‘Catalans Have the Power’

“Democracy is not the law of the majority but the protection of the minority”, French famous writer Albert Camus wrote in his Carnets III (1951-1959). The issue of minorities in our contemporary world is a complex question. First of all, because no universal definition of what constitutes a minority can be found. Minorities can correspond to multiple types of situation. The case of the Catalan community in the Kingdom of Spain, a unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy, is that of a people who lives in a clearly defined settlement region, mainly and also legally, the autonomous community of Catalonia or Generalitat de Catalunya. The Catalans developed a deep national sentiment with an anchored collective identity which is the result of a common historic heritage. For instance, during the Francoist period, they were prevented from speaking their own language which is part of their culture, whereas before 1930 only few Catalans were able to speak Castilian. From their relative degree of autonomy vis-à-vis the central power of the Government in Madrid, a majority of residents of Catalonia claim their right to self-determination, and further, their right to self-governance: the right to self-determination of peoples is a universal principle recognized by the United Nations as it is consecrated in the first article of its 1945 Charter, even if it does not imply a right to independence, not to clash with the international public order, based on the territorial integrity of Nation-States. This non-dominant group of Catalans share characteristics which are different from the rest of Spanish population: this particularity is mostly linguistic and as a linguistic minority they are naturally willing to protect it and be entirely recognized as a distinct group.

If before the 21st century, the national sense of collective identity was pronounced, the favored option among the Catalan was not independence. However, a major turning point happened and changed the implicit deal between the center and the community. It is that of the reject, by the Constitutional Tribunal (the supreme court) in Madrid, of the reform project of the Estatut, whose aim was to increase the autonomy degree of Catalonia inside Spain. It provoked therefore an impression of neglecting by the country and exacerbated the movement for independence. Humiliation is always a dangerous and fatal affront.

Spain only acknowledges the cultural dimension of the Catalan community but refuses to use the concept of nation, and as a consequence, to give a legal sense to the Catalan particularism. The most important infringement to the right of this minority is the non-recognition of the Catalan language as a language which takes precedence over the Castilian. The Spanish government, ruled by the conservative right, even tries to lower the influence of the Catalan learning in the public-school system of the autonomous region. The risk that the Catalans do not want to face is that of assimilation as a non-reciprocal process whose goal is to apply the habits of the majority (dominant culture) to the minority because they are thought to be superior.

Oppression is the word that best qualify the situation, although it can seem unusual to use this expression to define what occurs in a European country, supposed to be democratic. We are currently witnessing an authoritative drift conveyed by the unhealthy balance of power between a rigid central authority and a politically weaker entity: in the name of a so-called respect of the legality, Madrid is abusing its power before the autonomous region which tries to treat the independence case peacefully and democratically.

The Catalan independence movement is a movement intending to federate Iberic peoples in the broader democratic framework of a European supra-national organization. I am totally convinced that main independence movements in the European Union are not clashing with the federal project at all, which should, in the long term, result in the creation of the United States of Europe: this federal supra-national institution must admit the principle of reasonable pluralism. There is consequently an example of Rawlsian “overlapping consensus” between the autonomous Catalan and the federal European comprehensive democratic doctrines which could enable both parts to find a common conception of justice they can agree on.

Catalans not only have the power, but they must also seize it to establish the model of society which is the most favorable for their identity. They have the power to impulse a new democratic wave inside the European Union to shape another kind of association in our globalized world. Centralized Nation- States are more and more becoming meaningless as the notion of territory is more than ever challenged by the contemporary stakes of globalization with the normalization of freedom of movement. Indeed, the fundamental notion of sovereignty is being replaced by the notion of interdependence and the solution appears to be the transfer of power to the local and supranational levels. Nowadays, it is definitely regions’ turn to take the European democratic project over. The freeze of the situation from autonomous claims in Europe comes from the Nation-States which do not want to move forward and treasure their authoritative centralized powers based on the past like France and the United Kingdom as well. If for some countries, ultraregionalism is the democratic key (France), for others like Spain federalism is the solution. Federalism is useful because it helps accommodate pluralism and it also conserves unity, hence an amplification of democracy. Nonetheless, I acknowledge the complexity of this system which would create an imbrication of federalisms and democracies but I want to oppose this model with that of central authoritarianism which is the most simple and threatens the individual rights of minorities’ members.

I take for granted that Catalan independence movement is a movement of hyperautonomy and not of secessionism. Independence must be obtained first by every autonomous community of Spain to create a federal State which empowers these regions in the E.U. and protects cultural minorities as it is the case in the Federal Republic of Germany. The future of Catalonia is to remain both in Spain and in the E.U., it is not a territorial egotism which would enable the region to keep its wealth for itself. The question is to know the means that Catalans can use to fulfill this goal, mainly civil disobedience to mobilize the whole Kingdom since such a project requires the adhesion of every Spanish citizen. Civil disobedience can counter the omnipresence of the center.

