Who reigns in Spain? The election result in Catalonia is only the first step in the road to independence – as both sides should recognise

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The Independent Online

It is difficult, and impertinent, for outsiders to say whether the Catalans should form an independent state. What is not so difficult to define is what a legitimate vote for or against independence should look like. After all, the UK, a fellow EU member, has an obvious interest in that, and also its own experience of it, most recently in Scotland but also, in the past, with the still more sensitive issue of the status of Northern Ireland. 

Other things being equal, a clearly defined, consensually agreed and freely held referendum on the single question of nationhood is by far the best way to resolve things, at least in the short to medium term, and to win international recognition. Contrary to what some Catalan politicians are excitedly claiming, a regional election provides no such mandate, for the obvious reason that so many extraneous issues can intrude into a parliamentary election. When the SNP won elections for the Holyrood parliament, it took that as a mandate to hold a referendum. David Cameron was right to grant the vote in those circumstances. Despite some ill-tempered moments, it was a fine exercise in participatory democracy. 

So that should be the example that the  pro-independence parties in Catalonia should follow. Perhaps they are deliberately overstating their case for the simple pleasure of winding up the authorities in Madrid, but it is not  the best way of delivering a constitutional settlement. Now that they have what seems to be a parliamentary majority in Barcelona for a referendum, they should be allowed to proceed with it. 

The Spanish government should graciously accede to this expression of popular will and agree a framework for a free vote. Refusal to do so, or recalcitrance about the wording of the question, franchise, or other aspects of a plebiscite will do the cause of Spanish unity no good at all, nor relations between an independent Catalonia and the rest of Spain, if it comes to that.  

So, the map of Europe is growing ever-more fragmented, in some ways reverting to the kaleidoscope of tiny principalities, grand duchies and city states that existed before the imperial and national unity movements of the mid-19th century transformed it into a few huge power blocs. It is remarkable that so many communities have come to feel that nationalism, or micro-nationalism, is the answer to their problems, from the Czechs and Slovaks, through the Flemish and the Walloons in Belgium, to divided Greeks and Turks in Cyprus, to secessionist movements in Corsica, the Tyrol, French and Spanish Basque country, not to mention the much nastier divisions in the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union. Soon Europe, with a fraction of the land mass and currently 50 independent entities, will have more nation states than Africa’s 54 – a continent sometimes mocked by Europeans as hopelessly divided on “tribal” grounds. It is in fact Europe that has proved itself remarkably tribal in recent decades.

It would be nice to think that this fissiparous tendency would find its eventual logical outcome in a “Europe of the Regions”, combining the best of devolution of power to the lowest possible level, with a continent-wide political union dealing with trade, economic and foreign policy; but on recent evidence, it would be unwise to assume anything much about the instinct for solidarity among the peoples of Europe. What is strange is why every nationality and sub-nationality believes that self-rule is the answer to their problems. It has not always made such a radical difference, as the Catalans and Scots may discover.