Madrid’s Intransigence to Blame for Catalan Separatism

Spain’s refusal to give Catalans a say in their future has galvanized the independence movement.

A demonstration for Catalan independence in Barcelona, Spain, July 10, 2010 (Wikimedia Commons/Josep Renalias)

Undeterred by Scottish voters’ “no” to independence, Artur Mas, Catalonia’s president, called a similar referendum to break away from Spain last month. To comply with Spanish law, the referendum would not be binding — although it is difficult to imagine how the authorities in Barcelona and Madrid could ignore the outcome if a majority of Catalans vote in favor of secession.

In an attempt to block the vote, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government asked the country’s constitutional court to declare it illegal. “It is false that the right to vote can be assigned unilaterally to one region about a matter that affects all Spaniards,” he said. “It’s profoundly anti-democratic.”

Rajoy has a point. But it is surely the intransigence of the central government he now chairs that is to blame for the situation.

The Catalan culture and language were suppressed for almost forty years while Spain was a dictatorship. After Francisco Franco died in 1975 and Spain transitioned to democracy, a new constitution gave Catalonia autonomy. Finally, in 2006, the region actually got some powers. An overwhelming 74 percent of voters approved the constitutional changes in a referendum that defined Catalonia as a “nation” and gave it its own parliament. The Catalan government was given broad powers over cultural, education, health, justice and transportation policy.

But other regions and Spanish nationalists, especially in Rajoy’s Partido Popular, were dismayed by the changes and fought to reverse them. After four years, Spain’s highest court ruled that fourteen of the new statute’s articles were unconstitutional and a further 27 had to be rewritten. Perhaps most painfully, it said the definition of Catalonia as a “nation” had no legal standing.

The same court has now suspended Mas’ referendum on independence, a decision Catalonia’s regional parliament appealed.

Through it all, support for independence has soared. Polls suggest around one in two Catalans would rather break away from Spain at this point and a staggering 80 percent wants the referendum. Little wonder. They have been denied a say in their political constellation for generations by politicians in Madrid obsessed with forging a single sense of Spanish nationhood where clearly one does not exists.

Separatist sentiment has also been fueled by Spain’s recent economic mismanagement. Compared to the rest of the country, Catalonia is fairly well run. It has only 16 percent of Spain’s population but more than a fifth of its gross domestic product, giving it an economy the size of Denmark’s. Catalan trade even accounts for 35 percent of Spain’s total trade volume. An estimated $21 billion in Catalan taxes, equivalent to 8 percent of the region’s economic output, is invested in other parts of Spain.

That is not to say Catalonia should go it alone. Independence is not without risks. Among the thorniest issues is European Union membership for which an independent Catalonia would have to reapply. That includes the use of the euro. Being forced out of the single currency could hurt the region’s tourism industry which brings in $12 billion per year.

Devolution of powers, similar to Scotland, would satisfy many Catalans. So would a federal structure similar to Germany’s. Catalonia is a nation but it needn’t have its own state.

It is the central government’s refusal to even consider such options that has caused more and more Catalans to favor outright independence. If, at some point, they do decide to break away from Spain unilaterally, Madrid has only itself to blame.

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