Catalonia: Proud and Prejudiced

In the far-flung region of Northeastern Spain lies an autonomous community comparable in size to the state of Maryland. Catalonia is an economic powerhouse, boasting impressive performance and growth in a country that is on the brink of default. Notwithstanding the region’s economic might, Catalonia’s turbulent past has been ridden with war and been subject to strained relations with Spain. Their cry: independence. Their threat: secession.

Catalonia’s separatist movement has been belittled and dismissed as highly implausible by scholars and politicians alike. But after the vote passed on the Cataloania self-determination referendum on Monday, Nov. 9, Catalonia was granted its first formal step towards independence. Separatists consider that their independence is, more than ever, a reality. Despite this small victory in the fight for independence, Catalan secession could prove to be incredibly detrimental for Catalonia, Spain, and Europe as a whole. The Catalan people would benefit from pushing for larger political autonomy within Spain rather than dealing with the repercussions of full independence.

Barcelona, fútbol, sunshine, tapas and Gaudi are just a few of the region’s enticing trademarks. Catalonia’s culture is one of the richest and most distinctive of Spain. It has its own language which is spoken by more than ten million people not only in Catalonia, but also in the adjacent regions of Spain, and parts of Italy and France. Catalan literature, art, and music are vibrant and rich, and the cuisine unique. This autonomous community is under the jurisdictional authority of its own Parliament and executive branch – together known as the “Generalitat,” – boasting extensive autonomy. Despite said autonomy, Pro-Independence activists still argue for full independence. According to Artur Mas, president of Catalonia, “The Fundamental problem is not the lack of Catalonia’s will to ‘fit in,’ but rather the evident inability of the Spanish state to accept a Catalonia with its own personality, its own identity, and its own project.” The Pro-Independence movement heightened four years ago at the peak of Spain’s economic crisis. Since then, secessionist parties have called for action, attesting that “Catalonia could do better on its own.”

Today, Catalonia is central to Spain’s crippling economy. It maintains formidable growth in its industrial sector, and it has the largest tourism sector of Spain. Catalonia accounts for 27 percent of Spain’s total exports and more than 30 percent of Spain’s total export firms. It is comprised of sprawling metropolitan areas such as Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital, which is the fourth largest in Europe. Despite its vibrant economy, activists in favor of secession argue that Catalonia is burdened by the uncertainty of the economic situation in Spain. They especially criticize the heavy taxes that the Spanish government imposes on the region. Granted, the Catalan fiscal balance in Spain is estimated to be unfair – Catalonia has one of the highest fiscal imbalances in any region of the European Union, paying considerable taxes to the federal government and getting little in return. However, would a better economic situation be realizable for an independent Catalonia? And, at what cost?

On Monday Nov. 9, Catalan separatist lawmakers approved a resolution which outlines a plan for the region to separate from Spain, including the creation of tax agencies and social security systems. A BBC report adds, “The two-page document states that because the pro-independence parties won the elections, while campaigning purely on the issue of independence, the process of creating a new Catalan state has now begun.” The separatist resolution was passed by 72 to 63 votes.

Artur Mas, president of Catalonia, has been leading the movement and has promised full independence by 2017. He is head of the Convergencia Party – a separatist party whose platform is predicated upon gaining independent sovereignty. In his speech last Monday, Mas said, “Historic opportunity has come for us to build a new country, better than the one we have.” The Spanish government condemned Monday’s action, maintaining that a Catalan referendum towards secession is illegal and that Catalan independence is a violation of the constitution. The President of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, responded to the events: “Catalonia is not going to disconnect from anywhere, and there is going to be no breakup.” In an effort to confront these separatist ambitions, President Rajoy has been working recently with other national party leaders.

With an increasingly less Unified Europe, Catalonia’s fight for secession could send ripples across the EU, endangering European unification. In fact, the situation in Catalonia is evocative of Scotland’s failed referendum, September 2014, in which their appeal for independence was defeated. Manuel Muniz, a Spanish public policy fellow at Oxford University, explores the implications of the Catalan independent sentiment. He says, “Europe is essentially the largest political project of diversity in the world. The narrative provided by the Catalans, the language of particularism, and the sense that we need these small political entities, goes radically against what Europe stands for, and it is a dangerous argument. If this movement were successful and were to spur similar movements, it would essentially be the end of European integration.” Catalonia’s potential secession could galvanize other nationalist causes throughout the EU to follow suit. The result? An even more divided Europe, dominated by weakening micro states and clearly defined demarcations. Politically, Catalonia’s independence could have devastating consequences on the continent augmented by detrimental economic repercussions.

