Catalonia: Holding Hands for Independence

Six days ago was Catalonia’s ‘national’ independence day, dedicated to the memory of the fall of Barcelona to Philip V during the Spanish war of succession in 1714. The past two years have seen a particular vehement demonstration of Catalan nationalism with 100,000 protesters last year protesting vociferously in the Placa de Catalunya. This year the demonstrators went one better and formed a human chain for 250 miles throughout Catalonia. This was reminiscent of the 1990s events in the Baltic States, when protesters formed a human chain to proclaim Baltic independence from the Soviet Union. Having spent a year doing a masters degree in Barcelona and toured the Catalan region, I have to admit that there is a distinctive culture that in an ideal world should be allowed its right of national self-determination.

Catalonia is definitely a nation. It has a common history, a common language and fits the necessary criteria for nationhood. Yet, can it be a state in its own right? The romantic in me says of course, the rationalist in me says um? I do not deny that there is a need for a referendum. 50% of Catalans want independence and 80% want a referendum on the issue. However the Partido Popular (PP) government of Mariano Rajoy, in Madrid, has remained intransigent and refused to countenance any type of referendum, official or otherwise. Regionally the president of the Generalitat (parliament of Catalonia) is between a rock and a hard place. Last year Catalonia had a region wide election which was touted by the president (Artur Mas i Gavarro) as a referendum on independence and would provide him with a mandate to push Catalonia towards it. Yet the CiU (Convergencia i Unio) which is the Catalan ‘nationalist’ party that has dominated the region since 1978, failed to gain enough of a mandate to push through the policy of independence. More importantly, the CiU is a coalition party, with its name meaning convergence and unity. A minority of the party wish to stay within Spain, but slightly increase their decentralised power from Madrid. On top of this as Mas was unable to win a majority of seats in the Generalitat he has had to form a coalition with the Esquerra Republican, a nationalist and socialist party, whose ideology is in general anathema to the CiU. This is the difficulty, the coalition of the CiU is divided on independence, but its coalition partner Esquerra Republicana is vociferous for it, with its radical wing wishing to create the Paisos (Catalonia, Aragon, Valenica, the Balearics, Andorra and the Rousillon in France). On top of this a majority of Catalans want independence, at least eventually.

Yet, would independence work if it was to happen? Like many polls the question is always leading. Would you like independence? For a nation as proud as the Catalans there is only one answer to that. But what does independence mean in practice. I admit I am not an authority on the issue and some of these points may not be as seemingly relevant as I make them appear, nor will this article cover them all, nor in minute detail. They are merely my opinion. Catalonia is the most indebted Spanish region of the 17 autonomous communities with a debt of $42.8 billion. The cynic in me already argues that the nationalist splurge is an elite inspired idea to keep the masses away from worrying about the massive cuts that have to take place eventually. If Catalonia were to be independent it would have to pay back this large debt to its creditors which are mostly EU states. Having managed to get itself locked out of lending agencies and gained the ire of the IMF and EU it is unlikely it could get credit, especially as its credit rating is at junk status. The argument that Catalonia is rich is true, but it would be an inauspicious start for a new country, used to spending vast sums of money to have to clear a large debt with no access to credit.

Yes Catalonia is a rich region and is the richest in Spain with a gross domestic product of Denmark and Sweden. Catalonia accounts for 19.56% of Spain’s tax revenue. This is alarming in two ways. Firstly, Catalonia like the Basque Country sees itself as a cow being milked continuously for its tax resources and feels that Spain is taking its wealth and returning very little. Catalonia sends to Madrid $15 billion more than it receives from Madrid in direct investment. The Basque Country which constitutionally can raise its own taxes and send any surplus to Madrid also suffers, but at least its control of its taxes is sounder. This leads to the second issue. How can a region claim to want independence if it has never had the means to raise its own taxes? Yes, at the municipal level and sub-regional level it has some jurisdiction, but it is Madrid that raises the taxes in Catalonia. The Basque government in contrast raises taxes in the Basque Country and then votes on the amount to send to Madrid (legally it can refuse to send any funds). This seems to be an integral aspect of statehood, the ability to raise taxes, and one that Catalonia does not as of yet have the institutions for. Artur Mas has spoken of the need to get this power from Madrid and this should be the next step towards full state sovereignty and not full independence as he argues for.

Another issue of statehood is the notion of borders. Nearly all states have defined borders. Yes, areas maybe open to interpretation, like the debacle between Russia and China in the Amur region. But, in Western Europe borders have been relatively settled since the treaty of Westphalia. Yet, as has been mentioned in this article, Catalonia means different things to different political factions. The majority of nationalists, when speaking of Catalonia, mean the region of the autonomous community bearing that name. But, like the Basque Country there is a very vocal minority that mean something else and would be unhappy unless Catalonia included the whole of the Paisos. This is impossible, the Spanish government has been very good at splitting the historical nationalities (Castille, Aragon the Basques and Galicia) in Spain (excluding Galicia) into newly created autonomous communities. In the case of Catalonia this has created a sense of ‘national’ identity in Aragon the Balearic Island and Valencia. France would also look unfavourably on any irredentism in Rousillon and Andorra is a principality with the French president as one of the presidents. A referendum on the Paisos is unfeasible. So let’s look at Catalonia as it is today. More importantly in Catalonia itself, what happens to cities like Barcelona and Lleida which due to their high ‘immigrant’ (Spanish) populations are unlikely to vote for independence. Would the vehicle (Barcelona) that makes Catalonia so rich be forcefully incorporated into a new state? In this regard it is similar to Brussels, which is the reason that the Flemish and Wallons stay together. Barcelona may be one of the reasons that Catalonia stays in Spain as it cannot survive economically without it.

