The Curious Case of Catalonia

Author: Liam Murphy, Johns Hopkins University

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On Sunday, November 9th, the Spanish autonomous community of Catalonia held a “self-determination referendum.” The vote consisted of two questions: 1) should the region be its own state; and 2) if yes, should it be an independent one? The Spanish government did not sanction the referendum and its outcome will hold no immediate legal ramifications, but the results are nonetheless important to consider. Out of the more than 2 million Catalans (37% of the region’s population) who voted this past weekend, nearly 81% answered “yes” to both questions, 10% voted in favor of statehood but not independence, and 4% responded “no” outright.

These results demonstrate that most voters wholeheartedly support independence; however, it also shows that the majority of Catalans chose not to vote. Why is this? Some cite the limited number of voting locations and long lines as deterrents, while others suggest the fact that the vote has no tangible effect might have discouraged prospective voters. This ambivalence among Catalans is understandable; despite overwhelming support in the Catalan Parliament and countless opinion polls, the Spanish government sees any efforts towards independence as a violation of the Spanish Constitution. The sentiments of Spain’s leadership would be justifiable, if not for its lengthy history of mistreatment of Catalans. In 1714, Catalonia lost its political freedom during the War of Spanish Succession. Shortly thereafter, the region’s lingual and cultural traditions were banned and the subordination of Barcelona to Madrid became the norm.

The suppression of Catalan identity was only exacerbated in the 20th Century, as Francisco Franco’s fascist regime sought to eliminate any alternatives to a Spanish-speaking, Catholic sense of national unity. The death of Franco and the creation of the 1978 Constitution certainly improved the conditions of life in Catalonia, both culturally and economically. But this judicial Band-Aid has proven insufficient in patching up centuries of cultural dissonance between the region and the rest of Spain. Today, with Catalan language and culture vibrant and its economy stable, circumstances have normalized. Yet there remains the persistent feeling that Catalans are getting the short end of the stick. The second-most populated autonomous community in Spain – behind only Andalusia – Catalonia boasts the largest individual share of the country’s GDP with nearly 19%. Most striking, though, is that the region receives only 7% percent of Spanish government expenditures. This disparity has forced Spain’s most productive region to run a deficit, leaving Catalan lawmakers frustrated and many of its citizens unemployed (nearly 22%). Even more problematic is the fact that Spanish law prohibits Catalonia from seeking financial assistance (i.e. loans) from anyone other than the Spanish government, a reality that demonstrates the degree to which Spain can restrict the region politically and economically.

The case for independence is complex. The majority of Catalans believe the region deserves to choose its fate – opinion polls show as much as 80% want a real referendum. But the distinctiveness of its culture and the neglect of the Spanish government have yet to provoke dominant support for independence in Catalonia. Many believe a decisive vote on the issue would narrowly pass, begging the question: is independence the solution? In a cultural or ethnic sense, one might assume yes, but millions of Catalans also hold dear their Spanish heritage. Politically, it is clear Catalonia would prefer not to remain subservient to Spain, but breaking away could present its own unique array of political tensions and security concerns. Ultimately, the pivotal factor in determining the efficacy of Catalonia’s independence movement will be its economy.

The region’s robust manufacturing and tourism industries, as well its rising unemployment, play an integral role in the conversation. From the Spanish perspective, Catalonia is an invaluable economic asset. From the Catalan point of view, the region’s current affiliation with the rest of the country only hinders its overall growth and compounds budgetary concerns. Yet many believe the unfairness of the current arrangement is reparable. Moreover, polls suggest amending the financial imbalance between Catalonia and the Spanish government is the most prominent concern among Catalan voters. As such, it is critical that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy explores ways to help balance the Catalan budget and emphasize the importance of the Spanish-Catalan cooperation. If he and his government fail to do this, cries for independence will grow louder and the possibility of a formal referendum will loom larger. Spain’s Catalonia problem is neither new, nor fleeting. But the ambivalence of many Catalans and the potential for economic collaboration provides Madrid an undeserved chance. The fate of Catalonia may ultimately depend on Rajoy’s approach, just as it did on Franco and Phillip V’s policies in the past. This time, however, Catalans have a real say in the outcome. For the moment, the question remains: do they really want independence?

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