4 October 2017

Catalonia's Claim to Independence

Introduction: The decision by Catalonia’s regional government to proceed with a referendum on that region’s independence from Spain has brought matters to a head with regards to Catalonia’s efforts towards becoming an independent country.  While this process has gained steam in recent years, many believed that an actual declaration of independence by the Catalan government would still be many years in the future, it at all.  In fact, many believed that the movement towards independence for Catalonia would be thwarted by the fact that most polls show a roughly 50-50 split among voters in that region over this issue.  However, the Spanish government, its security forces, and even its embattled monarchy, have all badly mishandled this crisis, further boosting the momentum behind the pro-independence camp in Catalonia.  Moreover, few can argue that Catalonia would make a viable and successful independent country.  Instead, opponents of Catalonian independence are now pointing to the dangers that such a move would pose for Spain, and for the European Union.

The Referendum: Catalonia’s regional government, under the control of pro-independence political parties, has promised for many years that it would allow the voters of Catalonia to decide for themselves whether or not they wished to be free from Spain.  This year, they finally made good on this promise, holding a referendum, despite the strong opposition of the Spanish government, as well as from many anti-independence movements within Catalonia.  In the days prior to the referendum, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government decided to use force to attempt to prevent it from taking place, a move that resulted in major clashes between Spanish security forces and Catalan nationalists.  In the end, only 42% of eligible voters in Catalonia voted in the referendum, as some were prevented from voting, while many anti-independence voters stayed away from the polls.  Of those who did vote, 92% voted in favor of independence, more than enough for the region’s pro-independence government to declare victory.  Meanwhile, the Spanish government’s heavy-handed attempts to prevent the referendum from taking place resulted in a surge of anti-Madrid sentiment across Catalonia, prompting massive protests and a general strike in the region.  Now, Catalonia’s regional government is promising a declaration of independence in the very near-future.

A Viable Country: It is nearly impossible for anyone to argue that Catalonia would not be a viable and sustainable country.  Catalan-speakers make up nearly 75% of Catalonia’s population, while 85% of younger people in the region speak the Catalan language as a first language.  With a unique culture and a relatively contiguous territory, Catalonia meets two of the main criteria for a viable and stable country.  Meanwhile, Catalonia also has a relatively strong economy, with some of the highest levels of wealth and industrial production in Spain.  In fact, Catalonia’s per capita GDP level is nearly 20% above the Spanish average, and is nearly equal the average of the European Union.  Moreover, resentment towards the fact that Catalonia contributes more taxes and financial transfers to Spain than it receives has been a major factor in the recent support for independence from Spain, a situation similar to that facing Slovenia and Croatia when they broke away from Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.  Overall, one could reasonably claim that an independent Catalonia would be more politically- and economically-viable than many of the current member states of the European Union.

Spanish Concerns: As the viability of Catalonia as an independent country is nearly impossible to argue, Spain and the European Union have instead focused their opposition to Catalan independence on the precedent that such a move would make with regards to the future unity of Spain and the EU.  For Spain, the loss of Catalonia would not only be a devastating blow for the country’s economy, but it would certainly boost support for independence movements in other areas of Spain, most notably the Basque Country.  In fact, some view Spain as a modern version of the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia, with a dominant ethnic group (such as the Russians in the USSR and the Serbs in Yugoslavia) controlling a country that includes a number of other sizeable minority ethnic groups.  Thus, the loss of Catalonia could be the catalyst the eventually leads to the complete dissolution of Spain. 

A Worried European Union: Meanwhile, the European Union has remained relatively silent on this issue, although there is little doubt that the EU as an organization would like to see Catalonia remain inside Spain.  Already facing the impending loss of the United Kingdom, the European Union is fearful that nationalist sentiment in other parts of the EU could either result in more countries looking to leave that organization, or that individual EU member states could face widening ethnic or linguistic divisions that could tear them apart.  Examples of this include Italy, where northern political movements seek to divide their wealthier part of the country from the poorer south of Italy, and Belgium, where Flemish nationalists seek to free themselves of the country’s Walloon minority.  However, as Spain and the European Union have learned over the past few years, over-the-top efforts to suppress or denigrate national movements could end up stoking the fires of nationalism instead, to the long-term detriment of their unity.