Will Catalonia Secede From Spain?

Will Catalonia Secede From Spain?

Catalans are fed up with Madrid’s austerity and corruption—making November’s referendum nonbinding has only postponed the confrontation.



The United Kingdom as we know it survived by a whisker in Scotland’s referendum on secession, after three centuries of union. Next in line is Spain, one of the oldest nation-states in the world, but one eternally racked by tensions from its peripheral nationalities: Catalan, Basque and, to a lesser extent, Galician. Catalonia has decided to recast its planned November 9 referendum on independence as a nonbinding consultation, after Spain’s Constitutional Court opened an inquiry into a referendum’s legality. This avoided a possible violent clash with the Spanish state, but given the huge turnout at a September 11 demonstration in favor of independence, the next Catalan elections are likely to give independence parties a majority. This would bring the breakup of Spain a step nearer, and along with it a new phase of the Eurocrisis.

Why are so many Scots (45 percent in September’s referendum) and Catalans (50 percent in recent polls) set on leaving now? The answer is surely a desperate search for sovereignty by voters with longstanding resentments over discrimination by the power centers in their respective states. Like many other Europeans, they feel cheated by their governments’ response to the Great Recession.

An estimated 1.5 million Catalans demonstrated in support of the referendum in September, flooding the main boulevards in their capital city of Barcelona with the Catalan star and stripes: four red bands over a yellow background, signifying the trails of blood left by a dying martyr during the Catalan defeat by the Spanish in 1714. But such visceral imagery hardly reflects the sociology of the growing Catalan secession movement. Hundreds of thousands of smiling families were bused in from the Catalan heartland, many sporting the shirts of their world-famous Barça soccer team. They joined a perfectly choreographed protest, visible from the surrounding Art Nouveau apartment blocks as an enormous “V” for Votar—the demand for Catalonia’s right to vote on independence, just as Scotland had done.

This is what radical protest looks like in Catalonia, a stateless nation of 7.5 million inhabitants known for their pragmatic seny (a difficult-to-translate Catalan term denoting coolheadedness). The same holds true for Oriol Junqueras—the leader of the secessionist Esquerra Republicana, or Republican Left party, which helped organize the protest—who is not the wild-eyed nationalist painted by the Madrid media.

“We are not nationalists; we are republicans. We are inspired by the US Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution,” Junqueras told me in an interview in Esquerra’s modest offices in downtown Barcelona. “One of our influences is the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson.” Junqueras, who teaches history at the University of Barcelona and is mayor of Sant Vicenç dels Horts, a working-class (and Spanish-speaking) dormitory town west of the Catalan capital, is the anti-politician, scholarly and unflappable. He is now the de facto leader of the independence movement, eclipsing the smooth, technocratic president of the Catalan Generalitat, or regional government, Artur Mas, who heads up the center-right Convergència i Unió (CiU) alliance. Already losing ground to the more radical Junqueras, Mas has been undermined further by a tax-evasion scandal this year affecting the former CiU leader and iconic president of the Generalitat, Jordi Pujol. In the next elections, many expect Junqueras and Esquerra to win an overall majority.

Esquerra’s reluctant decision to support Mas’s minority government despite the CiU’s austerity policies seemed politically risky, given the widespread popular rejection of budget cuts and tax hikes in Catalonia. “We are a social-democratic party, basically—center-left, though we’re in the Green group in Europe. So we believe in growth, but with redistribution. We don’t support these public-spending cuts, but ultimately the people who are deciding our budget are in Madrid, not Barcelona,” Junqueras told me. “So we are constrained. To protect the welfare state, we need to have our own state.”

The same argument won over many Scots to independence, as the Conservative government in London carried out massive cuts to health and social spending. It has proved most persuasive in the Catalan heartland, from the depressed textile towns that staged the Catalan industrial revolution on the outskirts of Barcelona to the rural communities that dot the landscape north to the Pyrenees. Support for independence in these areas is strong and growing. The people of Barcelona remain less convinced that independence is the best way to fight economic injustice, though even in the capital, most say they want a referendum—the “right to decide,” as it is called here—even if they decide to vote no.

