The turmoil in Europe has not come without consequence. There have been major political shifts as people seek new leadership and eradication of failure. The current political climate is rife with those seeking a new direction and a better future. While some have voted-in new governments, others have decided to renew calls for independence. Autonomy and regional nationalism has gained support in Belgium as Flanders seeks to separate from Wallonia. Scotland’s scheduled referendum for 2014 on independence may put an end to 300 years of British rule. The Scottish success is partly owed to cultural lessons taken from Catalonia, which has enjoyed a resurgence in the post-Franco era. They are also seeking to ride this new wave of civic nationalism into secession from the Spanish state. As with any separatist movement, regardless of roots, fear of the unknown can be a major deterrent.
Some form of Catalan independence and autonomy has been a staple in Spain for over 200 years. The Carlist Wars, beginning in the19th century, exemplify an early example of autonomy in a modern context. The benefits of federalism arising from an absolute monarchy appealed to Basque and Catalan territories, which motivated fighting for the Carlist camp.
In the early 18th century, a byproduct of the Nueva Planta Decrees was the restriction of Catalan language, and therefore culture. The centralization of the Spanish state led to revoking charters of states previously belonging to the Crown of Aragon, like Catalonia, in 1716. In an effort to homogenize the country, borders were abolished and Castilian was adopted as the state language of choice.
The Spanish Civil War in the 1930s is more relevant today as animosity still remains between Barcelona and Madrid, the state capital. Franco understood the strategic importance of Barcelona to control the rest of the province. This led to banning of ‘La Senyera’, the flag, along with local language. As an industrial center with a strong culture and labour movement, Catalonia suffered as Republicans were purged and forced into exile, labour camps, or murdered. Lluís Campanys, President of the Generalitat, was executed by Franco, a clear indication of where the totalitarian leader stood on any independence threat by Catalonia.
There are definite indications of friction between nationalists in Madrid and Catalans. Travel to either area and the indications are evident, as flags hang from many balconies in Barcelona as a reminder of regional pride. Governments and media also play a decisive role in keeping ideologies alive on both fronts. One only has to look through El País, a Madrid-based nationalist newspaper, to see content discouraging sympathy or rational thought toward the Catalan question.
This idealistic, media fueled conflict has brought some recent drawbacks, as only a decade ago, a cooling of secessionist rhetoric and support was worrying. It can be partly attributed to the resurgence of the Catalan Parliament in the post-Franco era. The result was a slow disconnect between participation of the people in everyday local affairs as this responsibility was left to elected officials.
The renewed sense of separatist fervor is due to past issues resurfacing but also the current context. The last decade has seen a lack of concessions from Madrid which has upset citizens and nationalist groups in the North-Eastern province. The fiscal crisis decimating middle class Europeans is not doing Mario Rajoy, Spain’s current PM, any favors.
There are fundamental differences in the economic drivers for Catalonia and Spain. The early industrialization and export oriented, small-medium business structure of Catalonia has allowed it to prosper. The rest of Spain is struggling as there are significant difficulties to starting a business like high social costs and lack of labour flexibility. These damaging backward policies, Catalans argue, have allowed a net deficit in tax dollars to exist. The reliance on Catalonia as an economic powerhouse and supporting economically weak areas of Spain has only worsened the national balance sheet.
There is a definite argument for a referendum although a financially motivated argument for secession demands a financial answer. An national economy that experienced a boom in construction and a healthy tourism sector was humbled once global recession hit and consumer belts tightened. The ongoing EU crisis, now passing its three-year anniversary, only added to hardships as even Catalonia, a previously wealthy province, has accumulated over five billion in bailout funds. Junk status on bond markets has embarrassed a fiercely independent part of Spain as they had to reach out to the capital for bailout funds.
The rise and fall of eurosceptics and lack of collective governance are also a product of harsh economic times. The 1970s oil crisis and the 1990s economic slowdown are evidence to governments looking out for their own interests at the expense of EU integration. It is no wonder over 1.5 million Catalans turned up on Sept 11 in support of separatism. There is clearly a correlation between economic strength and political clout, which, in today’s climate, has played a part in the overwhelming support for Catalanism.
Arguments for independence see possible short-term pain for both Spain and a newly independent state. Catalonia would assume some debt, giving some breathing room on the Spanish balance sheet. Re-entering bond markets would also be a rich, healthy territory, that would surely attract lenders.
As for the rest of Spain, reform would be inevitable as the health and future of the country would depend on generating new sources of revenue as Catalonia creates 20 percent of Spain’s GDP and 25 percent of its tax revenue.
There is a moderate body of citizens who would no doubt play a key role in any referendum. Many are facing a difficult choice as they identify with both Spanish and Catalan values. Forcing to pick and choose one identity will be difficult and most likely, many will not want to relinquish one part for the other. The massive influx of North African immigrants into the province is bound to have some influence on these legislations, as they, along with other newcomers, might be less likely to support potential cultural policies such as learning Catalan in school.
The November 25 regional election has left Artur Mas’ Convergence and Union Alliance with a minority which will invite a coalition from another traditional separatist party, Esquerra Republicana. After promising a push for referendum, tricky political maneuvering is in the road ahead for Mas as he seeks to deliver on an election promise, which PM Rajoy has declared unconstitutional.
Regardless of the outcome, it seems that Catalans will not be defeated if full independence is not achieved this time. An underlying historical legitimacy and a firm identity will keep this movement relevant and legitimate. The province is in a healthy position largely due to Jordi Pujols, president of the Generalitat from post-Franco to 2003. He aimed to create autonomy through growth of cultural identity, a return to cultural roots for those identifying with non-Catalan ideals, and a firm economic base. Present strengths are largely due to his efforts and as long as they continue, Catalanism will remain alive and well.