Catalonian Independence

On September 11, 2012, the city of Barcelona experienced arguably its largest political rally in its history when an estimated 1.5 million people took to the streets to support the Catalonian independence movement on the Diada Nacional de Catalunya.  Fortunately, despite the magnitude of the event, the protest remained peaceful (as it has for the last decade or so).  Red and yellow was everywhere, reflecting the official flag of Catalonia, La Senyera, seen below.  Interestingly, Catalonians that are for the independence movement have fashioned their own (unofficial) nationalist version of La Senyera which features a blue triangle and white star on one side, also below.

Official flag of Catalonia, Spain

Unofficial nationalist flag of Catalonia, Spain

So why do Catalonians want to be independent?

One main reason is that Catalonian nationalists argue that they have been subject to unfair taxation and austerity measures.  In 2009 Catalonia provided 19.49% of tax revenues but received just 14.03% of government spending.  More recent statistics are not available because the Spanish government has decided that such inter-regional statistics are too politically sensitive to release, angering Catalonians who feel Spain is trying to hide the problem.  Catalonians also claim that independence would allow them to better celebrate their cultural traditions and heritages, though critics are quick to point out that around 1/2 of Catalonians are first-generation Catalonians.  In other words, their parents hail from various other parts of Spain, which means that they probably do not associate with Catalonian history and culture as much as the movement would like outsiders to believe.

Why has the movement gained ground recently?

The issue of independence has been inflamed by Spain’s and, specifically, Catalonia’s current economic conditions.  In the last few months Catalonia requested and received a 5 billion Euro bailout from Spain’s central government in Madrid in order to finance its running 8% fiscal deficit, a deficit some say would be less significant if Spain properly allocated state funds.  Moreover, the unemployment level in Spain stands at about a quarter of the work force, leading many to conclude that there is a correlation between Spain’s stagnant economy and the amount of support for Catalonia’s independence.  Some citizens obviously view independence as an escape route from these economic troubles.

President Artur Mas

What are the political repercussions of the independence movement?

In 2006 a Catalonia-wide referendum was passed that gave the regional government an unprecedented level of autonomy but later the majority of the statute was deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s highest court, infuriating many Catalans.   Artur Mas, the president of Catalonia, has typically avoided the movement, but recently pointed out that without the opportunity for self-determination, Catalonia would be willing to move forward with its bid for independence.  Thus, Mas announced a referendum for November 25 after Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy again rejected a pact that would have given Catalonia more autonomy, ignoring Spain’s pleas for unity and the fact that the motion to hold the referendum was rejected by Spanish parliament.

Who currently supports this movement?

As was the case with Mas, many Catalonians who were previously on the fence are now leaning towards independence due to the combination of fiscal struggles and the Spanish government’s refusal to authorize the transfer of additional powers to the regional government.  A recent survey shows that the number of those in favor of secession had dramatically increased to 53%, with 81.5% also in support of the referendum.  This is the first time in history that that number has surpassed the halfway mark.  Essentially, with little in the way of drastic government or fiscal arrangements on the horizon, Catalonians are giving up on reform attempts and are simply advocating secession.

Arc de Triomf during the protest

How has the present Spanish government reacted to these changes?

The current Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is a member of the conservative People’s Party.  His party is considered mainstream center-right, and has been the party in power since 2011.  Rajoy and the People’s Party have not altered their stance and are still staunchly opposed to Catalonian independence (and with good reason, as Catalonia is responsible for approximately 1/5 of the entire Spanish economy despite having only around 15% of its population and 6% of its land).  It does not want to diminish the Spanish state by creating two smaller, lesser states.

What would happen to Catalonia if it actually gained its independence?

This question does not really have an answer at the moment.  The European Union has been extremely vague when responding to such inquisitions.  In early September, after a bit of confusion, the European Commission explicitly stated that they would not interfere in the internal affairs of member states.  Basically, there is no plan for what to do if a part of a member state achieves independence.  Thus, we are unsure if the newly independent state would be ushered into the European Union or if it would be subject to a lengthy enlargement process.  Ironically, the confusion had little to do with the debate on Catalonian independence, but, rather, with the debate on Scottish independence.  One major difference in the debate for Scotland is that the UK government is (at least slightly) more open to the possibility of secession and has allowed a legal referendum to be put forth in 2014.

Carrer de Trafalgar during the protest

There are independence movements in Catalonia and Scotland – are there others in Europe?

The close Basque country elections in Spain imply that there are also proponents of independence in that region of Spain, though they are fewer and less vocal than those in Catalonia.  Outside Spain, there are smaller movements in Italy (Padania), Germany (Bavaria), and finally Belgium (Flanders).  However, these movements, although relevant, are not nearly as strong as the Catalonian (or Scottish) movements.

Lastly, what do I think?

I am not from Catalonia.  I am not even from Spain.  My Spanish could be better and my Catalan is non-existent.  I’ll only be studying in Spain for four months or so and won’t make it to the majority of the 17 Spanish regions.  In other words, I don’t feel like I am in a position to pass judgement on the legitimacy of the Catalonian independence movement.  The one thing I will say, though, is that right now is probably a tough time for Catalonian independence in the greater scheme of things.  Why?  Catalonian independence would be a complicated process that would serve to distract Spain and the EU from economic recovery at a time when it is sorely needed not just in Spain but throughout Europe.  Spain’s economy is doing badly enough as it is, losing 20% of its production would only worsen its economic troubles.  It would also be difficult to put together all of the necessary foundations for a completely autonomous government seamlessly at this time because of Catalonia’s own economic troubles and fiscal deficit. So, do I think Catalonia should and/or has the right to secede? No comment.  But if I did support independence, do I think now would be the time to do it? Probably not – I think it would only serve to confound the current economic debacle and that it might be better/easier to revisit the issue after things settle down a bit.

T-shirt from the protest

What do you think?  Should Catalonia secede? If so, should it secede immediately or wait until the economic forecast has improved?  Below is an interesting take on the Catalonian independence movement by my one of my economics professors here in Spain.  Have a look.

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