Self-Determination versus State Integrity: Catalan and Kurdish Issues

| October 2017
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Two crises are brewing, one in the Middle East and one in Europe, over the perennial problem of whether self-determination takes precedence over maintaining state integrity–whether a Catalan state should emerge from Spain (but remain part of a larger European Union) and whether the Kurdish desire for statehood should finally be recognized. The autonomous parliament in Barcelona has declared Catalan independence–a step which the central Spanish government in Madrid refuses to accept and is preparing to take control of the region–after the results of an unofficial referendum suggested that a majority of residents want Catalonia to assume a separate and equal status among the nation-states of the world. This follows a referendum that was held in the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq as well as other territories held by the KRG in which some 93 percent of voters supported the establishment of an independent Kurdish state. As a result of that action, the central government in Iraq, with the support of militia units backed by Iran, retook control of areas in northern Iraq that had been taken over by the KRG after the 2014 collapse of the Iraqi military in the wake of the first offensives launched by the Islamic State. Currently there is a tenuous cease-fire in place, but the Iraqi government, as well as Kurdistan’s neighbors, demand that the Kurds cancel the referendum before any talks on Kurdistan’s future can commence.

Catalans and Kurds have distinct historical and ethnic identities and especially have a bill of complaints about poor treatment at the hands of central governments in Madrid and Baghdad, but there are also economic considerations as well: control of oil (in Iraq) and the question of redistribution of tax revenue from richer Catalonia to other, poorer areas of Spain. Thus, part of the issue driving self-determination is the question of who is owed help and who has right to claim a share of resources. If the claim for Sunni and Shi’a Arabs of Iraq or for Galicians or Andalusians in Spain to be able to share revenues and benefits is on the basis of shared national identity, or being part of a common community to which all contribute, then asserting the right of self-determination is to say that the obligations of Kurds or Catalans does not extend to others outside their boundaries.

There is also the question of whether the needs of regional peace and security trump self-determination. Can Kurds and Catalans be asked to stay within the boundaries of a larger Iraq or Spain–even if they in return will be awarded maximal autonomy–so as to preserve a fragile order based on preserving nation-states and their boundaries so as not to precipitate new crises that will end up creating instability that will impinge on the peace and prosperity of everyone including Kurds and Catalans? This argument might have more resonance for the Middle East where the Kurdish question is not limited to Iraq but spills over to Iran, Turkey and Syria; but would Catalan independence also create more problems for a European Union that is struggling to cope with the impact of Brexit and with other European states also facing their own separatist crises? And how can overall European solidarity be preserved–the bargain which has seen northern Europe, for instance, contribute more to Southern Europe than has been received in reverse–if the richer regions of European states lose interest in sustaining their less-prosperous compatriots (since there does not seem to be an assumption that even an independent Catalonia, if it remained within the EU, would then be assessed by Brussels for payments that would be transferred to poorer areas of Spain, that is, that Catalonia would trade Madrid for Brussels as the tax collector for supporting less prosperous areas of Europe.)

Self-determination and territorial integrity are presented as binary opposites; that you can have one but not the other, and for Catalans or Kurds to assert their democratic right of self-determination can only lead to secession from the states of Spain and Iraq. The challenge for negotiators over the coming days is whether there is any third way approach, based on creative diplomacy, that can attempt to reconcile these competing ethical imperatives.


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