Before Catalans voted on Sunday in regional elections, much of the rest of Spain disputed that they could serve as a de facto referendum on independence. But as soon as the results were in and it turned out the separatists had fallen short of a 50-percent majority, Spanish commentators and politicians hailed the supposedly decisive “no” against secession.
They can’t have it both ways.
Parties in favor of Catalan independence did win a majority of the seats in the regional legislature with nearly 48 percent support. Turnout was a record 77 percent. The defenders of Spanish unity would be ill-advised to dismiss those numbers are insignificant. Yet they do.
Almost one in two Catalans is now prepared to break away from Spain. But rather than try to understand why, there are critics who would rather continue to belittle the separatist movement.
Ramón Pérez-Maura’s op-ed in Politico is sadly representative of this attitude. The ABC editor even absurdly claims that the reason Catalans want to split from Spain is that they are xenophobic toward other Spaniards. “They have to be above the rest,” Pérez writes.
He misleadingly claims that Catalonia already has more autonomy than either Germany’s Bavaria or California in the United States. That is not only false; the comparison is fundamentally flawed.
Bavaria and California are federal states with a measure of sovereignty. Catalonia, by contrast, is an autonomous community of Spain — with powers comparable to the Basque Country and Galicia — that must try to get more powers from Madrid rather than give to or share powers with a federal government.
There are some differences between Spain’s autonomous regions. The Basques, for example, control their own energy policy. Catalonia’s is shared with the central government. The latter does have exclusive control over cultural policies, such as language promotion, which the Basque Country does not. But the Basques get to keep more of the revenue they raise than the Catalans.
Indeed, a major grievance of the independence movement is that more money is taken out of Catalonia every year than the central government puts back in. Estimates are in the range of $21 billion, or 8 percent of Catalonia’s economic output.
Opponents of independence can point out that in every country, richer regions subsidize the poorer. Bavaria does too. It even accounts for half of all net transfers inside Germany! But it doesn’t do so without complaint. In 2012, the state even went to Germany’s supreme court to demand a reduction.
That route isn’t available to the Catalans. Spain’s Constitutional Court threw out most of their autonomy statute in 2010 and blocked an independence referendum last year. Pérez mentions neither decision but they are critical to understanding why support for secession has risen in recent years. In 2010, just one in five Catalans wanted to break away from Spain. Now, judging by Sunday’s election, nearly one in two does.
Spain’s failure to take Catalan demands for self-determination and respect seriously is what is fueling the independence movement in the region. Pérez’ attitudes are emblematic of a country that is blissfully ignoring sentiment in its richest province — and it may be doing so at its own peril. The longer Madrid brushes Catalan demands aside, the more Catalans may decide that secession is the only way to guarantee their future as a nation.