Last Sunday, an awkward feeling beset many among the EU elite when the Spanish central government tried to prevent the Catalan independence referendum, with all the force and violence a government commands. Madrid, capital and seat of ultimate power, left no margin of doubt.

From the central government’s point of view, the referendum is but an act of insurgency. The European observer is caught in a classical ‘catch 22’, a term popularised by Joseph Heller in his 1961 novel. It describes an unresolvable logical paradox as a result of contradictory rules. Self-determination – ‘freedom for Catalonia’ – on the one hand, and territorial integrity – ‘legitimate Spain’ – on the other, leave no easy way out.

During the Cold War, prior to about 1990, the rules of precedence were clear. In a world divided by an iron curtain nobody doubted that territorial affiliation dominated any individual interests. In essence, the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 determined that territorial integrity took precedence over the principles of self-determination – and that there was no contradiction between the two. It is a view still supported by most of the top-guns in international law.

It has been liberal – or cosmopolitan – internationalism that has evolved as an alternative over the last twenty years. Being the dominating worldview among Western elites, it assumes that individual liberty, the emergence of global markets, and international integration will eventually diminish the importance of territories and borders, thus allowing self-determination to an ever growing extent. It is all just a matter of time.

While cosmopolitan liberalism promotes the delegation of sovereign national power to ‘higher’ institutions such as a world or at least a continental (European) government, detached from the people, it would seem that the redesigning of national borders, as soon as nations become irrelevant, amounts to no big deal. The downside is that self-determining national groups, once there are no more nations, will themselves get lost in the post-national void. That also explains why collective movements based on national identity have become increasingly unpopular with progressive thinkers, for whom such identities are doomed to vanish anyway.

With the prospect of Spain breaking apart, European observers are torn between self-determination and territorial integrity. The moral side of them favours self-determination, the rational side, territorial integrity. The challenge is current and acute: in Europe there are the Catalans, the Scots, the Basque, the Flemish, the Walloons, and the whole North of Italy. More regions may join over the coming years.

The whole issue reverberates in an international context. The recent Kurdish referendum, with an over 90 percent pro-secessionist outcome, met with applause from many corners. But while speaking out in favour of a Kurdish state, European media and politicians have derided Catalans, who are essentially asking for the same thing. However, confrontation only breeds more negative emotion. What is required is dialogue, rather than rubber bullets. It may at least help to identify the deal-breakers; that alone would be a step forward. The overall task is obvious enough. European politicians must find constructive ways of dealing with new and strong regional and national identities both inside and outside the continent. Jubilation abroad and derision at home are hypocritical at best.

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