Will Catalonia Become Independent or Conform Once Again?


Pro-independence supporters holding the European Union flag during a rally in Barcelona, Spain, on Oct. 10. (Francisco Seco/Associated Press)

On Oct. 1, many were shocked to witness widespread violence and chaos as Catalonians attempted to vote during a referendum on independence. So far, this heavy-handed attempt at suppressing the Catalan drive for independence has been more successful at affirming the pro-independence Catalan parties’ complaints than in halting the desire for independence. While Catalans speak their own language and have a long history of their own state institutions, they remain ensconced within the Spanish state. It is clear that the status quo cannot last in Catalonia, yet full independence would mean a rude awakening to the nationalist dream as a new Catalan state would likely find itself outside of the European Union (EU) and with a large debt. If Spain and Catalonia are to weather this crisis, they will need to mollify the nationalist elements in Catalonia which will likely require a referendum of some sort. Independence remains controversial, and Spain may find that a lighter grasp on Catalonia that allows for some compromise may serve their interests better than heavy-handed repression. The roots of independence in Catalonia contain deep historical, economic, and nationalist ties which have survived hundreds of years, and it is doubtful that they will be easily erased by a globalized world. Therefore, Spain needs to find a way to compromise and address the concerns of Catalonia. This is not a unique challenge and it is one faced by many other nation-states. Finding a way to address these issues will be important to adapting to a globalized world.

Catalonia has deep historical roots as an independent state, stretching back to the medieval period, and did not join a united Spanish state until the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1469. Even then, Catalonia, the majority of the lands of Aragon, retained its own set of political and cultural institutions. Catalonia has since gone back and forth between autonomy and being suppressed into conforming in a centralized Spanish nation-state. In the 20th century, demands for independence date back to the 1920s and 1930s, when Francesc Maciá negotiated a statute of autonomy for Catalonia during the Spanish Republic. However, Catalonia’s autonomy once again came to an end when Francisco Franco won the Spanish Civil War and sought to create a centralized Spanish state. As a result, Franco abolished Catalonia’s independent institutions and repressed the use of its language, Catalan. It is only since the death of Franco in 1975, and subsequent democratization in Spain, that there has been a renewed drive for Catalonian autonomy.

For many Catalans this freedom was achieved through the 2006 Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia. This statute which, amongst other things, recognized Catalonia as a nation, gave preferences to the Catalan language, freed Catalonia from responsibility for the finances of other regions, and gave greater powers to Catalonia’s courts. For the Spanish conservative Popular Party, this statute of autonomy seemed to cross the Spanish constitution, particularly its clause asserting “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation.” As a result, they challenged the statute and a number of its clauses were struck down by Spain’s Constitutional Court in 2010. While some thought this may not be an enormous issue, considering the court struck down only 14 out of 223 articles in the statute, the ensuing mass protests in Catalonia clearly showed it was quite significant to Catalans. This 2010 Spanish Constitutional Court decision curtailed the Catalan Parliament’s powers with little input from Catalan political parties and it hurt the Spanish government’s favorability with the Catalan public. Since then, independence has become increasingly popular and pro-independence parties won control of Catalonia’s local parliament in 2012. In 2014, these pro-independence parties hosted an informal referendum on independence which polled 2,236,806 citizens, with 80 percent in favor of independence. However, those 2 million voters only represent about 42 percent of the citizens eligible to vote. These results validated the Spanish criticism that the drive for independence is driven by a determined minority, while remaining controversial amongst the general Catalan population. Still, the 2008 recession and the ensuing sky-high unemployment rate in Spain hurt the calls for unity.

In the aftermath of the 2008 recession, it has become increasingly difficult for Catalans to overlook that they contribute almost 20 percent of Spain’s tax revenue, while receiving less than 15 percent of federal government spending. With a total GDP of $262 billion, and an estimated GDP per capita of $33,580, Catalonia enjoys a higher standard of living than the average in both Spain and the EU as a whole. This has contributed to a widespread feeling of an outsized tax burden, which has helped build support for a independence referendum in Catalonia. However, it is unlikely that independence would alleviate this situation. In the short run, there would be a number of economic disruptions, and questions over whether or not Catalonia would retain EU membership would likely send investors fleeing. Catalonia already has a high amount of public debt, $86.9 billion to be exact, and this could compound the difficulties in any attempts to build institutions and attract investors. In addition, depending on the terms of secession, Catalonia could be forced to take on some of Spain’s national public debt, which currently stands at $1.18 trillion. Despite these concerns, a large portion of Catalans remain in favor of independence and holding a referendum.

However, holding a referendum on independence has been voraciously opposed by the national Spanish government, which threatened to imprison any Catalan official who supports the referendum. The Spanish government’s position is that, because the constitution specifies that Spain is a “unitary, indivisible state,” any change or referendum on independence would have to require the consent of the entire country. Those who are in favor of Catalan independence obviously reject this, considering that Catalans make up only 7.5 million out of a total Spanish population of 46.4 million.

Even prior to the Oct. 1 referendum, Spanish officials declared the vote illegal and undertook vast efforts to stop the vote, including seizing ballots and other voting materials, as well as sending thousands of additional police to the region. However, while Catalan opinion remains mixed on independence, they are decisively in favor of being allowed to vote on the issue. As a result, Spanish efforts to stop the Oct. 1 referendum only inflamed the issue and resulted in widespread violence, leaving hundreds injured. It is interesting to note that the Catalan police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, were well-received by the people and stood by as voting went on. If tensions continue to rise, it is likely that increasing numbers of the Catalan Mossos d’Esquadra will side with the people of Catalonia instead of the Spanish central government. This voter repression will likely lead to even worse recriminations if it is allowed to continue. Fundamentally, the challenge presented by Catalan secession is how to organize nation-states in a way that is satisfactory for smaller minorities and regions, while still allowing them to be competitive in a globalized world.

After all this time, Catalonia has kept alive its distinctive cultures and traditions along with its desire for a measure of independence. Attempting to force Catalonia into another unhappy union with Spain seems likely to end with severe economic disruption before the inevitable divorce. Nation-states remain in some regards as “imagined communities” and the harder that centralized states try to force together disparate communities and nations in order to rule them, the more people will see the cracks and fissures which separate them. If we wish to preserve the nation-state as a key actor in international affairs, then we must allow the system to be more malleable and allow measures of autonomy where necessary. This flexibility is particularly important in cases where communities have clear historical roots of a distinct culture and nation. This becomes especially pertinent when major economic interests are at stake. In a globalized economy, instability can quickly and easily drive investment and companies to other countries, sowing long-term economic problems.

There remain a number of pertinent practical reasons for Catalonia to remain within Spain, such as retaining membership in the EU and NATO, or Catalonia’s massive amount of debt. The most practical solution would be to hold a referendum allowing Catalonia to choose between outright independence, a system of expanded autonomy, or the status quo. In such a scenario, many citizens would likely think about their pocketbooks rather than their nationalists dreams.

These referendums in Catalonia show that despite globalizing trade, communication, and transport, national identities and movements continue to matter. Even in the face of potentially severe economic consequences, voters have continued to support referendums advocating for their own state. The challenge will continue to be, how do we incorporate these nationalist movements into a globalized world? In particular, how do we build and maintain global institutions that are capable of responding to and managing the problems that have arisen as a result of globalization?


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