Let the People Decide: The Case for Catalan Independence
By Cameron Hall
In many ways, Catalonia is the nation that refuses to die. Despite the formation of the Kingdom of Spain in 1516, Catalan culture and identity has endured nearly 550 years of Spanish domination. It survived ruthless oppression under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. In modern times, the region of Catalonia, located in northeastern Spain, has become notorious for its fervent independence movement. The issue of Catalan independence most recently made the news Feb. 6, when demonstrations erupted in Barcelona protesting the trial of former Catalan president Artur Mas. Mas was on trial for holding an unsanctioned independence referendum in 2014, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Although Spain consistently ignores the wishes and needs of the people of Catalonia, there is a strong case for Catalan independence.
As anyone who has visited Catalonia or its capital Barcelona can attest, the region has its own distinct identity. When I visited the city this past summer, I observed Catalan flags on every block and a notable absence of Spanish ones. Signs across the city were written in Catalan first with Spanish below, and on a number of license plates the “E,” indicating a Spanish plate, was covered with a “CAT” sticker for Catalonia. The architecture and food were distinctly more Mediterranean than elsewhere in Spain, and the Catalan language seemed to contain just as many French influences as Spanish ones. Many argue that a distinct culture is not reason enough for a region to secede, and this is valid. However, Spain also takes advantage of Catalonia’s economy by redistributing it to other parts of the country. In addition to the region’s unique culture, this economic exploitation and Spain’s refusal to engage in dialogue with Catalonia justify secession.
The economic exploitation of Catalonia is one of the foremost reasons why the region’s pro-independence sentiments are justified. Catalonia is, compared with the rest of Spain, an economically prosperous region. According to information from CNBC, Catalonia accounts for 20 percent of Spain’s GDP, 25 percent of all Spanish exports, and 23 percent of all Spanish industry, despite only containing 16 percent of Spain’s population. According to the European Commission, the region’s GDP per capita is higher than that of both Spain and the European Union (EU) as a whole. However, a report from the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia (DIPLOCAT) notes that the region’s fiscal deficit, that is the difference between the amount of revenue they hand over to the government of Spain and the amount of money that they receive back through spending and investment, amounts to 8 percent of its GDP annually. One Catalan quoted in Kathryn Crameri’s book 'Goodbye, Spain?': The Question of Independence for Catalonia, quips that “[Catalans] pay Scandinavian taxes and receive Latin American infrastructure.” The region’s fiscal deficit demonstrates that Spain essentially uses Catalan resources to keep the rest of the country afloat, meaning that Catalonia never sees the benefits of its thriving economy.
Spain also refuses to respect Catalonia’s regional autonomy. As Crameri notes, an effort to free Catalonia from providing financial support to other regions of Spain not making “a similar fiscal effort,” was struck down by the Spanish High Court of Justice, Spain’s equivalent of America’s Supreme Court, in 2010. Several other measures in Catalonia’s Second Statute of Autonomy, which outlined rights of the region derived from its autonomy, were also struck down. Catalans comprise only 16 percent of the nation’s population. It is therefore impossible to elect a national government that allows Catalonia to reap the benefits of their economic prosperity as representatives from other parts of Spain would never vote to give up their funding provided by Catalan industry and exports. This amounts to tyranny of the majority, in which the rest of Spain uses its strength in numbers to exploit Catalonia for its own benefit. Catalans’ money is being taken from them unwillingly, a fact which according to The Guardian led to the flare-up of independence protests in 2012. Since efforts to stop exploitation have failed, independence is justified to ensure that Catalans see the fruits of their labor.
The Spanish government’s refusal to allow a referendum on Catalan independence demonstrates that they do not respect democracy and the right of Catalans to decide their own fate. As Catalan foreign affairs minister Raül Romeva, quoted in an article from The Guardian, stated,
“we have always said that we would have preferred a Scottish-type scenario, where we could negotiate with the state and hold a coordinated and democratic referendum. We keep talking to Madrid, but all we get back from them is an echo.”
However, at the same time, the Spanish government does not address the concerns of the Catalan people. By denying an independence referendum, Spain demonstrates that it is not concerned with the wishes of Catalans, lending credence to their accusations that Spain rejects their grievances.
Past government-sanctioned referendums in Scotland and Quebec, regions which also have long histories of independence movements, have shown that the governments of the United Kingdom and Canada, respectively, recognize the importance of democracy. This provides a stark contrast to the situation in Spain, which is also a democratic country, and thus has a duty to respect the wishes of its citizens. As Romeva notes, Spain claims Catalan secession to be illegal but “legality is an instrument; it needs to adapt to reality and to democratic will, and not the other way round.”
Furthermore, should the people vote to succeed, Catalonia’s plan for independence disrupts the status quo as little as possible. The Catalan government maintains that in the event of independence they would pursue a close partnership with both Spain and the EU. Romeva states that it would be economically suicidal for an independent Catalonia to be hostile to Spain or seek to leave the European Union. The region also wishes to maintain its cultural and historical ties to Spain. Independence is a way for Catalans to assume control of their own affairs, not an attempt to abandon existing relationships. Given Spain’s refusal to allow a referendum or respect the wishes and needs of Catalans, independence is justified if it is what the Catalan people want. According to the BBC, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has promised a legally binding independence referendum by the end of 2017, and if the people vote in favor of independence, both Spain and the international community should respect this decision.