We have seen it is a rich country, but currently heavily indebted and unable to get credit. Trade between Catalonia and Spain is lessening with only 10% of Catalan GDP due to trade with the rest of Spain. However, if Catalonia were to gain independence its trade would be affected dramatically. As Spain is a member of the EU, Catalan companies can trade freely in the EU zone and this is where the majority of trade occurs. Yet, if Catalonia were to gain independence it is not certain it would automatically join the EU. If this occurred it would suffer the imposition of trade barriers and whilst a free trade agreement could occur it is unlikely that unless Spain and Catalonia divorce in much the same way as the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Madrid would vocally refuse a trade deal. Lack of EU membership would also end the forceful pull of Barcelona and multi-national companies would be likely to pull out in favour of other cities in the region, like Zaragoza, Valencia, or Marseille. More importantly if the EU is not an option for Catalonia the vocality of independence calls falls precipitously. It seems that without the EU, Catalans cannot countenance independence. However, this is a doomsday scenario. Barcelona has always had terrific pull on commerce, Catalonia for a long time ruled the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages and Barcelona remains a city with a spirit that cannot be described. If EU membership was not forthcoming then Catalonia could survive like a mini Norway or Switzerland. Most importantly it is unlikely that Spain would willingly let Catalonia go as it would force the Basques to leave too, reducing Spain’s GDP by half. As constitutionally only the Spanish state can hold referendums, it would require serious dialogue and negotiation between both governments for Catalonia to gain the independence its people crave.

So what do we have? Well we have a people who are different to the rest of Spain, their language is beautiful to hear, they have a culture that has given the world Gaudi, Miro, Marti, Domenech i Montanier, Puig i Cadalfach, Bacardi, Verdaguer, Marti i Pol, Dali and provided the young Picasso with the inspiration needed to become possibly the world’s most famous artist. Barcelona is a vibrant city and by dint of its exceptionalism and galvanising pull should by rights be a capital and not a second city. Catalonia a nation of 10 million odd people has a language spoken by people in 4 states and with more speakers than any of the Nordic states, has been an integral part of European history, culture, capital and discovery for a millennium. It has growing state institutions, a parliament a vibrant economy (unlike the rest of Spain and even though its debt is rising) and it has the support for statehood by over half of its people. However, there are issues, it has no ability to raise taxes, where do its borders actually end and what would happen if Catalonia was unable to move straight into the EU? Artur Mas needs to highlight how the CiU would manage all these things and provide a plan (similar to the Basque Ibarretxe plan) for viable secession and makes sure that is a plan shared by both sides. By not providing a viable plan for Catalan secession, it looks likely that independence is only a side-show to keep the people concerned on another issue, before cuts are announced.

On the lighter side what would happen to FC Barcelona. This football club is considered to be the unofficial Catalan national football team. I agree with my Catalan friends the La Liga is boring, it is a procession between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. Yet, if Catalonia was independent what would be the outcome? The best game I have ever been to was the El Classico in the Copa Real at the Camp Nou between Barca and Real. I am sorry but Barcelona against Leeida Esportiu, or CE Europe, or Sant Andreu does not exactly get my blood racing. This would be the fare in an independent Catalonia. Yes, there is a rivalry between Barca and Espanyol, but both clubs faced savage repression under Franco. It does not have the same political significance as Barca Real. More importantly if Catalonia became independent and gained membership to UEFA and FIFA its coefficient would plummet making it unlikely Barca (let’s face it, they would be champions) would qualify automatically to the Champions League. This would affect the players they would be able to sign. Why go to an average league where no club is assured champions league football? Yes, Catalonia has produced, some great players, but with a huge drop in football pedigree post-independence, the number of talented players coming through would also drop. More important they may go abroad. Although this is a huge simplification of the issue and total conjecture, it is important to mention in such a football crazy region.

I promised myself upon leaving Barcelona that I would return on the night that Catalonia became independent. I fell in love with Spain through reading books about its history, culture and politics. My first love will always remain with the Basque Country, but after a year in Catalonia, I could happily live my days in a small fishing village. Obviously I would need to learn Spanish and even better Catalan, but hey I am being romantic. What the human chain emphasised was that the Catalans want change and want to take their place among the states of this world. What can be said is that politicians have used the people’s fervour for nationalism for their own interests. To detract from the crippling debt that is hanging over it. Like Detroit it is very possible that within a year Catalonia could go bankrupt. Yet politicians, particularly Artur Mas, are banging the nationalistic drum, a drum that has been routinely used by elites in Europe to the detriment of its peoples. Using Madrid as a scapegoat is nothing new, but smacks of desperation by a politician increasingly aware he may not be in power for much longer. The Catalans deserve better. They need a stronger leader, one who uses his sway in Madrid to placate the national government, and a person who proposes a viable plan clearly setting the steps for eventual independence. This process will take a long time, but it cannot be rushed. What Artur Mas could do if he cares for Catalonia is to badger Madrid for more fiscal responsibility. His people will thank him for it. He may not be the leader of a new state, but he will set the path towards it through this, and in 50 years time when I am dancing in the Placa de Catalunya on the birth of an independent Catalonia, he will be remembered as a true Catalan, rather than the potentially venal, baseless individual he seems to want to be.

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Categories: International politics

Author:stephenhallgf

I am a political scientist. I am currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge and a Visiting Professor at the National Research University - Higher School of Economics, St. Petersburg. My research is on authoritarian regimes, especially in the post-Soviet space. Thank you for reading the blog, I hope you enjoy...

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