Catalonia’s Pro-Independence Protests: Marching to Nowhere?

Anna Quinn, Loyola University Maryland:

Sitting around our host family’s kitchen table, my American roommate and I discuss our travel plans while eating a traditional Spanish lunch, cocido. My roommate reveals that next weekend we will take the train from our current home in a suburb of Madrid to the city of Barcelona. An immediate scoff can be heard from my host dad across the table. Our host mom rolls her eyes and explains that he hates Barcelona.

My study abroad program had just begun, and this was the first time I had encountered an example of the infamous Madrid-Barcelona divide. Over the course of our next four months, I grew tired of the tirades—our host dad droning on about his hatred for Catalonia, Spain’s northeastern industrial powerhouse and cultural outlier.

Four months after my return from Spain, I cannot help but wonder what my host dad’s reaction had been to the protests in Barcelona a few weeks ago. I can picture him wearing a Real Madrid t-shirt, sprawled on the couch and sighing as the news story scrolls across his TV screen: 1.4 million pro-independence demonstrators marched their way down Meridiana Avenue in Barcelona, the fourth year in a row that Catalonia’s national day turned into a separatist show of force.

This year, though, the protests may have carried more weight. The athletes that ran into the middle of the march carrying an arrow might in fact have been pointing to an exact date in the near future where Catalonia’s pro-independence movement would experience forward progress. On September 27th , Spain will hold its regional parliamentary elections. In Catalonia, the ‘Together For Yes’ campaign, a coalition of both left and right wing party members, is calling this election a de facto vote on independence for the region. The New York Times reports, “Artur Mas, the Catalan leader, said the election was a make-or-break chance for Catalonia to become a new European state. He called on the Madrid government to grant Catalonia the right to secede if separatist parties secure a parliamentary majority.” Despite statements from Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the Madrid government that assert a parliamentary election will not mean independence for the region, the recent separatist strength still calls for a look at not only the arguments that drive Catalonia’s secessionist movement, but their viability as an independent state.

Although Catalonian separatism began in the 19th century, the general thrust of their argument—a distinct culture and language—holds true today. While the majority of Catalonia can also speak the Castilian Spanish of its central government, their main language is Catalan. The region also has its own history, as many of the regions of Spain do. Despite being a part of Spain since the country’s creation in the 15th century, its origins lie as a separate region with origins in the Roman Empire, the Visigoths and Muslim rulers.

In an article in the BC Journal of International Affairs, Josep Desquens outlines the most significant aspect of Catalonia’s secession argument and the one that will be most important if they succeed: economics. In the history classes I took in Spain, we discussed why Catalonia has historically “given more than its gotten back” from the central government. Desquens proves that this is overwhelmingly still true. At the time of his article in 2003, he reported that Catalonia provided 20% of Spain’s GDP and 25% of its tax revenue. In addition, 33% of the country’s industrial production and exports are generated in the region. According to Spain’s current fiscal policy, every region contributes to the central government where the total is then split back up between the regions—the central government, based in Madrid, decides how much each “autonomous community” will receive. Desquens reports that Catalonia has a 7.5-10% fiscal deficit, which means 7.5-10 of every 100 euros they contribute to the country doesn’t make it back to their region. Therein lies the essential argument of the current pro-independence movement. Desquens reveals that most other autonomous regions of the world experience a fiscal surplus—where what they gain is valued at more than what they give. And while some other regions do have a fiscal imbalance, none of them exceed 3%. By simply looking at the numbers, it may still be difficult to understand what this fiscal disparity means for Catalonia. Columbia Professor Xavier Sala-i-Martin illustrates it best stating that, “if the Catalan fiscal imbalance had been reduced by one third over the last 25 years, Catalonia would be a frontrunner in Europe in per capita income.” Considering this, it is easy to see why many Catalonians are pushing to exist on their own terms.

The possibility of Catalonia as an independent state, however, seems to be more complicated than living off of their current industrial and manufacturing strength. A recent piece in The Guardian asserts that, “The economic argument for nationalism seems persuasive, yet Catalonia’s wealth would be offset by the cost of independence.” To begin, Catalonia would have to apply for a place in the European Union; a process that The Guardian notes could take a few years. This means they would be forced to pay tariffs with all EU countries that they were previously exempt from. Additionally, although it is slightly speculative, not being part of the EU could diminish their trading relationship with Spain—who accounts for half of their trade. Catalonia would also have to take over the cost of public services that Spain typically provides the region, an amount The Guardian estimates at 2.7% of their personal GDP. While this would still mean Catalonia would save about 6.8% of the 7.5-10% they are losing to Spain, the remaining amount might have to be allocated to their debt. Currently, Catalonia has roughly 42 billion euros of their own public debt. According to international law, they would also acquire the Spanish debt that is attributable to their region if they were to become an independent nation. Finally, many Catalonians predict that businesses will relocate out of Catalonia should they secede for fear of working with a struggling, new nation. This seems especially plausible when only about 30-40% of Catalonians support the movement for independence. Thus, the possibility of backlash from those that oppose the independence remains a major factor.

While I no longer live in Spain, I can still imagine my host parents discussing the protests over their late night dinner, as many Spaniards will most likely do over the coming weeks to the election. My host dad will probably roll his eyes, dismissing the movement as unfounded and unrealistic. My host mom, an ever more moderate voice of reason, will probably be shaking her head as he rants on. But, it seems as though both of my host parents and those who share their views would be correct to some degree.

Catalonia’s secession certainly is not unfounded—their fiscal imbalance far surpasses any “normal” level by global standards and both their language and culture clearly differ from the rest of their country. But it seems the push for independence may in fact be unrealistic. The current movement claims the elections will provide them the independence they were denied following a referendum last November. Although this referendum showed 80% support for independence, only 40% of the Catalonians participated. Other polls suggest the separatist movement only has about a 30-40% following. So, moving forward, Catalonia would need the support of a majority of their people—not to mention the compliance of the central government—to consider the primary election as a true move towards independence. Nevertheless, the leader of the movement, Artur Mas, seems intent on the coalition’s success: “We cannot lose this opportunity, when you take a risk, you can win or you can lose, but if we accept defeat, we also ask that others accept victory.”

Even when one looks at the current economic situation and the clear fiscal imbalance it faces, Catalonia’s case for independence appears to be largely a recipe for the region’s failure. The economic burden of becoming an independent state seems to ensure that Catalonia would not remain as successful and wealthy as they are under Spanish rule. However, the current fiscal dynamic between the region and the Madrid government is an injustice many Catalans are correct in trying to amend. Perhaps Catalonia’s leaders should view a separatist coalition victory in parliament on September 27th as an opportunity to reform its fiscal relationship with Spain, rather than pursuing an unfeasible independence movement that may ultimately threaten the region’s stability.

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