Spain’s Kosovo-Catalonia conundrum

Madrid is inadvertently equating Catalonia and Kosovo and, by doing so, revealing itself to be unable to distinguish between legitimate aspirations for self-rule and destabilizing separatism.

Consistency is a virtue. It demonstrates one’s principles, creates predictability, and insulates oneself from charges of hypocrisy. But as with any virtue, its excessive application can prove tedious, annoying, and boorish. “A foolish consistency,” the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us, “is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

Such hobgoblins clearly haunt the halls of power in Madrid. Spanish leaders have taken a firm line against separatism everywhere because of their home-grown separatists in the Basque Country and Catalonia. As a result, Spain is one of only five EU members that does not recognise Kosovo’s independence. The logic is clear: if Madrid accepts that Kosovo has a right to independence, wouldn’t consistency demand that it allow Catalonia the same option?

This is a clear case of foolish consistency. By sticking to such consistency, leaders in Madrid fail to highlight the essential distinctions between Kosovo and Catalonia. Worse, by failing to recognize those distinctions, the Madrid government establishes itself as unable to distinguish between legitimate aspirations for self-rule and destabilizing separatism. Even worse than that, Madrid inadvertently signals that Catalonia may have a case for independence.

Separatism is a complicated and disputed matter. The international order is strongly biased in favour of sovereign states for good reason. It is not a perfect system, but it is one that minimises war, human suffering, and chaos. There needs to be an exceptionally strong case to break with the principle of territorial integrity, especially since separatism is often driven by dangerous forms of nationalism.  To justify the breakup of a state, the central authorities must have demonstrated a willingness to carry out mass atrocities against its population.

With this threshold in mind, the vast differences between Kosovo and Catalonia become clear. The Albanian population in Kosovo experienced racist repression under Slobodan Milosevic’s rule during the 1990s as Yugoslavia was disintegrating. This culminated in a war in which Yugoslav forces killed more than 10,000 Kosovo Albanians. When NATO started its bombing campaign in 1999, Belgrade deliberately expelled close to a million Kosovo Albanians – half the population – to neighbouring countries. Yugoslav forces and paramilitaries made sure to strip the Kosovo Albanians of their identity papers at border crossings to make it impossible for them to return.

These crimes provided a strong moral rationale for separatism. They also made it impossible in practical terms for Belgrade to rule over Kosovo again and led the vast majority of Western states (though not Spain) to conclude that independence was the only viable option. Since declaring independence nearly ten years ago, Kosovo has been recognised by 110 states and counting – testament to the strength of its case for statehood.

The Catalan case is entirely different. There may be serious political grievances – some even legitimate – in Catalonia with what is perceived as Madrid’s chauvinist attitude towards the region. And Madrid has certainly bungled its response to Catalonia’s separatists. The images – especially the real ones – of riot police dragging grey-haired pensioners from polling stations have mustered plenty of international sympathy for the separatist cause.

But Madrid has stayed well within the remit of international law and the Spanish constitution. Its incompetence in public relations does not mean it is wrong on the political question. It deserves international support against the populist nationalism of the separatists.

And the international community does support it. No state has expressed support for Catalonia’s separatists or even hinted that recognition is a possibility. The South Ossetian de facto foreign minister did show up in Catalonia and offer to recognise its independence if Catalonia recognised South Ossetia. But this would only underscore Catalonia’s feeble case for independence given that South Ossetia has been recognised by a grand total of four states and is effectively annexed by Russia. Even Russia, which has stoked separatist fires in Catalonia through its propaganda, says that it will not recognize Catalan independence. The lack of recognition means that Catalonia’s declaration of independence will remain worth little more than the paper it was written on.

It is exactly because Madrid is in the right on Catalonia that it should recognize Kosovo’s independence. In taking such a bold step, Spain would demonstrate that it has an overwhelmingly strong case for retaining Catalonia. It would send the message that it supports the legitimate aspirations of oppressed peoples and takes seriously its commitment to universal human rights. And it would show that its opposition to Catalonian independence has a solid democratic rationale, and is not merely based on foolish consistency and a lawyerly reading of the Spanish constitution.

Of course, Spanish recognition of Kosovo is not going to happen any time soon. The political dynamics in Spain make such a move highly unlikely. If anything, the Catalan crisis has only hardened Madrid’s stance towards Kosovo. But as the crisis deepens, Madrid would do well to think less of foolish consistency and law, and more of morality and politics.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director of the Wider Europe Programme

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