That’s why we can assert that independence claims are perfectly compatible with the Spanish “public reason” that the national Supreme Court dared to defy. Indeed, it contributes to the public good and the living together among the community. That is the reason why politicians should not worry about the legal and procedural aspect of the late September 2017 referendum, but on the contrary, about the civil duty they are the holders of insofar as legality does not always qualify democratic actions.

I stand therefore for what can be called a duty of civil disobedience and which is a necessity in democracy, else it loses its capacity to criticize and question itself. In a democratic regime, citizens must constantly rebel. Not to revolt is the problem, it is the evidence that we become enslaved. As an example, regional civil servants and government officials of Catalonia should not obey the orders of the Spanish government who rules instead of the dismissed regional government. In this kind of situation, only disobedience can humanize. In fact, historically speaking totalitarian obedience led to out-of-control behaviors when the situation escalates. The legal constitutional order that the European Union wants to resort to is worrying, it is not the solution: citizens should not be afraid by the technical authority of the institutions in Madrid. It does not mean that disobedience implies to break the Rousseauvian “social contract” if it is performed in the name of fairness, freedom and equality. Being a democrat obliges to be responsible for the society we live in.

A democratic regime is supposed to protect the right of minorities, if it does not, then offences are totally justified. It proves that the right to vote in free elections is not sufficient: the election of a new Assembly planned in December only has the possibility to confirm the independence ideas but will never make up for the harm that has be done against the Catalans. Voting and, as a consequence, obeying because we have to accept the choice of the majority is not a fair process.

The law and the legal framework precede the act of disobeying and are also its consequence. Catalans have to disobey not to submit to the unfair constitution. From this criticism of an undemocratic decision citizens can generate a better law and progress, improving their democratic regime to make it more efficient. The case of the Catalan independence proves that citizens are still the actors of democracy, even if they choose to delegate some power of decision to representatives. Democracy is never stable and fixed but constantly changing: the major threat to democracy is the imperturbability or resignation of citizens which weaken the deliberation.

Civil disobedience to contest the unfair decisions of the central power is symbolic and does not imply physical violence. It is a truly non-violent concept. If demonstrators resort to violence, they would deliberately exacerbate the opinion of the Spanish government and remove the symbolical aspect of disobedience. It is due to the fact that civil disobedience intends to dramatize the independence struggle. This mise-en-scène of disobedience has to foster the tensions in front of the Spanish government who refuses confrontation and further, negotiation: else, the movement will be ignored. I understand this concept as a powerful counter-power and also a self-determination opportunity to decide about one’s own future when State institutions remain motionless. The democratic virtue of this non-violent contestatory movement is to enhance participation into deliberation. The drawback of this method is that Catalans who choose this path confirm that they agree to submit to the authorities if they are prosecuted for the illegality of their acts; that is the reason why political prisoners are legitimated. Disobedience in its acts is never revolutionary, only its consequences are revolutionary as they aim at changing a legal system.

If no one acts and objects the unfair character of the Spanish constitutional law, which is amendable, the cultural integrity of the Catalan community will be endangered. Disobedience means more than indignation: Catalans do not only need to express their emotions and feelings according to political injustice, they mostly need to act and cause a positive reaction from the government and the rest of the population.

The break with fairness is to be found with the case of the Basque country: this autonomous region which is composed of another linguistic and cultural minority of Spain enjoys a more favorable status than Catalonia to quash violent independence desires. This region actually has more powers than any other region in Spain, and even in the European Union. The Basque country has the right to debit taxes from the citizens, manage taxes and their use, decide the organization of their healthcare and school systems, run freely their regional police, etc. It can decide for its own welfare system which is one of the most advanced in Europe. Why would it not be this way, or better than the Basque system, for Catalonia, and also the rest of Spanish regions?

A federal Spain in a federal European Union would be the answer. Civil disobedience is a mean, the modification of the monarchy status is the goal. Spain itself could be constituted by several independent regional States which contract to gather under the highest common denominator of a Spanish federal State. For the autonomous communities to create a new social and democratic Spain, the central government will have to decline to exercise jurisdiction over its prerogatives during the negotiations which aim at knowing the competencies that every independent State will pool. It should be acknowledged that Spain is a multinational State, meaning that the Spanish nation does not have any signification without its constituting nations. Federalism enables to find a balance between two identities for Catalans who still remain Spanish people: with this choice, Catalans can keep their particularity and belong to a broader political entity which does not deny their basic human rights as individuals belonging to a cultural sub-group.



  • John Rawls (2001) ‘Justice as Fairness: A Restatement’, Harvard: Harvard University Press, Sections 2, 3, 9-11, 26
  • John Rawls (1997) ‘The Idea of Public Reason Revisited’, University of Chicago Law Review 64 (3) (Summer 1997), 765-807
  • Frédéric Gros (2017), ‘Désobéir’, Albin Michel
  • Wolfgang Benedek (2012), ‘Understanding HumanRights’, Manual on Human Rights Education, BWV
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Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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