• Rethinking Sovereignty – A Quick Look at the Catalan Case

  • By Andoni Olariaga Azkarate | 10 Nov 17 | Posted under: Spain
  • At a glance, the Catalan case gives us a more precise understanding of how demands for sovereignty are being implemented in a stateless situation. The Catalan process has been recently interpreted and analyzed from a wide variety of political stands.


    Sovereignty, democracy and territory are three of the most fundamental concepts in contemporary politics. The relationship to one another has not yet been explored in a productive manner. The construction of a new state in the Basque country addresses this question from a pro-independence viewpoint. At the same time, it reworks the relationship accompanied with a new understanding of sovereignty, territory, democracy and state.

    Contrary to general perceptions, the main objective of the pro-independence movement is not to insist on cultural or national differences, it is rather to place emphasis on the radical idea that popular and institutional sovereignties are fundamental for democratization. This is the case “because the less institutional and constitutional power a political community has, the less sovereignty that community will be able to acquire and hence the less reproductive power it will have for maintaining itself across time and space as a self-governed community” (Goikoetxea, 2017: 6).

    The struggle for independence puts forward democratic demands. It does so from and within the reworking of a new understanding of sovereignty, democracy and territory. The actual act of reworking such concepts turns the pro-independence movement into a key position within the political landscape – not only because of the demands that are contained in such movement, but also, more exactly, for what this position implies in the understanding of politics proper on a larger scale.

    Traditionally, the idea of democracy has been understood as necessarily related to sovereign nation-states. The prospects of developing radical democratic politics in stateless nations remain largely unexplored. In addition, liberal thinkers tend to dismiss national sovereignty as a possible path to democratize institutions and states, and defend instead that democracy can be sustained without any locally territorialized political capacity. However, the main question remains unanswered: is democracy possible without sovereignty? (Tansey, 2011: 2).


    Privatization of democracy and loss of sovereignty

    One consequence of the crisis of the neoliberal order in Europe is the increased interest on the idea of sovereignty. Economic globalization, together with the worsening of employment conditions and rising poverty levels in Europe and worldwide, has restated the notion of sovereignty at the centre of current political discourse. Sovereignty is invoked to protect the interests of financial capital – of which Donald Trump’s “America first” watchword is the best exponent. The British Leave campaign leading to Brexit was also centered on reclaiming sovereignty away from the European Union, as the slogan “Take back control” illustrates.

    It is clear that over the last decades Europe has witnessed the rise of two significant phenomena: on the one hand, peoples and states have increasingly lost sovereignty to supranational powers and corporations; on the other hand, in this era of global capitalism, Western democracies “obstinately continue to privatize the mechanisms and structures that empower people provide capacity for self-government” (Goikoetxea, 2017: i).

    In addition, neoliberalism is also disrupting community bonds and opening up a new space where emancipation projects and authoritarian reaction are competing against each other (Zubiaga, 2015: 96).

    Privatization of democracy means that decision-making capabilities and public institutions are transferred to private hands; to private authorities, which have not been democratically legitimized in any ballot box.

    As a result of such privatization of democracy, the demos (as people) is losing sovereignty in favor of private supranational bodies. Moreover, the European global neoliberal institutions support the principle, in this context, that democracy may work without any kind of sovereignty (Goikoetxea, 2017: 6). This idea, we believe, is as unrealistic as it is dangerous.


    Sovereignty, democracy and territory

    Sovereignty is defined classically as “the idea that there is a final and absolute political authority in the political community [...] and no final and absolute authority exists elsewhere” (Hinsley, 1986: I). Following Hinsley (1986: 2), the concept of sovereignty is closely linked with the state. However, recent works have reappraised the concept and provided a new understanding beyond the constraints of the state. Sovereignty is now understood as closely linked to democracy, and vice-versa. Furthermore, we understand sovereignty as a prerequisite for democracy to be such.

    Democracy was defined in Athens as the rule of the people. Nowadays democracy is commonly known as a system of government in which citizens exercise power from elect representatives or from themselves to form a government. Democracy is also commonly understood as the rule of the majority.

    We think that a concept of such an importance should be defined as concretely and specifically as possible. Following the classical Greek understanding of the concept, we propose to define democracy as the formal and material political capacity of a community to govern itself. We understand democracy and democratization as a “process of collective emancipation through self-government” (Goikoetxea, 2017: 1).

