Do Catalans have ‘the right to decide’?: secession, legitimacy and democracy in twenty-first century Europe

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Crameri, Kathryn (2016)

Secession is normally viewed as legitimate only as a last resort for oppressed peoples, but contemporary independence movements in Europe are working hard to shift perceptions of the legitimacy of secession as a democratic phenomenon. In this context, the recent growth of the independence movement in Catalonia has given rise to a direct confrontation between two opposing conceptions of the legitimacy of secession in democratic nation-states. On one hand, pro-referendum Catalans claim that a vote on the matter would be entirely consistent with the basic principles of democracy. On the other, the Spanish government rests its denial of a referendum on the legal authority of the Spanish Constitution, which states that Spain must remain united. This article traces the two competing discourses of democratic and legal legitimacy (what we might call the ‘right to decide’ versus the ‘duty to abide’) through an examination of the rhetoric of key political actors. It concludes that the Catalan government’s attempt to prove that Catalonia could constitute a politically legitimate independent state, and should therefore be allowed to ask its residents whether they wish it to do so, is particularly significant as a challenge to generally-accepted ‘remedial right’ theories of secession.
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