While many Europeans continue to struggle with a refugee crisis that has shaken their countries’ political and economic framework to the core, most Spaniards contend that their nation’s most problematic issue is something entirely different: Catalonian independence. The concept of Catalonian independence has existed for centuries, as the region has its own language (Catalan) and a distinctly unique culture. Ask any Spaniard, however, and they will tell you that the question of independence goes much deeper than just a language difference or a few sociopolitical idiosyncrasies.
For some Catalonians, the quest for independence is grounded in the region’s troubled political history with Madrid, which stretches back hundreds of years. Unlike other European powers such as France and England, which centralized their countries’ political and social structures at an extremely early stage in European history, Spain’s movement towards unification did not begin until the marriage of Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon. Before the two wed in the fifteenth century, Spain was comprised of numerous feudal kingdoms, each with their own independent system of governance. As the Spanish monarchy waged countless wars to protect or expand its interests across the globe, the crown relied heavily on the natural and physical resources of Spain’s many previously sovereign regions. Catalonians, upset over the financial and political abuses of Madrid, did everything they could to circumvent the crown’s heavy taxes or requests for resources. Catalonian peasants even went so far as to revolt against Castile in 1640, which erupted into a international, twenty year conflict that ended with the fierce suppression of the Catalonian people. Catalonians mark this moment as the beginning of centuries of persecution by the Spanish government.
Although the Spanish monarchy imposed a variety of laws to promote Castilian as the official language, Catalonia still managed to maintain some aspects of its cultural and linguistic identity throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This sense of separation and Spain’s relative tolerance reached its peak under the short lived Second Republic, but quickly disappeared at the outbreak Spanish Civil War and General Franco’s brutal takeover of the country in 1939. The arrival of Franco’s forces in Barcelona spelled the end of Catalonia autonomy and the beginning of one of darkest times in the region’s history. Between the Civil War and the following military tribunals, an estimated 125,000 Catalonians were killed, executed, or exiled for their support of the Republican cause. In addition to the physical violence, the Franco regime’s use of financial punishments, such as asset seizures and harsh fines, severely hurt the local Catalonian economy.
It wasn’t until the death of Franco and the creation of Spain’s democratic constitution in 1978 that Catalonia could accelerate its economic recovery and restore much of its lost cultural heritage. Spain’s transition into a democracy, however, brought with it the complex challenges of balancing a strong central government and respecting regional autonomy. Until recently, the Spanish federal system was long hailed as a shining example of how a nation could peacefully turn into a democracy. Unfortunately, modern economic crises and inefficient methods of governance have pushed Spain’s federal structure to its breaking point. Over the last decade, the country has been forced to peel back regional autonomy in order to redistribute federal funds to its poorest territories, often at the objections of local politicians. Since a notorious constitutional court case enraged Catalonians in 2010 by abolishing some of the regions self-governing statutes, the modern Catalonian independence movement has been steadily gaining momentum.
Fervor over independence recently reached a crescendo with this past month’s parliamentary election. With secession as the divisive political issue, most European political pundits regarded these elections as a proxy for a future independence vote. Pre-election poll’s suggested that Catalonians were split 50/50 over the question of autonomy. Arturo Mas, the president of Catalan, and his massive “Junts pel Sí” (Together for Yes) coalition won the largest share of parliamentary seats at 62, with another pro independence party, CUP (Candidatura d’Unitat Popular), winning a additional 10 seats. Separatists celebrated the election as a victory, but the two parties only received 47.9% of the total vote, below the 50% needed to win any potential independence referendum. Focusing on the lack of pro-independence votes, Prime Minister Rajoy was quick to praise the “plurality of Catalonia” and their clear rejection of independence. Although both sides view the election as a success, the results could be skewed in favor of the secessionists as their levels of political participation are much higher than the rest of the population. Regardless of the numbers, Mas and his fellow coalition members argue that independence is the only solution for a region that has been economically and culturally repressed for so many years. Indeed, some Catalonians feel as though Madrid has unfairly laid a heavy tax burden on one of the country’s most productive sectors, especially when Catalonians themselves have neither the power to decide where their tax revenues are being spent nor decide how much money the national government will reinvest in the region.
Most Madrileños see independence as not only a violation of their constitution, but also a recipe for a financial disaster within and possibly beyond the peninsula. The consequences of separation would be drastic for both Spain and the European Union. In separating from Spain, Catalan would be forced to reapply for membership into the European Union, a complex process that often takes years. Kicked out of the EU, Catalonia would lose many of the economically crucial perks member states enjoy. For example, the newly formed nation would be unable to use the euro as a form of currency and would be prohibited from accessing the financial services or assistance programs of the European Central Bank. Catalonia would also forfeit its membership in the Schengen, which allows for the free flow of people between EU borders. Without financial backing or political legitimacy, an independent Catalonia would surely struggle to maintain crucial government services and fund its citizens’ pension funds. Mas has condemned any statements from the European Union’s central authority on a Eurozone exit as a coercive ploy to preserve an already fragile union. In response to these warnings, Mas has also threatened that Catalonia could withhold its public debt payments, putting Spain and the Catalonian government on a fiscal collision course in the foreseeable future.
Beyond financial disagreements, Catalonian independence could also tear Spain’s political structure to pieces. Other autonomous regions such as the Basque country are clearly watching the Catalonian independence movement closely. What’s to stop the Basque region, which was plagued by violence in the 1970s by its separatist terrorist group, ETA, from also breaking away from Spain if Catalonia is permitted to do so? Support for Basque independence is not as high as it is in Catalonia, but that hasn’t stopped protesters and local politicians from holding their own independence rallies. And what of Galicia, another region with its own language and culture? The Spanish central government has a legitimate concern that the Catalonian question could easily lead to dissolution of the country’s political and economic status quo. All eyes in Spain will turn to Barcelona over the coming months in anticipation for a potential referendum.