Breaking up is hard to do, as separatists in Iraqi Kurdistan and Spain’s Catalonia have discovered. Even Scotland’s separatists have had to shelve plans for yet another independence vote, following signs Scots aren't ready to revisit the question.
Monday, Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont bowed to defeat, saying in an interview in Belgium that he’s ready to give up on secession and explore a future relationship with Madrid short of full independence.
He said, “I’m ready, and have always been ready, to accept the reality of another relationship with Spain. It is possible.” His comments are a far cry from the heady aspirations he and hardcore Catalan separatists were expressing in October.
He is not the only leader reflecting on the dashing of independence dreams.
Last week, Masoud Barzani, the former president of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, defended his decision to hold an independence referendum on September 25, arguing the timing of the vote was right as Baghdad was planning to move against the Kurds with or without a vote and curtail their autonomy.
“We believe the timing was good...because those Iraqi forces who are currently implementing their policies to change the demography and situation in areas that they are in right now, they had this program and this plan in mind even before the referendum.” Barzani told Newsweek magazine in an interview on November 8.
“They are using the referendum as a pretext to cover their plan and plot against the Kurdish people...Our mistake is we should have held the referendum earlier and not later,” he added.
Not all Kurdish leaders agreed with Barzani about the timing. Behind the scenes, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the minority partner in the KRG government, had urged Barzani to delay the vote. After the referendum, PUK leaders counseled Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party to reach an accommodation with Baghdad short of total separation.
Separatists elsewhere, including Basques, Bretons, Flemings, Scots and Bavarians, who had high hopes that the Catalans and Kurds would be successful, are examining the failures to see what lessons there may be for them.
A key lesson, they say, is that neither Catalonia nor the KRG gained the support of outside powers and rushed into holding votes when the international community had made clear its opposition. In the weeks leading up to the Kurd plebiscite, Barzani came under enormous pressure from allies and foes alike not to hold a vote.
U.S. diplomats were caught between two key partners in the fight against the Islamic State terror group, Baghdad and Irbil, and warned Barzani his bid to shift from autonomous rule to independence risked upending the anti-IS coalition.
Likewise, the Catalans had no formal outside support, or promise of any, from bigger or neighboring powers. Catalan separatists acknowledge they had pinned their hopes on the European Union supporting them.
They failed, however, to calculate how much Brussels would fear their independence drive might encourage other separatist and nationalist movements on the continent, undermining the established European order. “The silence of the European institutions in our hour of need was deafening,” said Jordi Sole, a Catalan member of the European Parliament.
Now Catalan and Kurdish separatists are laying much of the blame for their failed breakaways on outside powers, even though they never had their support in the first place; but, some Catalan separatists acknowledge the blame rests more with them.
Santi Vila, a former aide to Puigdemont, accuses his colleagues of naivety, and not just for misreading the European Union and how it might react.
“We lacked the necessary political intelligence,” he acknowledged on Catalonia’s Rac1 radio.
He said Catalonia hadn’t been ready to function as an independent state. “Where’s the control over the territory, the control of ports, airports, the management of transport?” he asked. And added, “I have government colleagues who displayed a level of naivety that is surprising at their age.”
On the streets of Barcelona, many Catalans expressed increasing worry in the wake of their referendum on the departure of nearly 2,000 businesses that relocated their headquarters form Catalonia to other parts of Spain. With EU opposition clear, they worried how Catalonia would fare outside the economic bloc, noting the separatists never presented a detailed plan for that contingency.
The Catalonia independence campaign is “a telling example of why the hallowed principle of self-determination can only be applied when conditions are right,” according to former Swiss ambassador Daniel Woker.
The same could be said for the KRG, which is now struggling to hold on to the autonomy it had before the independence bid.