The Differences Between Catalonia and Kurdish Iraq
Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan are engulfed in identity crises. While the two independence movements are the subject of frequent comparison, their situations differ because of historical, cultural, and economic ties with their respective mother countries. Catalonia and Spain share a deep and longstanding unity, while Kurds have a loose union with the rest of Iraq and lack a shared history beyond the past one hundred years. Not surprisingly, a silent majority of Catalans seems to support a unified Spain, while a clear majority of Iraqi Kurds desire self-rule.
These discrepancies call for different solutions to the two predicaments. Instead of pursuing an independent state, Catalonia should look to Italian regions that are seeking greater autonomy within Italy. Conversely, the Kurdish independence movement compares with Kosovo in the 1990s, where an ethnically, culturally, and religiously different state seceded from Serbia.
The long-shared history between Spain and Catalonia contrasts with Iraq’s brief existence as a nation-state. Catalonia and Spain have been united since the reign of Ferdinand and Isabel over five hundred years ago. Further, prior to Spain’s unification, Catalonia was governed by the monarchs of Aragon rather than existing as an independent state, similar to its position within the Kingdom of Spain today. By contrast, the Kurds who inhabit present-day northern Iraq were arbitrarily drawn into an artificially created Iraqi state by European powers following the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. These boundaries were drawn without regard to major cultural and religious differences.
These dissimilar histories have shaped the current cultures of Catalonia and Kurdish Iraq. Because of its shared history with Spain, Catalonia has a pluralistic society. The region is a mix of Spaniards and Catalans, and both cultures’ languages are regularly spoken. A 2013 study by the Government of Catalonia revealed that 55 percent of the people in the region use Spanish as their first language, while 31 percent speak Catalan first. Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurds have severe cultural differences from the rest of the country. Iraq is comprised of large communities of the dominant Shiite and Sunni Islamic sects, with a sizeable community of Kurds in the northern part of the country. The difference between the first two and the latter is that Kurdish society is much more secular than that of Shiites and Sunnis. History has proved these groups are unable to peacefully coexist within their current state.
Further, Catalonia has deep economic ties to Spain, while Kurdish Iraq recently developed economic ties with the outside world. Catalonia relies heavily on Madrid for its financial sector, infrastructure, and social security deficit. To see the economic impact the independence movement has caused, one need look no further than decisions by major banks to relocate their headquarters outside Catalonia. On the other hand, Kurdish Iraq has its own oil pipeline to Turkey and has energy agreements with Turkish entities. The question surrounding the Kurds’ economic wellbeing is whether Turkey would set aside its anti-Kurdish political rhetoric and continue trade with a sovereign Kurdish state.
Due to these historic, cultural, and economic differences, support for independence in the regions greatly differs. Pro-unity voters in Catalonia boycotted the September referendum on independence, so while the results of the illegally-held vote appear to endorse secession, one must keep in mind that only 42 percent of voters cast ballots. Since then, the seemingly silent majority of pro-unity Catalans have become more vocal, holding a pro-Spain rally in Barcelona in late October that drew hundreds of thousands of supporters. In Kurdish Iraq, support for independence is widespread. In the September referendum, 93 percent of Kurds endorsed self-rule, with 72 percent turnout, highlighting the strong support for a Kurdish state.
Drawing proper parallels
The circumstances around these two quests for self-determination are reminiscent of others in European politics over the past two decades, from which potential solutions can be found. Catalonia should follow the lead of politics in northern Italy, while the Kurdish situation is similar to that of Kosovo after the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Separatist movements exist in Veneto and Lombardy, two wealthy and prosperous northern Italian regions. Though only part of a unified Italian state since the 1860s, Veneto and Lombardy share a language, religion, and deep economic ties with the rest of Italy. However, in recent years the separatist movements in these regions have lost momentum to support for greater autonomy within Italy. Perhaps this would be a good option for Catalan leaders as an alternative to independence.
The 2008 Kosovo independence movement has lessons for Kurdish Iraq. Irreconcilable ethnic, religious, and cultural differences separate these regions from the larger states of which they form a part or once did. Kosovo is an ethnically Albanian and religiously Islamic region that broke away from Slavic and Orthodox Serbia. The lack of common values and cultural alignment between the two made their peaceful coexistence under a Serbian-led state impossible. This situation is comparable to the severe religious and cultural differences between Kurds and the rest of Iraq.
Due to the realities of their situations, a stable, democratic, and unified Spain is realistic; the same cannot be said for the fragile state of Iraq. Hopefully, recent history can illuminate a path toward a peaceful resolution of both crises.
Francis Rooney is the U.S. Representative for Florida's 19th congressional district. He is the Vice-Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and previously served as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008. The views expressed here are the author's own.