beings. But self-determination reduces them to one aspect of their complex identity – language, religion, ethnicity, race – and negates the rest. Secessionism is the most extreme manifestation of chauvinism.
Europe's history throbs with warnings against the temptations of narrow nationalism. Consider post-war Yugoslavia. In a continent that had just escaped extinction in a war inspired by doctrines of ethnic homogeneity, it stood as a proud federation of 20 million people who spoke five official languages and practised three distinct faiths. Today, the territory of the former Yugoslavia hosts six countries. But division, far from healing the ethnic rifts that were manufactured and exploited by self-serving demagogues, has only created a clamour for yet more division.
Spain is different in many respects. Yet the Catalan push for secession is no less dangerous. It is a segregationist project that cloaks itself in grievance and mythology. The suppression of Catalan identity under the dictatorship of Franco does not extenuate the drive to shatter the unity of today's largely accommodative Spain. Catalan outrage at the second-class status of their language is understandable. What is less comprehensible is the suggestion that the solution to such neglect lies in the balkanisation of Spain, a country whose successful transition from dictatorship to democracy demonstrates its extraordinary capacity for regeneration.
Catalonia itself is home to a variegated population, many of whom do not want scission. Will they be allowed to secede from a future Catalan republic? Or will the principle of self-determination be deemed to be obsolete once Catalonia's separatists have got their prize? The images of bloodied voters emerging from polling booths will no doubt be deployed to intensify the separatist struggle. But it is important to remember that Catalonia, part of Spain, is subject to Spain's laws – a fact validated by voters in the last referendum, held only three years ago. The current referendum is illegal and Madrid, in its clumsy attempt to stop it, is enforcing the law. The losers of this vote, whatever its results, will be the inhabitants of Catalonia.
Segregation does not empower; it breeds resentments. Look at South Sudan. Welcomed six years ago as a panacea to the problems of Sudan, it has collapsed into conflict between its Nuer and Dinka tribes. Should it be divided into further states? Perhaps the world can learn from the UAE, a union of seven emirates forged in 1971 by a visionary leader. As Anwar Gargash, UAE's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, explained, this country is living proof of the benefits of unity. The sport of multiplying sovereignties, be it in the Middle East or Africa or Europe, is unhelpful.
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