    The above is not just a right but also a capability. This means that a particular territory is related to specific institutions and demos, and is thus able to create political reality, political institutions, and so on. A demos is “a group of human beings who persist across time and space and share certain beliefs and dispositions, chiefly the disposition to govern themselves” (Goikoetxea, 2014: 145). In short, there is no democracy if a demos is not able to govern itself.

    Linked to this position we believe it is impossible to achieve global democracy without taking local democracy into account. Democracy and sovereignty are always territorialized. For a community to have the capacity to govern itself a territorialized sovereignty is necessary: “There cannot be a demos in the twenty-first century without this demos being at the same time a normalizing society; a society based on public disciplinary and regulatory mechanisms and institutions” (Goikoetxea, 2017: 7).

    In short, democratization is a form of territorialization, the capacity to manage a certain space. Democratization is a dynamic process. It takes place when the relationship between the state and the community results in such features as public schooling, treasury, and so on (Goikoetxea, 2015: 38).


    Sovereignty and state

    Ever since the foundation of the modern state, the state is the largest agent of neoliberal globalization. However, the traditional functions of the state have changed in part because the global and national spheres are no longer separated. The need of the state to accommodate to globalization and the private financial sector has resulted in changes regarding the traditional roles the state used to fulfill.

    Yet, despite losing levels of sovereignty, the 19th century nation-state has not disappeared at all. Defending the idea that the state has been superseded makes it harder to contest its excesses. States are still alive and in full operation. In fact, if neoliberalism attacks the State it is not to dismantle it but only so the state remains a submissive part of the new neoliberal order.

    Imperialism, for instance, is providing new strength and impetus to the attributes of the state. Also, as the golden rule of neoliberalism is to protect private property, state violence is increased in all its forms to such effect. Since 2007 this is the basis of neoliberal policy: to protect property at the expense of the weakest parts of society, the working people, and the oppressed peoples, those who are deprived of a state with which to defend ourselves practicing a different socioeconomic policy.

    As a result, we dare to assert that the position claiming the State is over “seeks to turn the aspirations of other nations to achieve a state – or to enjoy the same degree of sovereignty – into a banned proposition” (Apaolaza, U.; Galfarsoro, I.; Olariaga, A., 2012: 13).

    Is democracy thus possible in countries composed of several nationalities? Taking a close look at the French state, this is a classic nation-state proclaiming a French civic nationalism and applying a centralist political concept of governance. Spain, almost equally, is a single-nation state that does not tolerate much autonomy for regions and nations within, as we noticed in the Catalan case. The Spanish state is a unitary nation-state founded on its indivisible unity (Blas, 2012: 78).

    The Basque territories are divided in three administrations, the Basque Autonomous Community, the Autonomous Community of Navarre (both within the Spanish State), and Iparralde (the North Basque Country). On the assumption that each territory constitutes a separate subject, our aim is not to follow the historical route of Spain and France to build yet another nation-state. That is why we propose “a form of territorial federalism with a state, which is based on consensus democracy or a co-associational design” (Blas, 2012: 75).

    We are well aware that independence and sovereignty, for the time being, can only be achieved within the legal, political and economic structures prevailing in Europe. “That is to say, independence can only be achieved within the economic, legal and political structures and processes which prevail in Europe but in so doing access to independence of new European nations together with the insistence on a new social Europe is clearly instrumental to the purposes of transforming Europe itself.” (Apaolaza, U.; Galfarsoro, I.; Olariaga, A., 2012: 14)



    We cannot talk any longer of monolithic forms of sovereignty but of different kind of sovereignties instead. We propose to understand sovereignty in three interrelated fields: democracy and territory, bodies and life. We have already pointed out what a territorialized democratic sovereignty means for us: a particular territory is able to create political reality, hence there is no democracy if a territory is not capable to govern itself.

    In addition, we also talk about sovereignty and bodies: one of the most persistent efforts of Patriarchalism is to dominate and control the bodies of women. The use and control of bodies is another strategy of the power exercised over others. However, this right and this responsibility are becoming a revolutionary fact. For such is the pressure to remain within the standard model, that if we do not follow that pattern we feel excluded from recognition in a globalized society, even in its perverse tastes and imperatives.

    The third kind of sovereignty is what we called life, where economy, ecology, work, food, energy, culture, and the public sphere are articulated. There is no sovereignty if our food, energetic and ecologic resources are not in the hands of people and its needs, but in the hands of a few financial sectors. For instance, food sovereignty means and defends “the right of peoples to set their own farming policies, to give priority to their home markets, to have access to natural resources such as water, land, seeds, and the loans needed to acquire them, and to decide what to eat, who produces it, how, in a way compatible with the specific cultural conditions of each country” (Letamendia, 2012: 195).

