Allen Buchanan, a professor at Duke University (USA), is a world-renowned expert on self-determination processes and author of Secession (1991). He was recently in Catalonia as guest lecturer of the Ferrater Móra Chair at the University of Girona. In addition, he gave a lecture entitled “The case of Catalonia: how not to handle a self-determination crisis”. VilaWeb had the opportunity to speak to Buchanan while he was in Girona.

He suggests that Catalans hold two more referendums on independence before making a decision either way. He believes the first of October vote was insufficient. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that the Catalans may have the right to declare unilateral independence, without seeking permission from Spain. He also explains why he believes Madrid doesn’t see him as an ally, in spite of being of the opinion that independence should be subject to more restrictions.

– What did you say in your lectures in Girona?
– I said that unilateral independence is highly problematic and that there are often negative consequences. Unintentional ones, because pro-independence activists often overestimate the benefits and underestimate the costs. Having said that, I think there are cases where people have the unilateral right of independence. The right to be independent without the consent of the State does exist.

– The four instances in which you believe that this right exists are well-known. Let’s start with the annexation of a territory. Do Catalans fall into this category?
– A recent unfair annexation gives you the right to become unilaterally independent. And I say recently, because ultimately, every state was created that way. In the Catalan case, I think it’s been too long. Three centuries since 1714. I don’t think that this situation can be considered, in your case.

– The second case: serious violations of human rights.
– I don’t think this is a valid argument in the Catalan case, either.

– Third: unfair redistribution within the state. Does this apply in the Catalan case?
– I honestly don’t know.

– A fact, by way of an example. The Catalans pay more. They’re rich. The Valencians pay more and they’re poor. The reason being that we both belong to a different culture. We speak Catalan And that’s why we pay more. For being different. Not for being rich.
– Wow. This is very important. There are two facts about redistribution that could be a justification for unilateral independence. One of them is discrimination. And if what you say is true, and I don’t know, then the Spanish system discriminates. A poorer region than the others is paying more? There’s no possible justification. I’m concerned about people who refuse to accept that the wealthy have to pay more. But if you can actually show that there is discriminatory redistribution, then the government loses a lot of legitimacy. The fiscal arrangements should work in such a way that if regional authorities don’t receive sufficient resources to fulfil their obligations (to run schools, hospitals, etc.) then that can become a reason for unilateral independence, too. It’s not like a violation of basic human rights, but it is an injustice.

– The fourth and last reason. The refusal of the state to negotiate autonomy. You say the state’s refusal to negotiate autonomy in good faith gives one the right to unilateral independence.
– I believe that the best reason to justify a unilateral declaration of independence is, in your case, to see if the Spanish government is unwilling to negotiate more autonomy in good faith. The new Spanish president has said he’s willing to consider it. For me, a reasonable condition before starting to negotiate would be the release of the prisoners, and for the charges against those in exile to be dropped. When that happens and more autonomy can be negotiated, I think that many Catalans will be happy enough with greater autonomy. Not all of them. Now, there’s a question as to whether the Spanish government or the courts will break the autonomous agreement. Which is what happened in 2006 with the Constitutional Court.

– Is autonomy the option you favour?
– I believe that greater autonomy, and not independence, is the best solution for everyone. But it’s very difficult to achieve it since, on the one hand, the region fears that the state will break the agreement whenever it feels like it, and, on the other, the state fears that giving more autonomy is just the first step towards independence. In short, it might be that, after the 1st of October, and given the history of the Constitutional Court, there aren’t many people in Catalonia willing to try autonomy again. But I’m one of those who believe that unilateral independence must be the last option. And the question is, are we at the last option? Last night I said: If there’s any hope for more autonomy, the negotiation must be through a third actor. The EU would be an option, but I don’t know if it’s ready. Perhaps it should be an ad hoc committee of highly respected individuals, diplomats, and key figures. Now, maybe it’s too late for that.

– What errors have the pro-independence side made?
– It’s a mistake to believe that a single vote, a single referendum, is enough to make such a great constitutional change. Independence wouldn’t only affect Spain and its territory. It would change the condition of all those who live in Catalonia. Including those who wanted to remain in Spain and who identify themselves mainly as Spaniards. I think that this change needs more than just one vote. At first you need a large majority, about two thirds of voters in favour. There ought to be some sort of an impartial supervision of the process. There are international organizations that specialise in this. And finally I believe that the process should consist of two stages: a first referendum and, after one year, another.