According to the latest polls, support for a referendum is at 80 percent, and one in every two Catalans would vote for secession. These are extraordinary figures, incomprehensible to the millions of tourists who flock to Barcelona and buy souvenirs of Spanish matadors and flamenco dancers on the city’s Ramblas boulevard. Nor do they please the fat cats of Catalan big business in the powerful Caixa savings bank or in companies like the oil giant Repsol, which is controlled by Caixa. Spain, after all, is Catalonia’s biggest market, and it is still not clear whether secession is compatible with Catalonia’s continued membership in the European Union. The snowballing independence movement is a huge concern in corporate HQs on Barcelona’s Diagonal Avenue. Executives at Freixenet, for example, the Catalonia-based producer of cava sparkling wine, complained that its Christmas sales were hit last year not just by Spanish consumer boycotts of Catalan products, but also Catalan consumer boycotts of a company publicly opposed to independence.

Just as the independence movement in Scotland reflects a rejection by most Scots of London-centric neoliberalism, it is impossible to understand the steady march of Catalan public opinion toward independence without considering the fury that the Eurocrisis has unleashed in Spain and the rest of the EU periphery. For, as the late novelist Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, the creator of Catalan noir, always pointed out, it wasn’t seny that made Catalonia the world center of revolutionary anarchism in the first half of the twentieth century. It was another self-defined national characteristic: la rauxa (rage).

Esquerra, a minority party since the 1978 rebirth of democracy in Spain, is running ahead not only of Convergència i Unió but also the apparently moribund Socialist Party. (Partido Popular, or PP, the party now governing Spain as a whole, is insignificant in Catalonia.) Blame for the cuts that have ravaged the Catalan public-health service, hitherto one of the best in Europe, is placed squarely on the PP government of Mariano Rajoy, which has cut funding to Catalonia. Public opinion in Catalonia is now enraged by stories of misspending by successive Spanish governments on high-speed trains, underused motorways and white elephants like the Castellón Airport in Valencia (which has yet to see a single plane land or take off), or the massively oversized fourth terminal at Madrid Barajas airport. This compounds a fundamental difference in perspective between Catalonia and most of the rest of Spain as to whether the state should use infrastructure spending to build links to Madrid in a centralized national economy, or invest in the main export route to the rest of Europe—the so-called Mediterranean corridor, from Andalusia north through Valencia and Catalonia. The PP has chosen the radial model, with Madrid at its center: it is almost as fast to travel by train from Barcelona to Alicante—on the Mediterranean, south of Barcelona—via Madrid as it is to go direct, despite covering twice the distance.

Catalonia is a net contributor to the quasi-federal Spanish state, with a net yearly payment to Madrid of around 8 percent of the Catalan GDP in fiscal transfers. This used to be a moot point in Barcelona, but misspending during the recent boom and the subsequent austerity have turned the so-called fiscal deficit into a time bomb. While the Madrid media caricature Catalans as self-interested and Machiavellian—prepared to play the victim card to increase their share of spending and investment—the view from Barcelona is quite different. Socialist economist Germa Bel, a Catalan and professor at Princeton, calculated how taxes should be distributed among Spain’s seventeen autonomous regions by adhering to basic ethical principles: no poor region should transfer net income to a rich one, and any transfer should be proportional to a region’s relative income. By his count, Catalonia transfers more than €5 billion (3.6 percent of its GDP) every year in excess of what it should. The biggest beneficiary of Spain’s complex fiscal system is the Basque Country, home of the terrorist group ETA, which only recently laid down its arms. This may explain the strange reversal of historical stereotypes, as firebrand Basque nationalist leaders now criticize their traditionally pragmatic Catalan counterparts for moving too quickly toward independence.

* * *

The immediate trigger to the surge in support for independence occurred when, in 2010, conservative judges on the Constitutional Court declared unconstitutional the Catalan Statute, a new declaration of rights approved by Catalans in a 2006 referendum. This would have granted more autonomy to Catalonia and defined it as a nation. Attempts by the Rajoy government to counter the use of Catalan—mother tongue of the majority of Catalans, who are bilingual—and give greater weight to Spanish have also raised hackles in Barcelona: the centralist conservative PP, after all, was founded by Manuel Fraga, who supported the dictator Francisco Franco’s ban on Catalan. Education Minister José Luis Wert’s announcement in 2012 that Catalan education should be castellanizado (made Spanish) may soon enter the history books as a faux pas of epic proportions. (Ironically, Catalan children perform better than the Spanish average in tests on the use and understanding of the Spanish language.)