While Catalonia’s economy has not stagnated, unlike the rest of Spain, there is no guarantee that it will continue to be resilient as an independent state. Should Catalonia acquire full independence from Spain, the new nation would have to evaluate its economy, gain international recognition and secure a currency. Catalonia would be faced with two options: either retain the Euro or create its own currency. The first option would, by far, be the most favorable for Catalonia. It would ensure a safe transition, everyone’s currency would remain the same in Catalan banks, and it would make the newly emerging Catalonia an attractive investment destination. In fact, President Mas insists that an independent Catalonia would remain part of the Euro.

However, members outside Mas’s party “Convergencia Uno Party” suggest otherwise. Catalonia would have to go through lengthy negotiations in order to accede to the European Union – there isn’t even a guarantee of readmission. According to Luis Maria Linde, head of the Bank of Spain, “The exit from the Euro is automatic, the exit from the European Union is implied.” Catalan banks would no longer have access to the European Central Bank’s facilities which would severe any ties between the financial system and the Eurozone. Even if Catalonia were to split and accede to the European Union, they would have to meet certain prerequisite conditions like a national debt of 60 percent of Gross National product – a catastrophic scenario for an emerging nation. The second option entails coining a new currency. The imposition of a new currency could have detrimental effects on the fledging economy. Its new currency would plummet immediately, the price of imported goods would rise, and the cost of living would rise exponentially. Catalonia’s reality is bleak: the economic outcome of a secession creates an outcome in which everyone loses.

In examining the economic reasons for Catalan separatism, it becomes clear that this isn’t the only motivation behind their cause. A significant factor that comes into play is regional pride and their adherence to their local culture which has been historically threatened by a homogenized Spain. Before the Spanish Civil War, Catalonia practiced self-rule, however, when the Spanish dictator Franco came to power in 1939, Catalonia’s bid for independence would be cast aside  and a deadly period of oppression would consume the region for decades. The people of Catalonia were forbidden from using the Catalan language, and punished for expressing their Catalan identity. Nevertheless, Catalan culture endured the dark years of Franco’s regime. After the dictator’s death in 1975, fascism came crashing down giving way to democracy. Due to their tremulous yet celebrated past, securing and perpetuating a singular identity is of the utmost importance for the Catalan people.

This begs the question: Must Catalonia truly separate itself completely from Spain in order to continue to preserve its culture and identity? Perhaps not. Although some of Spain’s policies on Catalonia are not entirely just, its identity is not being actively eschewed. The era of Franco and oppressive, dictatorial regimes is long-gone in Spain. Catalonia enjoys one of the highest levels of autonomy that it’s had as a Spanish state in decades, and Catalan cultural expression is legal by all regards. Spain is a nation which prides itself of a cultural diversity where each region has much more to offer than “Flamenco and Toros,” and perhaps it’s time for Catalonia to embrace the duality of its commonalities with Spain and the uniqueness of its own Catalan identity.

While some may argue that an independent Catalonia would guarantee the elimination of fiscal imbalance, a smaller, more efficient public administration or access to international markets, the possibility that Catalonia would even be recognized as a state by the EU or the UN is highly implausible. Seceding from Spain would most likely exacerbate their current economic constraints. The Catalans would be better economically suited by negotiating a more fair fiscal deal with Spain and more autonomy rather than facing the impending doom brought forth by a full-blown secession.

Catalan independence could even be perceived as self-interested nationalism since it is not only at their own expense, but at that of Spain and Europe. In the wake of the current refugee crises, Greece’s economic collapse, and the recent terror attacks threatening the continent, Europe is battered and virtually uninterested in Catalonia’s small cry for separatism. The Spanish government and F.C. Barcelona fans alike can rejoice: Catalonia will remain a part of Spain; that is for now at least.