The Spanish Kosovo-Catalonia enigma – European Council on Foreign Relations

Consistency is a virtue. He demonstrates his principles, creates predictability and insulates himself from accusations of hypocrisy. But as with any virtue, its excessive application can be tedious, boring and crude. “Insane coherence,” American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us, “is the hobgoblin of petty minds, adored by petty statesmen, philosophers, and theologians.”

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

This is a clear case of mindless consistency. By sticking to such consistency, Madrid’s leaders fail to highlight the essential distinctions between Kosovo and Catalonia. Worse, by failing to recognize these distinctions, the government in Madrid claims to be incapable of distinguishing between legitimate aspirations for autonomy and destabilizing separatism. Worse still, Madrid is inadvertently signaling that Catalonia might have a case for independence.

Separatism is a complicated and controversial issue. The international order is heavily skewed in favor of sovereign states for good reason. It is not a perfect system, but it is a system that minimizes war, human suffering and chaos. It takes exceptionally strong arguments to break with the principle of territorial integrity, especially since separatism is often motivated by dangerous forms of nationalism. To justify the break-up of a state, the central authorities must have demonstrated a willingness to perpetrate mass atrocities against its population.

With this threshold in mind, the big differences between Kosovo and Catalonia become clear. The Kosovo Albanian population experienced racist repression under the regime of Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s as Yugoslavia disintegrated. This culminated in a war in which Yugoslav forces killed over 10,000 Kosovo Albanians. When NATO launched its bombing campaign in 1999, Belgrade deliberately expelled almost a million Kosovo Albanians – half the population – to neighboring countries. Yugoslav forces and paramilitaries took care to strip Kosovo Albanians of their identity papers at border crossings to prevent them from returning.

These crimes provided a strong moral justification for separatism. They also made it virtually impossible for Belgrade to rule over Kosovo, and led the vast majority of Western states (but not Spain) to conclude that independence was the only viable option. Since its declaration of independence nearly a decade ago, Kosovo has been recognized by 110 states and counting, which speaks to the strength of its case for statehood.

The Catalan case is quite different. There may be serious political grievances – some even legitimate – in Catalonia with what is seen as Madrid’s chauvinistic attitude towards the region. And Madrid have certainly missed their response to the Catalan separatists. The footage – especially the real ones – of riot police dragging gray-haired pensioners out of polling stations has garnered much international sympathy for the separatist cause.

But Madrid remained well within the framework of international law and the Spanish constitution. His incompetence in public relations does not mean that he is wrong on the political question. He deserves international support against the populist nationalism of the separatists.

And the international community supports it. No state has expressed support for the Catalan separatists or even hinted that recognition is a possibility. The de facto South Ossetian foreign minister showed up in Catalonia and offered to recognize its independence if Catalonia recognized South Ossetia. But that would only underline the weak case for Catalan independence given that South Ossetia has been recognized by a grand total of four states and is effectively annexed by Russia. Even Russia, which has fanned separatist fires in Catalonia with its propaganda, says it will not recognize Catalonia’s independence. The lack of recognition means that Catalonia’s declaration of independence will be worth little more than the paper it was written on.

It is precisely because Madrid is right about Catalonia that it should recognize the independence of Kosovo. By taking such a bold step, Spain would demonstrate that it has extremely strong arguments in favor of keeping Catalonia. It would send the message that it supports the legitimate aspirations of oppressed peoples and takes its commitment to universal human rights seriously. And it would show that his opposition to Catalan independence has a strong democratic rationale, and is not based simply on a senseless consistency and jurist reading of the Spanish constitution.

Of course, Spanish recognition of Kosovo is not imminent. The political dynamics in Spain make such a move highly unlikely. On the contrary, the Catalan crisis has only hardened Madrid’s position towards Kosovo. But as the crisis deepens, Madrid would do well to think less about foolish consistency and law, and more about morals and politics.

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