    To sum up, sovereignty(s) lie(s) at the heart of the pro-independence movement principles, both in the Basque and the Catalan cases, and is the idea that its projects are built in.


    The Catalan case

    At a glance, the Catalan case gives us a more precise understanding of how demands for sovereignty are being implemented in a stateless situation. The Catalan process has been recently interpreted and analyzed from a wide variety of political stands. However, many within the left have misinterpreted it as a movement representing no more than economic self-interest and an obsession with national and identity issues – as a movement lead by and for the interests of the local bourgeoisie. Nothing could be further from reality. As Paul Mason points out, “as calls for autonomy and independence proliferate, mainstream left parties are failing to understand the basic principle: in some circumstances, the national question is not a distraction from the fight for social justice – it is the frontline of it” (Mason, 2017).

    Catalan citizens suffer from the unitarian centralism of the Aznar government (2000-2004), which made an aggressive Spanish nationalism the heart of its project, attacking both Catalan and Basque culture, language and autonomic institutions. So Catalan citizens moved a step forward in 2005 on its sovereign status, and those demands took shape as the Project of a new Statute of Autonomy approved by the majority of the Catalan parliament in 2005, always gathered within the constitutional framework. Simultaneously, social movements were demanding sovereignty on infrastructures since 2007. We cannot forget that demands for Catalan sovereignty are driven by civil society (Omnium and ANC) and grassroots movements since the very beginning. As true as it is that these demand simplied the recognition of Catalan nationhood and the recognition of Spain as a plurinational state, we cannot overlook either the demand for a sovereign fiscal policy. Finally, the new Statute of Autonomy approved in 2005 was later rejected by the Spanish constitutional court in 2010.

    It must be noted the Catalan movement for self-government was not demanding independence from the outset, but the Catalan people to have the last word in all the issues concerning its territory, such as economy, culture as well as their political future. The pro-independence route has gained strength as a response to the impossibility of carrying out the demands for sovereignty and the building of a multicultural Spanish State.

    In the last decade, there have been two possible hypotheses or paths for the Catalan and Spanish left to achieve and improve the levels of sovereignty for the people, meet the demands of the neediest, and improve levels of democratic and civil rights. One was to open a constituent process in the Spanish state, a long-term strategy given the wide favorable balance of power that the establishment parties have over the others; the other one was to exploit the actual favorable balance of power in Catalonia and create a new state that would have at its core covering the basic needs of the people and building a social and multicultural state. While both paths lead to the same goal, i.e. responding to the needs of people’s social and political rights, one is currently possible, and the other is not.

    In conclusion, the Catalan movement for sovereignty that demands a new state within Europe, being built on the conception of sovereignty explained and defended in this article is clearly instrumental to the objectives of both building a social state and transforming Europe itself into a more democratic and social space. 



    Apaolaza, U., Galfarsoro, I., Olariaga, A. (2012), “A European state in the Basqueland: on conditions for a Nation to become state”, Towards a Basque State: nation-building and institutions, Iparhegoa, Bilbo, pp. 12-25.

    Blas, Asier (2012), “The Basque state as an effective management tool: diversity, democracy and social justice”, Towards a Basque State: nation-building and institutions, Iparhegoa, Bilbo, pp. 73-93.

    Goikoetxea, Jule (2015), “Sovereignty, decision, capacity and democracy”, RIEV: Revista internacional de estudios vascos, Cuad. 11, pp. 32-44.

    Goikoetxea, Jule (2014), “Nation and democracy building in contemporary Europe: the reproduction of the basque demos”, The Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity, 42:1, pp. 145-164.

    Goikoetxea, Jule (2017), Privatizing democracy, Global ideas, European politics and Basque territories, Peter Lang.

    Hinsley, Franciso (1986), Sovereignty, 2nd edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Letamendia, F. (2012), “Building a (Basque) nation from the world of work”, Towards a Basque State: territory and socioeconomics, Iparhegoa, Bilbo, pp. 188-199.

    Mason, Paul (2017), “Catalonia, Lombardy, Scotland… why the fight for self-determination now?”, The Guardian, 23 October 2017

    Tansey, O. (2011), “Does democracy need sovereignty?”, Review of International Studies, 37 (4), pp. 1515-1536, available at: http://centaur.reading.ac.uk/20815/

    Zubiaga, Mario (2015), “La decisión democrática como fundamento del derecho a decidir: el caso catalán”, RIEV: Revista internacional de estudios vascos, Cuad. 11, pp. 94-118.


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