Erik Skaarsgard | European Analyst
Spain, on the edge: 90% vote in favour of independence
The Spanish state of Catalonia has long been an integral part of the Spanish economy. The eastern regional capital of Barcelona is a centre of tourism and finance that has helped Spain’s sluggish economy recover from the Global Financial Crisis.
The region is now being torn apart as a strong under-current of long suppressed nationalism has been brought to the fore-front through a referendum held by the regional government on whether to formally become independent from Spain.
The movement is led by regional president Carles Puigdemont, who cites the region’s moral, cultural, economic and political right to self-determination.
The referendum, called “illegal” by the national government in Madrid, resulted in the deployment of Spanish police known as the Guardia Civil, who raided dozens of polling booths across Barcelona in an attempt to stop the vote. The vote itself has been denounced by the Spanish king Felipe VI, who denounced the move as “irresponsible behaviour” by the Catalan leaders.
A wave of violence is now sweeping the country, tearing apart at National Unity. The support for independence has risen steeply from 25% of the population in 2010, to 57% in 2012.
More troubling for the government in Madrid is that the referendum on the 1st of October overwhelmingly voted in favour of independence.
The case for independence
1 – Catalonia is historically and culturally distinct to Spain
The Catalan people have long-held a distinct national identity that differs from that held by the majority of Spain – geographically they are isolated by the Pyrenees mountains and have their own language which is widely spoken. The region is home to 7.5 million people, who hold little support for the Spanish Monarchy.
The public has been outraged in 2010 by constitutional changes that were used by the Spanish government to block the increased sovereignty of Catalonia’s statute of autonomy. The region does not have fiscal independence nor control over its own budget or taxes.
Catalonia was an independent state for more than 1000 years before it was properly annexed into Spain during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Afterwards, the region suffered under the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco who sought to incorporate the region into a greater Spanish identity.
2 – Catalan is an economic powerhouse
Catalonians have long felt aggrieved since they believe that their economic relationship with Madrid is one way. The region pays $12 billion (USD) more in taxes than it receives back, and despite being an integral part of the Spanish economy, does not hold significant power in the Spanish government.
Those seeking independence feel that they are subsidising the rest of the country. While the region only represents 16% of the population, they generate nearly 20% of the country’s GDP.
If Catalan were its own country, it would rank in economic size between Denmark and Finland.
The region is also a premiere tourist destination, and a hub for trade. Barcelona is the Mediterranean’s biggest port.
The Argument against
1 – Unravelling Europe
The Spanish government’s strongest argument against Catalan independence is the question of if Catalan is allowed to become independence, then who is next. The government in Madrid is caught in a bind – by respecting the democratic process and the will of the Catalonian people, the question is then who else may sue for independence.
The Spanish government has likened the situation to the Balkans in the 1990s, when nationalism allowed the region to split up and descend into violence between different nationalist groups thanks to the power vacuum. Through this lens, it is understandable why the European Union has been notably muted in its commentary, and expressed its support for Catalan to remain a part of Spain. If Catalan is allowed to secede from Spain, they strengthen the case for other movements such as Scotland, Normandy, Bavaria, Prussia and other ethno-nationalistic groups across Europe.
2 – Independent Catalan cannot support itself
While the people of Catalan may grumble about how their tax money is spent across Spain rather than Catalonia, the redistribution of taxation is a common practice. In fact, the Catalan people benefit from being a part of Spain thanks to their inclusion in the European Unions economic borders, access to the single-market and easy movement of labour, capital, and trade.
While the region is strong economically, the government of Catalonia receives billion from the EU’s structural funds in investment, and is currently in debt to around 42 billion Euros. The creation of a sovereign state is by no means an easy process, and would mean the creation of an entire state apparatus, the drafting of new treaties with Spain and the EU plus years of re-negotiating visa access and trade deals.
The Nuclear Option
Spain is unlikely to let Catalonia secede without a fight. The increasing violence in the region is set to escalate thanks to the announcement by regional president Puigdemont that he will “declare independence” in the coming days.
What is likely to occur is that Madrid will declare the independence an “illegal” action, and invoke Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution. This would allow the government to deploy police and military units into the region in the name of “national unity”.
The future remains uncertain, as the cycle of violence and oppression continues to spiral out of control.