The Catalonian referendum: Will Spain succeed in holding on to its most lucrative region?

Protests in Barcelona, Spain. || Reuters.

Protests in Barcelona, Spain. || Reuters.

On October 1st, 2017, centuries of cultural and political conflict boiled over, as Catalans voted for independence from the rest of Spain; the voter turnout was 40%, and overwhelmingly in favor of independence. The referendum was considered illegal and void by Madrid’s constitutional court; what followed was a swift, brutal suppression of the vote, and as some would argue, human rights. Madrid fought to force the economically prosperous region of Catalonia to remain a part of Spain. Since there was no independent monitoring of the vote, some consider the result itself to be a misrepresentation of the true Catalan position Ultimately,, the show of force on the part of Madrid shifted the discussion not only from the constitutional validity of the independence referendum, but to the suppression of fundamental rights of assembly and free speech of the Catalonian people.

Understanding the situation in Catalonia requires re-visiting the complicated history the two regions share. In the 12th century, Catalonia united with the Crown of Aragon, while maintaining its own parliament and traditional rights. 300 years after, Ferdinand I of Aragon married Queen Isabella of Castile, forging the beginnings of a tumultuous relationship. Over the next centuries, Catalonia and Spain continued to spar on political issues and views, struggling for dominance. As the 19th century dawns, Catalonia experienced a cultural renaissance and a burgeoning industrialization, which influenced the creation of ideas and an identity independent from Spain. However, when Spain became a republic in 1931, Catalonia gained autonomy under the Revolutionary Left. With the wave of fascism that swept over Europe in the early 1930s, and the onset of the Spanish civil war, Catalonia stayed loyal to the Republic. Once Francisco Franco’s forces overrun the Republic, Catalan rejoined Spain, this time suffering through much political suppression until Franco’s death; an event that restored Catalan autonomy albeit without complete independence from Spain.

Even though Catalonia has been a part of Spain for centuries, the two have distinct cultural differences. For one, Catalan is the language commonly spoken in Catalonia, except for Barcelona, where most people are bilingual between Spanish and Catalan. Though a Romance language as well, Catalan is not very similar to Spanish at all, and is in fact closer to Italian or French. The two regions have substantial differences in cuisine, since Catalonian food has French influences, and is influenced by their proximity to the ocean. Additionally, the two regions also differ in cultural perceptions, customs and traditions, holidays celebrated, and political leanings and ideologies.

Naturally, these differences influenced the development of a marked Catalonian identity. After the Spanish civil war, Franco imposed a policy of limpieza to cleanse Spain of all Republic influences. This meant he introduced bans on the Catalan language, their flag, their traditional holidays, and so on. He wished to impose a homogeneity on the population of Spain, which had no space for regional languages or symbols. The suppression of this identity under the dictatorial regime of Franco left a bitter taste for many Catalonians, still fresh in their collective memories. More importantly, it directly impacted the repeated resurfacing of the desire for independence by a substantial number of people.

While cultural reasons do play a significant part in the desire for separation, the economic dynamics between the two regions have also pushed many Catalonian towards wanting independence. Simply put, the feeling of getting the short end of the deal is quite prevalent in Catalonia. Indeed, a report by the Guardian highlights how substantial a role Catalonia plays in the Spanish economy: Catalonia’s GDP is €215.6 billion, contributing more than one-fifth of the total Spanish GDP, and their exports of €65.2 billion represent more than a quarter of the national total. When it comes to tourism—a major source of income for Spain—Catalonia again contributes substantially, attracting almost 25% of all foreign tourists that visit the country. Additionally, Catalonia also accounts for over a quarter of the new inward investment to Spain. The report further goes on to explain how Catalonia also fares better in terms of unemployment, with a rate of 13.2%--significantly lower than the national average, at 17.2%. The Catalan region has long been the industrial heartland of Spain, both as a maritime power due its strategic location by the sea, and for finance, services and high-tech companies.

It is clear that Catalonia contributes substantially to the economic health of Spain. But, as mentioned above, many Catalonians feel they do not get back as much as they give to Madrid. The BBC discusses how Spain’s 2008 economic crisis hit Catalonia hard, raising its unemployment rate to 19%, and while it is hard to reach a conclusive opinion, figures point to Catalonia paying €9.89 billion more in taxes than it received in spending.

A month after the referendum, the Catalan parliament has declared independence, while Madrid has imposed direct rule onto the region, so the capital can take over administration and remove the region’s leaders. Tensions have also come to a head due to the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s repeated refusal to negotiate with Catalonia. Recently, the leader of Catalonia’s bid for independence- Puigdemont- fled to Brussels after being sacked, and made a vague call for European action. However, the EU has kept a certain amount of distance from the situation even though they have all but declared their support behind Madrid—whether due to Spanish reluctance to allow them to, or the EU’s own reluctance to get too involved. While Brussels has made it clear that Puigdemont is neither here at “invitation or initiation of the Belgian government,” they have not extradited him to Spain as requested (The Guardian).

As a region that already enjoyed broad autonomy, it seems as though Catalonia will not accept anything less than status as a complete and independent nation. However, that may not be the only thing that would appeal to the Catalonians. A renegotiation which would allow for a different form of taxation, where more Catalonian money could be controlled by the Catalonians, or an official, binding referendum like that of Scotland and the U.K. in 2014, could also be means to avoid a complete split between the regions. Yet, with Madrid’s reluctance to negotiate with Catalonia until it abandons independence, and Catalan’s insistence on achieving said independence, such negotiations seem unlikely, at least until the next Spanish elections in 2020. Amidst the chaos created by these differing views and demands, the fate of the two regions seems quite unclear for the time being.