– Why do you want to two referendums?
– Take Brexit, for example. There are people who voted and who now realise the implications of what it meant. And they re-thinking it. They didn’t realise it would cost so much. I think it’s such a serious matter that it requires more than a simple majority with a one-time vote. It’s worth voting two times.

– In the Catalan case, does the first of October count as the first referendum, or should we start again?
– It would be better to start over again. And I think that the referendum question shouldn’t only include the question of whether you agree with a sovereign state in the form of a republic. It should also include a clear commitment to respect the rights of the new minority that will be created in Catalonia.

– The Spanish minority?
– Exactly. There should be a written commitment in a clause of the new Catalan constitution that says that the Spanish language will be official, and that no one who expresses opposition or voted against independence will be discriminated against. Not by the government or at the workplace. I think that if you’re a supporter of independence you have to think about those who oppose it. That’s why the commitment to respect the new minority is key. For example, offer double nationality for anyone who wants it. I know that the promise has been made verbally. My advice is that it’s put in writing, and during the referendum. I think if you did that, you’d actually get more people voting in favour.

– Any errors on the Spanish side, aside from sending the police to hit the voters?
– We don’t have time to cover them all! But I think it was a great mistake to criminalize the referendum. They should have said: “this has no legal effect”. To just ignore it. But, instead, they reacted in a way that contributed to the loss of confidence. There’s been a lot of rigidity, an exaggerated reaction and criminalization. Even from a strategic point of view and their own interests, it was a mistake. Instead of that, they cracked some heads. A huge mistake. They should’ve been more open not just to renegotiating the autonomy, but also to making credible pledges that the agreement would be stable. It’s the least they could’ve done. But they did the opposite: they have converted a lot of autonomists into independence supporters. They have lost their trust. And sometimes when trust is lost, you can’t get it back.

– Did the Catalan case change your independence theory?
– Yes. I now give much more weight to the idea that a justification for unilateral independence is the state’s failure to honour an agreement on autonomy, or be willing to renegotiate an autonomy in good faith. Now, more than ever I think that if the state doesn’t want to negotiate greater autonomy, unilateral independence is a just cause.

– Have either the Catalan or Spanish government asked you for advice?
-The Spanish government, never. No invitation to speak. Maybe they haven’t read my work. And if they have read it, I don’t think they’d see me as an ally.

– Why?
– Well, as I said, I feel that a state’s refusal to commit to negotiations on autonomy, or the act of infringing upon a region’s powers, can be seen as a justification for unilateral independence.

– The Catalans, on the other hand, must say: he wants us to hold two more referendums!
– If I come here, and neither side is happy, I’ve done a good job. It would be wrong to place myself enthusiastically in favour on the one side or the other.

– Maybe independence can’t be peaceful?
– Perhaps. There are people who believe that at worst Madrid will resort to violence. But no one really knows and sometimes if the government acts with enough violence, it prompts a violent response.

– You don’t foresee thousands of deaths, do you?
– I don’t, And if it got to the point where there was going to be large-scale violence, that might trigger the EU to step in and mediate and calm things down. I don’t think it’s impossible, I think it’s very unlikely. But that’s just a prediction made at this time, I don’t have a crystal ball.

– On October 1st Catalans saw that voting wasn’t enough. And since then we’ve been asking, what will it take?
– In Girona a member of the audience asked about civil disobedience. Not violence, but civil disobedience. I think that it’s a reasonable question to ask. Civil
disobedience is complicated. Both strategically and morally. It’s not something you do lightly, but it’s certainly something to consider, if nothing else is working and you don’t want to take to the barricades with rifles. Civil disobedience may be the best alternative. If you study the use of disobedience in the American civil rights movement, you’ll see that it was very successful, but sometimes the leadership used it in rather manipulative ways. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen films of the sit-ins and the demonstrations. The standard procedure was to wear a white shirt so the blood would show more. And, in a very controversial decision, in Alabama they included children in the demonstration because they knew there would be violence. And when the Americans saw police dogs attacking six-year-old children on TV, they said ‘enough’. It’s in the interests of the leaders of a civil disobedience movement to provoke the authorities to overreact with violence. And it works, sometimes. So if you start out with a sanitised version of civil disobedience, it may not be what you end up with. It’s complicated. From the moral point of view, as well.