Economist Bel, who supports a federal Spain, doubts the PP government will correct these imbalances, since almost all of its support comes from regions outside Catalonia. Instead, the PP will support a centralized Spanish state with less recognition of peripheral nationalisms, which is unacceptable to the majority of Catalans. Bel expects a fierce confrontation. “Most Spaniards want a uni-national state because any other sort of structure makes them feel insecure; the majority of Catalans prefer their own state to a uni-national state,” he says in his new book, Anatomía de un desencuentro (Anatomy of a Misunderstanding).

So far, Mariano Rajoy’s government has refused point-blank to recognize Catalonia’s right to decide, insisting with undeniable logic that a referendum whose result would effectively dissolve the Spanish state is anti-constitutional. The most likely outcome of this position is that Mas and Junqueras will call referendum-style elections in 2015, in which the pro-independence parties will run in coalition. “The pro-independence parties would win an election and then declare some kind of independence,” the legal expert Juan-José López Burniol told me in Barcelona. “Then it will be up to Europe to persuade Rajoy to negotiate changes in the Constitution that would meet some of Catalonia’s demands.”

Rather than imposing austerity, Europe in this area could help Spain overcome the stalemate caused by its own history and politics. The stakes are high. While the Eurozone debt crisis has eased significantly in the past year, the prospect of Catalonia—with 19 percent of Spanish GDP—leaving would rekindle those flames. “Once markets imagined Catalonia being forced out of the EU and the Eurozone, all hell would break loose,” former Bank of England board member Adam Posen told me last year in an interview in Washington.

* * *

A visit to the small town of Arbúcies, a hotbed of secessionism seventy miles north of Barcelona and run by Esquerra, is a testament to how anger at austerity and misspending has been diverted toward Madrid. This mass display of Catalan rauxa crosses class borders, from the workers in small manufacturing plants on the outskirts of town to the shopkeeping botiguers in the center. A wall-length banner proclaims Independencia opposite the iconic Freedom Tree, which commemorates the 1868 revolution against autocratic Spanish rule. The star and stripes of the “free nations” of Catalonia (a greater Catalonia embracing Perpignan in southeastern France, the Balearic Islands, and chunks of Aragon and Valencia) are draped from small terraced houses alongside bedsheets painted with the anti-austerity logo (scissors under a red cross). The local health center is now closed at night. Two plants making bodywork and interiors for buses closed last year, as demand slumped in Spain.

“The economy is in terrible shape, and we are losing traditional industries. Most people blame Madrid,” said Roger Zamorano, former mayor of Arbúcies and an Esquerra militant. Long-term unemployment has soared, especially in immigrant communities. Junqueras has cleverly defined the new Catalan identity as a demand for democratic rights for all residents of Catalonia, including Spanish speakers and immigrants. “What unites us is a common desire to decide our own future. It doesn’t matter whether you are Muslim, Christian or where you’re from,” he told me. Most visitors will be surprised to hear Senegalese or Moroccan children conversing in Catalan in towns like Arbúcies, despite the de facto segregation there. But older immigrants appeared less convinced. “Independence wouldn’t be good for us, and most immigrants are against it,” said a Guinean immigrant worker in an Internet cafe, speaking in French.

If Esquerra can present itself as both the party of independence and the defender of public services, it may soon wield the power lost when Lluís Companys, leader of the party and president of autonomous Catalonia throughout the Civil War, was executed by a firing squad at Montjuïc Castle in October 1940 (barefoot at his request, to feel the earth of Catalonia in his last moments) as Franco began to eliminate ruthlessly all traces of the Republic and of Catalan dissidence. It is yet another instance of Europe’s past returning transformed during the current crisis, as citizens seek spaces to recover their lost sovereignty and vent their rage. After four years of remorseless austerity and wage cuts in Spain and Catalonia, and a severe recession that has turned national and regional governments into mere pawns of Brussels and Berlin, the European technocracy may soon reap what it has sown.


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