Catalans press for secession from Spain

Regional parliament votes to hold referendum as surveys show record high support for independence.

Protests On Catalonia''s National Day
Between 600,000 and 1.5 million people recently took part in a pro-independence rally in Barcelona [Getty Images]

Could Catalonia become the world’s newest state?

The Spanish region – with a culture, history, and language of its own – faces high barriers to becoming a fully independent country.

But that hasn’t stopped an emboldened independence movement from trying. On Thursday, the parliament in Catalonia – an affluent but debt-laden region in Spain’s northeast – voted to hold a referendum on independence after elections in November.

Some Catalans have long favoured full independence, as opposed to the semi-autonomous status the region currently enjoys. But as Spain’s economy continues to stagnate and unemployment rates remain sky-high, more Catalans are questioning whether they would be better off on their own. A June opinion poll found support for full independence at 51 per cent, near record high levels.

And on Catalonia’s national day this September 11, a massive pro-independence rally saw between 600,000 and 1.5 million people – about 8 to 20 per cent of the region’s population – take to the streets of the capital, Barcelona.

Coming to a head 

 Catalonia push for economic independence


Alfons López Tena, an MP in the Catalan parliament and the leader of pro-independence party Solidaritat Catalana per la Independència, told Al Jazeera that 10 years ago, most people “thought that it was possible to have a home rule system inside Spain”. Now, he says, public opinion has shifted, and a majority now thinks “the only way to have a good situation is to be outside Spain”.

Pro-independence Catalans cite their region’s strong national identity, and note that Catalan taxpayers pay more to the central government than the region receives in return. Long one of the richest and most industralised parts of Spain, data from 2011 shows the region’s GDP per capita is 18 per cent higher than in Spain at large.

The central Spanish government, however, is annoyed with the calling of a referendum on independence, even if it is non-binding. Spain’s deputy prime minister, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, told a news conference that there were “legal and judicial instruments” to stop such a referendum, reported AFP. “And this government is ready to use them.”

Given Spain’s precarious economic state, the timing rankled the deputy prime minister, who added on a radio programme that “this debate, at this time, is creating tremendous instability”.

Independence for Catalonia would be far from a cakewalk, especially because secession would seem to violate the Spanish constitution: its Article 2 states that the constitution is “based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”.

But Artur Mas, the head of government in Catalonia, said the central government’s approval was not necessary. “If we can go ahead with a referendum because the government authorises it, it’s better. If not, we should do it anyway,” he said on Wednesday.

Last week, Mas called snap elections to be held in November, after the central government rejected his request for more autonomy in collecting taxes.

Hard times

Support for Catalan independence has recently increased in part because Spain’s economy is in such dire straits. More than a quarter of Spaniards are unemployed, including more than half of young people. Four years after a property bubble burst, home prices in Spain continue to fall, and many banks are teetering on the edge of insolvency.

Tough economic conditions in Spain have caused burgeoning budget deficits, but austerity measures designed to close this gap – including tax hikes and cuts to social spending – are deeply unpopular with the Spanish people, and have sparked mass demonstrations. As of July, 56 per cent of Spaniards said they had a bad or very bad opinion of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, according to a poll conducted by Sigma Dos.

A recent photograph of Rajoy smoking a cigar on New York City’s Sixth Avenue while Spain braces for another round of belt-tightening has not helped his image.

Although richer than other parts of Spain, Catalonia has also been hard-hit in recent years – 20 per cent of residents in the region are out of work – and last month the region requested a 5bn euro ($6.43bn) bailout from Spain’s central government.

Amid this malaise, Catalans complain that they pay more to the central government in taxes than they receive in benefits. “All the money that we give in taxes, the Spanish government doesn’t invest it in Catalonia at all,” said López, mentioning that Catalans pay about 24 per cent of taxes collected by the central government.

And given Catalonia’s population of about 7.5 million people and its highly developed infrastructure, Catalonia “won’t have any problem with being economically sustainable”, said Josep Ramoneda, a philosopher and writer for newspaper El Pais

Some economists, though, are sceptical that a new state would indeed be better off.

“Catalonia has extremely close links with the rest of Spain,” University of Edinburgh economics professor Jose Vicente Rodriguez Mora told Al Jazeera. A large portion of the region’s exports go to Spain and in the case of independence, Mora said, “it would be reasonable to assume these links would be severed to a large extent”.

In 2005, a boycott against some Catalan products was launched in Spain in protest against the region’s passage of a new autonomy statute, and a drive for full independence could spur a similar boycott.

There’s also the matter of European Union membership: if Catalonia were to secede, it would no longer be an EU member, and would have to apply for membership. Because the EU requires unanimous approval of new members, refusal on the part of Spain would prevent Catalonia from acceding. Indeed, Spain’s foreign minister has already said Spain would “indefinitely” veto Catalan accession to the EU, which he termed “illegal and lethal”.

Thomas Jeffrey Miley, a political sociologist at Cambridge University, told Al Jazeera it is “not clear at all that Brussels would let this happen without consequences. … Any one country can veto you. Assuming Spain’s not going to veto, do the French want to see precedence of this?”

For his part, López Tena, the head of Solidaritat Catalana, said he does not see this as a major problem, explaining that Catalonia would still be able to use the euro – just as non-EU members Montenegro and Kosovo use the currency – and would maintain the economic freedoms mandated by the EU.

A new generation of Catalans

“We hoped a lot from the democracy about 35 years ago when Franco finally disappeared. And yes, we got something, but not all we wanted.”

– Salvador Giner

Arguments for independence go far beyond economics. Although some degree of Catalan national consciousness has existed for centuries, nationalist sentiment began stirring again in the 1800s. The region was granted some autonomy, but during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, from 1939 to 1975, the use of the Catalan language in public was illegal, and nationalist sentiment was harshly suppressed.

During Spain’s transition to democracy in the late 1970s, Catalonia was granted more power to self-govern. “We hoped a lot from the democracy about 35 years ago when Franco finally disappeared,” said Salvador Giner, the president of the Institute of Catalan Studies. “And yes, we got something, but not all we wanted.”

For instance, Giner told Al Jazeera that although the Spanish constitution obliges the state to protect the Catalan language, “they don’t do anything about it. It’s us or nobody. We have to look after it. This is a treasure for us.”

Many people in the region identify themselves primarily as Catalan, not Spanish, and cultural shibboleths inviolable elsewhere in the country are not as sacred in Catalonia: in 2010 the region became the first in mainland Spain to ban bullfighting.

Today, younger Catalan are more supportive of independence than their older cohort. Miley pointed to “a generation of Catalan schooling” and the political system’s support “for a kind of nationalist agenda”, while Ramoneda said the young lack the “prejudices or fears” emerging from Spain’s transition to democracy in the 1970s.

That said, although the idea of independence may have become more popular in recent years, many in the region originally hail from other parts of Spain, speak Spanish as a first language, and are wary of independence. If there is a majority supporting full independence in Catalonia, it’s a thin one at the moment.

Nevertheless, pro-independence groups have “mobilisational capacity” on their side, said Miley, citing the massive September march – whereas opponents of nationalism “aren’t necessarily willing to go out on the street to demonstrate against it”.

Although the Catalan parliament approved calling a referendum, it will likely be a long time until the vote actually takes place – and even if the non-binding measure does pass, the independence process will still be far from complete.

“The Spanish constitution does not allow certain things,” explained Giner. “Since we have to do it [the independence process] peacefully and in a civilised manner, it’s going to be a long fight.”

Elizabeth Melimopoulos assisted with translation from Spanish.

Follow Sam Bollier on Twitter: @SamBollier

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies