Catalonia Hopes to Secede

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Demonstration in the Parliament of Catalonia in Barcelona, following the recent referendum. Citizens flooded the street in protest following Spain’s refusal to acknowledge the results.

In a referendum held on October 1, 92% of voters elected to secede from Spain. Voter turnout, however, was low with only 43% of Catalans showing up to the polls. The Spanish government states that this referendum is illegal, but the Catalan government is using the referendum to make the case for independence.

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Map of Spain and Catalonia.

On the day of the referendum, the Catalan police force was ordered by the central government to shut down the polling stations, but it refused to do so. Seeing to it that the voting be stopped, the national police force was deployed. In clashes involving rubber bullets and batons, 431 policemen and 893 civilians were injured.

The following Tuesday, Catalonia’s president, Charles Puigdemont, signed a declaration of independence, but he simultaneously called for a pause in the process of separating to allow for negotiations with the Spanish government. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has given Catalonia five days to explicitly state whether or not they have declared independence. If they do declare independence, Prime Minister Rajoy will trigger Constitutional Article 155, which allows for the government to take total control of a disobedient autonomous region. Prime Minister Rajoy has also stated that Spain is not entering any negotiations unless Catalonia gives up plans for secession. 

Conflict between Catalonia and Spain stretches back to the 1800s, when Catalonia fought two wars against Spain. Then, from 1939-1975, Catalonia experienced its most painful years under the dictator Francisco Franco. The Catalan language was banned, free speech was outlawed, and Catalonia’s parliament was permanently dissolved. Wounds from Franco’s reign still run deep among Catalans.

In 1977, the Statute of Autonomy established the Generalitat, a system that gave Catalonia its own parliament, president, and executive council. It has given Catalonia sole control over matters of culture and commerce, while granting shared rule with the Spanish government over education, health, and justice. Since 1977, Catalonia has been able to autonomously determine laws, but the Spanish government still holds the final say.

Recently, in 2006, the Statute of Autonomy was reformed, going so far as to call Catalonia a nation. However, this new statue was shut down by the Spanish government in 2010. In 2015, Separatist parties won the Catalan elections and pushes for independence have escalated ever since.

It is not just the region’s history that causes such conflict. Economically, Catalonia makes up just 16% of Spain’s population, but is responsible for 29% of Spain’s GDP, 25% of exports and 20% of foreign investment. Catalonia is Spain’s most prosperous region and has long accused Madrid of plundering their riches. The region pays nearly €10 billion more in federal taxes than it receives in government spending. However, this economic situation isn’t one-sided. The Catalan government is €77 billion in debt, equivalent to 35% of its GDP, and €52 of the €77 billion is owed to the Spanish government. 

Catalan independence would bring an entire set of its own problems. Even if Catalonia were to secede, they would have to apply to enter the E.U. Entry would require the approval of all E.U. members, including Spain. In addition, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has stated he does not support Catalan independence, because other regions (both in Spain and throughout Europe) may follow suit. This is crucial, given that two-thirds of Catalonia’s exports go to the E.U. An independent Catalonia would also need to develop many institutions, such as a healthcare and education system, and a central bank. 

Either way, Catalonia is already facing consequences for their desire of independence. Big corporations are moving out of Catalonia, out of fear of not being able to stay in the E.U. Following the lead of Sabadell, CaixaBank and Gas Natura, major spanish employers,  have voted to move headquarters. Catalonia’s status as Spain’s economic powerhouse may be in jeopardy.

Both the Spanish and Catalan governments are unwavering in their positions and unwilling to back down. Any concession from either side just means Catalonia is either that much closer to or that much further from independence. Due to this mentality from both sides, this stalemate will most likely not stop any time soon. Conflict may even escalate to the point where Spain actually uses Article 155 of the constitution. This would no doubt provoke heated retaliation from Catalonia and could even establish the beginnings of a second civil war.

In the last few days, it appears more likely that Spain will need to placate Catalonia, and give them additional autonomy. Where that level lies on the spectrum of independence is still quite unclear. Negotiations will definitely be tricky and this may just be Western Europe’s first major geopolitical struggle of the 21st century.

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