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With an exiled president Skyping from Brussels, where now for Catalan independence?

Can a self-exiled leader remotely control the politics of a region, effectively ruling by Skype? That is what the ousted Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, is trying to do from Brussels, where he escaped in October 2017 after an illegal referendum and a unilateral declaration of independence.

Following the ambivalent declaration of October 27, the Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy proceeded to sack the Catalan premier, disband parliament and call for snap elections on December 21 2017. Spain’s supreme court decided to imprison several Catalan politicians and civic leaders, who face charges of misuse of public funds, rebellion and sedition – a crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

Exiled Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont. Shutterstock

With 47.5% of the vote, the diverse secessionist coalition of Puigdemont did not win the popular vote on December 21, but they regained an absolute majority of seats, assisted by a rural bias in the election law. They could go ahead and form a government again, but the problem is that Puigdemont cannot be invested as head of the regional executive on January 31, when the Catalan parliament is expected to hold a first vote on his candidacy – Spanish authorities insist he will be arrested the moment he sets foot on Spanish soil.

The reason for his escape to Brussels was to allow the wannabe “Skype president” to maintain a voice (which the imprisoned Catalan politicians have lost) and internationalise the Catalan conflict for global audiences.

The strategy of internationalisation characterised the so-called “Catalan process” – a movement of civil society and government mobilisations aimed at holding a vote on Catalonia’s relationship with Spain. However, the strategy that began in 2012 has been unsuccessful – because domestic politics and international politics work very differently.

As we argue in a recent report, secessionist movements tend to focus on domestic politics and neglect the power play that distinguishes international affairs. This is surprising, as these movements want to be recognised as independent states, a status that can only be conferred by recognition from the international community.

Big power play

When it comes to constituting sovereign statehood, aspiring states need to pay significant attention to the calculations of interest-driven big powers. And a study of 34 successful referendums on independence since the 1990s by referenda expert Matt Qvortrup has suggested that the countries that matter most for supporting or opposing the birth of a new state are three of the permanent members of the UN Security Council: the USA, France and the United Kingdom.

China would never take the lead because of its own secessionist troubles in Tibet. Russia on the other hand might be supportive to legitimise its separatist machinations in Crimea and to weaken the European Union, but has been on the receiving end of secessionist aspirations in the Caucasus. In any case Russian support would not be sufficient, barring the consent of Western powers.

In the absence of a universal legal right to secession under international or domestic law, there is no clear guidance for sorting out which nations merit statehood and which do not. Realpolitik, not ideals, ends up deciding who becomes a sovereign state.

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy. Shutterstock

Catalan secessionists did not get the international recognition they were craving. And it was not for a lack of trying. Catalonia opened several “embassies” in European capitals and in New York, whose main purpose was to gather support for Catalan independence aspirations. To no avail. International politicians increasingly shunned Catalan leaders and did not grant them photo opportunities.

Secessionist movements within Europe face a different environment than those outside the EU when it comes to international recognition. The 2004 Prodi doctrine (named after former EU Commission president Romano Prodi) holds that any territory that breaks away from an EU member state would be outside the union and would need to re-apply for membership – a process that normally takes many years, even in the absence of vetoes from member countries.

The theoretical threat of EU exclusion – brushed aside by secessionists during their campaign – has been enough to prompt more than 3,000 companies to move their headquarters out of Catalonia since the illegal referendum of October 1. The economic rationale for remaining in the EU as part of Spain has proved to be a powerful argument for unionist forces in Catalonia. On the other hand, the fiscal gains that separatists promised if the relatively rich Catalonia broke away look increasingly dubious.

When it comes to EU membership, bilateral agreements are more successful than unilateral steps. In the case of a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI), a Catalan application to the EU would be vetoed by the Spanish executive. Other member states that may also want to discourage claims to self-determination in their own territories, such as France (Corsica), Italy (Lega Nord) and Belgium (Flanders), could also oppose it.

The exception to this rule would be provided by the Scottish case, which held a binding referendum agreed with the UK. The Westminster government pledged not to veto Scotland’s accession to the EU, if there was a pro-independence majority in the 2014 plebiscite.

Catalonia faces fierce opposition over independence from Spain’s unionists. Shutterstock

The realpolitik

Puigdemont’s nomination as regional president will not attract international support. His unilateral power-play has seemingly run its course, and it is only a matter of time before he returns to Catalonia to face legal proceedings.

Besides, the European Union has repeatedly stressed the need for strict adherence to the rule of law. It is apprehensive about a possible contagion effect if Catalonia succeeds in declaring independence without first seeking an agreement with Spain.

However, merely rallying the consent of fellow nation states and engaging in a purely legalistic discourse at home as the Spanish government has done might not be sustainable in the long run, either. The grievances of a large part of the Catalan population are real and will remain a problem if they are allowed to fester.

Rather than insisting on recentralisation or offering Catalonia more autonomy, Spain will need to find a more positive political and national narrative. The way out might be more federalism that gives regions a real say in Madrid.

When it comes to international recognition of new states, secessionist movements need to expand the domestic support base and convince international powers that secession will not affect them negatively. It is unclear how a Skype president with scant regard for legal norms can help Catalonia become a full member of the international community.

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