On Sept. 11, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Barcelona calling for Catalonia’s independence from Spain. Artur Mas, the Catalan prime minister, reacted by dissolving the regional Parliament and calling for elections on Nov. 25, which will likely strengthen his party’s position. Catalonia’s Parliament, which represents an autonomous region the size of Belgium in Spain’s northeast corner, has overwhelmingly supported holding a referendum on independence despite the Spanish Constitution’s ban on secession. So in addition to its economic woes, Spain now faces a deep constitutional crisis.
History can follow a capricious path, sometimes meandering slowly for decades only to accelerate abruptly and take a vertiginous turn. The immediate cause of Catalonia’s sudden outbreak of secessionist fever is so-called fiscal looting. The region accounts for about one-fourth of Spain’s exports. But for every euro Catalans pay in taxes, only 57 cents is spent in the region. Before taxes, Catalonia is the fourth richest of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions. After taxes, it drops to ninth — a form of forced redistribution unparalleled in contemporary Europe.
For a society suffering the acute pain of budget cuts and a deep recession, the burden of fiscal transfers, which cripple the Catalan economy’s ability to compete globally, is unacceptable. Unable to draw on its own tax base, the Catalan government recently went through the humiliation of being forced to ask Madrid for a bailout. Americans know well that an unfair taxation system can easily ignite calls for independence.
But money isn’t the only cause of secessionist sentiment. We Catalans have long been attached to our distinct identity and never accepted the loss of national sovereignty after being defeated by the Spanish monarchy in 1714. For three centuries, Catalonia has striven to regain its independence. Most attempts to establish a state were put down by force. The “Catalan question” was a major catalyst of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, and Gen. Francisco Franco’s dictatorship harshly repressed Catalan culture.
At the core of Catalonia’s unique identity is the Catalan language, which is distinct from Spanish. Since the re-establishment of Spain’s democracy in 1977 and Catalonia’s autonomy in 1979, Catalan has been revived in the region’s schools. However, a recent ruling by Spain’s Constitutional Court threatens this policy. To most Catalans, our language is a red line. If the current system of autonomy can’t guarantee protection of it, independence is the only solution.
The independence movement is not driven by hatred of Spain. Catalan nationalism is civic and cultural, unlike the ethnic nationalism that has so often plagued Europe. Indeed, most of the two million Spaniards who migrated to Catalonia in the 1960s and ’70s are today fully integrated and many of them have embraced secessionist ideals.
The growth of the secessionist movement is also a reaction to a renewed wave of Spanish nationalism. When Catalonia passed a more far-reaching autonomy law in 2006, some political parties and media outlets unleashed a fierce anti-Catalan campaign that included a boycott of Catalan products. This campaign caused an emotional rift, and many Catalans concluded that only independence would protect them. Once mutual trust was lost, other possible solutions, like a federal state, lost their appeal. The fact that the Spanish government is now seeking to curb the powers of autonomous regions by blaming them for the economic crisis doesn’t help.
Opponents of secession often argue that Catalan independence doesn’t make sense in a globalized world where state sovereignty is progressively being eroded. However, the opposite is true: it has never made more sense — at least for small European nations. Europe’s common market and its increasing move toward greater political union enhances the viability of small countries. Small states are more competitive and tend to react faster to global economic challenges. Catalonia has a population of just over 7.5 million. Twelve current European Union members, including Ireland and Denmark, have smaller populations.
Although secession sounds drastic, it doesn’t need to be. The European Union’s internal borders are already blurred and its citizens cross them in order to travel, work and emigrate without visas. Spaniards and Catalans would continue to be members of a community of nations, and the most important economic and cultural links would be preserved.
Unfortunately, the Catalan demands for self-determination have so far been met with threats and contempt by the Spanish government. This attitude differs starkly from that of the British prime minister, David Cameron, who has been negotiating with Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, over a scheduled 2014 referendum on Scottish secession from the United Kingdom.
Spain’s Constitution may not permit regions to secede, but the principles of democracy and justice necessitate finding a political solution to Catalonia’s demands. In a world where deep-seated national grievances often lead to violence, Catalans offer the example that peaceful change is possible. Denying Catalans the right to self-determination would be an affront to the democratic ideals that Spain, and Europe, claim to embrace.