The upcoming Catalan regional election on 21st December will be of great significance not only for Spain but the whole of Europe. Its result will determine the course Catalonia will follow in its relationship with the Spanish state for the years to come, and the prospects are not bright. Should pro-independence parties secure a majority in the regional parliament – as recent polls suggest –, Catalonia will be pushed further to the direction of departing Spain. If pro-unity parties get to form a government in Barcelona, the shadow of uncertainty and conflicts over the region’s status will continue to surround the its politics and relations with Madrid.
With a population of over 7 million, a separate language and a difficult history vis-à-vis the central Spanish state, Catalonia has more inhabitants than 12 – out of the 28 – current EU member states, and generates higher market value than 16 EU members. Its secession from Spain would therefore considerably weaken the central state, and at the same time present Europe with an additional political and economic actor of roughly the importance of Finland or Denmark.
Moreover, following the Scotland independence vote of 2014, Catalonia’s controversial independence referendum of early October is yet another example for the contestation of the legitimacy of existing (nation) states in Europe. Many other European regions with secessionist movements, including Scotland and Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, Flanders in Belgium, the Faroe Islands of Denmark, Corsica of France, or the South Tyrol region and Sardinia of Italy, follow the developments in Catalonia with great interest and care. And so do the states that incorporate them, while hoping to avoid a Catalan precedent that may catalyse events at home.
Meanwhile, the European Commission and the Council continue to distance themselves from the developments concerning the possible separation of Catalonia, regarding these as internal affairs of Spain, and acknowledging no authority for the EU to intervene in any way.
In light of the upcoming regional election on 21 December – forced by Madrid –, we asked Professor John London, Director of the Centre for Catalan Studies at Queen Mary University of London, to comment on a few pressing questions concerning the issue of Catalan independence.
Q: What are the core cultural and historical aspects underlying pro-independence sentiments in Catalonia?
A: Besides the medieval political identity, the economic case appears to be clear. If Catalonia is a net contributor to the Spanish economy, why can it not be an independent country?The Catalan language is important in this context, not just because it draws on a long literary and oral tradition, but also because of the educational programmes to integrate immigrants into the region by teaching them Catalan. The latest polls show that 80% of those in Catalonia want a legal referendum on independence to decide their status once and for all. Now, there is a widespread opinion in Catalonia that Madrid is against such a move, not because of a possible majority vote for a Catalan state, but because the national government is ‘scared’ of acknowledging even 40% of support for independence (in a quasi-Scottish scenario). That is one of the reasons why the regional elections called by Madrid for 21 December will not be the end of this crisis.
Q: There seems to be an increased momentum for nationalism and separatism all over Europe. Are there any similarities between Catalonia and other affected territories across the continent?
A: Catalonia has its own tradition of independence just as many other European regions do, going back to the Middle Ages (with various manifestations of the Mallorcan kingdoms being relevant in this context as well). Although much of the rhetoric being used by Catalan independentists refers to the Franco dictatorship (which ended in 1975), it makes little sense to compare Catalonia with countries once under Soviet control, for example. Although granted short periods of increasing autonomy (such as the Second Republic, 1931-36), Catalonia has been ruled from Madrid most definitively since at least 1714. The Catalan case is as much about economic independence as about cultural and political identity.
Q: Is it a viable idea to establish a new nation state in the context of European integration as well as the process of globalisation? It is widely argued that (small) states are becoming increasingly less efficient to address 21st century challenges.
A: The contested idea that bigger political units can provide effective solutions to global problems is a wider issue and the Catalan case does not contribute significantly to it. A Catalan national government in waiting has shown that it is ready to engage in international discussions and come to agreements the way any other country does.
Q: Some believe that the expansion of nationalist and separatist movements might lead to the end of a united Europe, while others see such developments to induce the development of a transformed and more ‘just’ EU. Where does the Catalan case fit in this context?
A: Although Catalans hope that they will benefit from the notion of a 'Europe of regions', it is difficult to see how this will come about since Spain can block Catalan independent membership of the EU through veto. Moreover, the current EU has proved distinctly unsupportive of an independent Catalonia. Some more alarmist independentist voices even compare the current situation with what happened in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) when the lack of foreign intervention by liberal democracies effectively assisted a Francoist victory.
Research Assistant & PhD Candidate (CER / SPIR QMUL)
Photo credit: homaris