Catalonia's bid for independence - Doomed to failure?

Catalonian independence supporters in Barcelona on September 11, 2012—also known as Catalonia's national day—amid a protest sparked by Spain's financial crisis. PHOTO: AFP

Europe's woes do not seem to end. Over the past several weeks, the news about Catalonia's independence referendum has severely shaken Europe. This time it was Spain facing secession of Catalonia—one of its wealthiest regions.  It is a classic case of sharing the national economic pie that has provoked Catalans to take to the streets to demand independence.

Catalonia pays more taxes to Madrid than other regions, but feels the redistribution of these revenues is grossly unfair, as the money goes to subsidise other poorer regions. Catalans believe that they have put more money into Spain than they have received in return. This sense of unfair treatment is the cause for widespread resentment in Catalonia.

To this was added Spain's economic recession (from 2008 onwards) and cutbacks in public spending. As Catalonia's public debt rose, it demanded bailouts from Madrid, which never came. Madrid itself was neck-deep in debt and was looking for bailouts from European Central Bank. Actually, economic pressures drove angry Catalonians to increasingly call for independence.

Catalonia is the richest and most productive of Spain's 17 regions, with its own language and traditions. The historic city of Barcelona hosted the Summer Olympic Games in 1992. With its 7.5 million people (16 percent of Spain), it is economically as powerful as Denmark, producing 20 percent of Spain's GDP. It contributes over one-fourth of Spain's exports and attracts huge foreign investments. Catalonia has its own parliament, and the president of the Generalitat (government) is Carles Puigdemont of the centre-right Convergence and Union (CiU) party.  

The broad autonomy, which Catalonia enjoyed before the Spanish Civil War, was ruthlessly suppressed by Spain's dictator Gen Francisco Franco (1939-75). After Franco's death, Catalan nationalism revived and under the 1978 constitution, the region was granted autonomy. The 2006 statute gave Catalonia greater financial power and described it as a "nation". Trouble began when in 2010 Spain's Constitutional Court overturned that status, leading to calls for secession. 

Over the past seven years, instead of addressing the resentment, Madrid only warned that Catalonia's bid for independence was unlawful and against the constitution. But these warnings did not stop the Catalan government from stoking anger against Madrid. In November 2014, the then regional president Artur Mas called for an unofficial referendum, whence 80 percent backed independence, though the turnout was low (34 percent). The move was supported by the Republican Left of Catalonia party.  

The latest stand-off between Barcelona and Madrid came on September 6, when Catalan parliament passed a law for referendum. President Puigdemont promised to hold the vote on October 1, 2017. During all this period, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy described the move as illegal and warned of serious consequences. As the determined Puigdemont prepared for vote, Madrid sent its police force to stop the referendum, which ended in high drama. The fracas between the police and supporters of independence left several hundred people injured, including policemen. More than 2.25 million supporters turned out to cast their ballot on October 1. Puigdemont reported that 90 percent of the voters were in favour of split. However, the low turnout of 43 percent was blamed on Rajoy's determination to stop the vote. 

On October 11, President Puigdemont announced in the parliament in Barcelona that Catalonia "earned the right to be an independent state." However, a sudden change of heart led him to pull back from the brink of a full-blown unilateral declaration of independence, calling for negotiations to resolve the crisis. "If everybody acts responsibly, this conflict can be resolved calmly," he declared. Clearly, Puigdemont is troubled by the economic viability of Catalonia as an independent state. Catalonia's debt to Madrid runs into €52 billion, and since the independence movement gathered steam, banks, big businesses, wineries, and utilities had started shifting their headquarters out of Catalonia. 

Interestingly, while the vocal minority Catalans were overjoyed at the prospect of independence, the silent majority were vehemently against splitting from Spain. Hundreds of thousands of anti-independence Catalans, dressed in white, took to the street on October 8 to protest against the decision to push for independence and called for dialogue with Madrid. These demonstrations came as a source of strength to Prime Minister Rajoy, who warned that he would suspend Catalonia's autonomy and that there would be no negotiations if Puigdemont did not step back.  

In hindsight, it is clear that Mariano Rajoy has mishandled the Catalan issue. Spain's King Felipe VI sided with Rajoy instead of taking the role of a mediator. Rajoy's government should have assessed the import of Catalans' sentiment and should never have allowed the problem to reach crisis point. There are hints that negotiations may ultimately help resolve the demands of Catalonia, although Rajoy is holding back till Puigdemont ceases his "illegal" activities. Observers say that the whole spectacle of Puigdemont's independence referendum is to compel Madrid to listen to the grievances of Catalonia.  

Surprisingly, the European Union has all the while stayed away from this standoff between Madrid and Barcelona. It has come under criticism for not intervening to restore stability and safeguard the rights of EU citizens in Catalonia. EU budget commissioner warned that the escalating crisis posed a risk of "civil war" in Europe. 

If negotiations with Madrid fail and Catalonia ultimately declares independence, it may spark off several similar separatist movements in other parts of Europe such as Basque country, northern Italy, Flanders in Belgium, Northern Ireland, Scotland, etc. Balkanisation of the Iberian Peninsula would ensure the demise of the European project. 

For the disgruntled people independence struggle is always a passionate romantic dream. But the viability of small states in Europe, particularly when its population is aging and declining, would not seem to meet the economic realities. Hopefully, Puigdemont would not pursue the independence project further.

Mahmood Hasan is a former ambassador and secretary of the Bangladesh government. 

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