The Straits Times says

Finding solution to mood of dissolution

It is odd but entirely rational that as the world moves towards being a single global village, the parallel impulse is to preserve a sense of identity and uniqueness. In an era of rapid changes brought on by swift progress in communications, combined with massive disruption in the workplace thanks to robotics, automation and artificial intelligence, it is but natural that large parts of the world currently experience what French sociologist Emile Durkheim called "anomie" - a sense of normlessness. The resultant anxiety causes people to react variously: some display a tighter embrace of religious faith, others feel a need to physically separate to assert their tribal identities.

The Catalan desire to cut away from Spain, which resulted in a farcical referendum vote on Oct 1, is in some ways understandable. The Catalonia region has some attributes of what could make a viable nation: language, history and culture. Also, the economic slump Spain suffered from 2010, with some of the worst youth unemployment figures of Europe, clearly triggered separatism in relatively more prosperous Catalonia and fed perceptions that it subsidises the rest of Spain. The Scottish referendum to separate from the United Kingdom was another factor. Never short on emotion - see the way football club Barcelona plays its divine football - the region allowed itself to be led by its heart.

But having unique characteristics does not justify secession. Indonesia's Bali, China's Xinjiang and India's Tamil Nadu could all be said to have similar attributes. In the West, the Basques of the Pyrenees who straddle Spain and France, and the Scots are but two examples standing out in a fairly large field. Yet, unquestionably, wherever such people live, the whole is clearly greater than the sum of the parts and, for that reason, worth preserving as one. The Catalan separatists are surely aware of this: why else would they seek to cut away from Spain but stay in the European Union? That raises suspicions of this being a political issue, not unlike how Britain last year was driven to vote against staying in the EU.

The elite struggle that the Catalan independence movement represents has now come to a turning point. The plebiscite had been declared unlawful by the Supreme Court, and the Spanish authorities have threatened to resort to never-used constitutional powers to suspend the region's autonomy and impose direct rule from Madrid. Fortunately, the separatists have decided to not force an immediate showdown. They must go no further and should sincerely seek a modus vivendi with Spain's elected rulers that will allow them to retain considerable autonomy while supporting the nation's imperatives. Madrid, on its part, should be careful about using overwhelming force. Dialogue and mediation are better ways of dealing with secessionist impulses.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2017, with the headline 'Finding solution to mood of dissolution'. Print Edition | Subscribe