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What is the solution to the Catalan crisis – ethno-federalism?

The Catalan crisis is the worst constitutional crisis that Spain has witnessed since democracy was restored in 1978. Following the unilateral Catalonian declaration of Independence and the establishment of direct rule in the region by Madrid, there are a few options for Spain’s relationship with Catalonia. These include stronger centralization (unitarism), more decentralization (federalism) or an independence referendum. Is the concept of ethno-federalism a possible long-term solution to ethnic conflict in multi-cultural states.

In short, Ethno-federalism is a federal political system in which territorial governance units are explicitly designated as ethnic homelands. Out of the 27 federations in the world today, half are ethno-federalisms including Canada, Malaysia, India and Russia. As with most concepts in political science, this is a contested one. Critics argue that it increases a sense of isolation and fosters the development of a separate identity which could lead to further demands for secession or large-scale violence and potential increase of violence against minorities when majoritarian elites feel threatened. However, recent empirical data has shown that ethno-federalism proves to be a successful option.

In his analysis on post-1945 states, political scientist, Liam Anderson concludes that ethno-federalism enjoys a very high success rate (See Table 1). Failed cases which critics point to usually focus on Soviet states where democracy was lacking. A second conclusion he draws from it is that ethno-federalism is usually a last resort after stronger centralization fails and other alternatives are exhausted (See Table 2).


Figure: Data on Ethno-Federations from Anderson, L. (2014) ‘Ethnofederalism: The Worst Form of Institutional Arrangement…?’, International Security, Volume 39, Number 1, Summer 2014.

Not sharing Anderson’s enthusiasm, political scientist, Katharine Adeney points out that 68 percent of federations which have failed have been ethno-federations. However, her research on the success of Indian federalism, shows that territorial recognition increases security but these must come with an essential caveat that there must be some concessions made by the Central state on power-sharing to increase participation of the smaller group and reduce the sense of isolation and enmity.

How could this empirical research be applied to the Catalonia case? Following Anderson, we find that a strong centralized state has already failed as an option, therefore the potential for ethno-federalism should be a high priority on the bargaining table. The beginnings of decentralization were voted on in a 2005 decentralization proposal which enabled Catalonia to collect taxes directly and be recognized as a nation. This was supported by 89 percent of the Catalonian parliament. However, what Adeney shows is that concessions must be made and promises must be kept by Central authorities to not create animosity among the smaller group. The above-mentioned proposal was eventually watered down by the socialist government in the national parliament and the redux statute of autonomy in 2006 was challenged as being unconstitutional in 2010.

Burned by past experience, this may mean that this option is off the table for Catalonians but it must be a real option for Madrid. And it must be backed by a legitimate effort by Madrid to make reasonable accommodations for the concerns of Catalonians. Failing to do so will lead to devastating consequences and the potential for further increased demands for secession around the world citing the Catalonian Case as inspiration.

Image Credit: CC by Catalonia/ Wikimedia Commons