How Catalonia and Kurdish Independence Can Actually Bring the World Closer Together

Symbol for Kurds' desire for independence with flag of Caledonia made into a heart.

Recently two separate countries dealt with succession movements from within.  First was Iraq where Kurds, emboldened by their recent battlefield success against ISIS, formally voted for independence.[1]  This referendum would essentially solidify the current situation in the country where Kurds have long held autonomous power in the region known as “Kurdistan."  The other country battling a secessionist movement is Spain.  In their case, Catalonia, a wealthy province in the northeast part of Spain, is attempting to break free in order to more fully embrace its own culture and to avoid paying taxes to prop up poorer parts of the country.[2]

These two movements share far more than just a desire for independence.  In both cases the desire to achieve independence traces at least some of its roots to history.  In the case of the Kurds, they have been a marginalized ethnic group in Northern Iraq for decades and were also the targets of ethnic cleansing by former Dictator Saddam Hussein.  For Catalonians, it stems back to the Spanish Civil war when that region served as a center of resistance to Franco’s Fascist regime in Madrid and thus was the focus of his animosity.

Perhaps the greatest similarity the two regions face though is the reaction they have faced after independence declarations.  The Kurds were immediately met with threats from several neighboring countries that fear potential instability from their own large Kurdish minorities.  (With more than 30 million Kurds worldwide, if not the largest, they are one of the largest ethnic groups without a state of their own.)  Even the US, traditionally a strong ally of the Kurds, opposed the vote.  Their vote was also ruled illegal by the Iraqi Supreme Court.  In the case of Catalonia the authorities did away with threats and moved right into using violence.  Spanish police were sent in during the referendum to block voters with the unsurprisingly result of destruction to property and violence.  The Spanish Supreme court also ruled their referendum illegal.

The problem with these two approaches, which was basically just the same one with slight twists, is that they do not look at the bigger picture.  In the case of Iraq and the neighboring countries looking at Kurdistan and seeing instability, they need to focus on the future.  If and when the Kurds finally achieve their independence, with a large supply of oil they would likely look to join organizations such as OPEC and a free-trade area in the Middle East if that is established similar to the EU.  Speaking of the European Union, instead of worrying about Catalonia leaving Spain the powers that be should focus on its remaining in the EU, the most successful free-trade organization to date.

Instead, in both instances the reactions show a lack of foresight and even appear to be in direct opposition to stated goals.  As anyone who glimpsed the Arab Spring and countless recent wars in the region knows, if you try too hard to keep a group of people down, it can only lead to an uprising.  This is especially perplexing in the case of the Kurds who not only served as the vanguard in much of the fight against ISIS but who have also flourished despite being frequent targets of the government and other groups.  In Catalonia it is a similar story, where a member of the EU, an organization created with the specific purpose to prevent European conflict, is attempting to force another region to submit through force.

It is a puzzling paradox indeed.  If Catalonia were to leave Spain but remain in the EU, how would that actually change much?  The answer then seems to be that countries are still more focused on and cognizant of the idea of sovereignty of a nation-state.  In other words, while they may be part of a larger whole they are no longer part of the small part of the whole (i.e. Spain), that is something which Spain cannot accept.  In the case of the Kurds, although there is nothing approaching the collective trans-national body of the EU, as mentioned earlier there are some regional organizations that create binds.  Furthermore, the explanation that Kurdish independence could cause instability is laughable in a region where ISIS and Al-Qaeda still exist and where several civil wars are on-going as part of a larger proxy war between the regions' two most supposedly stable countries, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

These issues of independence then are very closely related as should be the remedy to deal with them.  As suggested, let the Catalans get independence but make a concerted effort to keep them in the EU either way.  While the region may want greater autonomy for its culture, renegotiating a seemingly endless string of treaties may lead them to decide being a part of Spain is not the worst thing in the world; just ask England.  When it comes to Iraq, it appears the Kurds will get their state eventually.  Not only do they have the bastion in Iraq but also another area in Syria, so they control their process to freedom.  Make sure they join organizations like OPEC and sign military agreements as well if that would ease the collective mind.  Trying to suppress this sentiment with force is like trying to hold up a collapsing dam.  The solution then to these separate but very similar independence movements is not the use of force but making sure the energy that served as the catalyst for change is funneled into keeping these new countries within the existing global order.

[1] CNN: Kurds vote overwhelmingly in favor of independence from Iraq.

[2] The Guardian: Spanish court suspends Catalan parliament session in attempt to block independence.



Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the official policy of Citizens for Global Solutions.

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