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Catalonia is a region, in the north-east of Spain. A part of the 17 autonomous regions of Spain. However, Catalonia is unique since it has even greater autonomy as compared to the other 16 autonomous communities. The Spanish government gave Catalonia greater autonomy to eliminate, the element of separatism in the region. Since, the struggle for Catalonia’s independence has been haunting the Spanish establishment for more than 300 years.
Although, in 2003 the sate of Spain successfully suppressed the ambitious independence movement by granting greater autonomy. Which had a massive impact on the Catalan people. Firstly, achieving such great autonomy satisfied them. Secondly, being part of Spain, which is a European Union (EU) member state. Hence, also gaining the benefits of being a part of the union. However, when the 2008 financial crisis struck the world along with Spain. It reversed the whole positive impact which the Spanish government had established among the Catalans. The crisis changed Spain as the country was never the same like before.
The 2008 financial crisis hit the Spanish economy so hard, resulting the economy into a sudden recession. The impact of the 2008 financial crisis was so quick and unpredictable. The Spanish establishment, in Madrid was left clueless. As they were unable to construct a proper plan to rescue their economy from further downfall. Therefore, they turned towards the richest region in the country, Catalonia. The Spanish government forced the regional Catalan government to follow their economic policies. As a result of this the Catalan economy also got drained into recession as well, a huge amount of Catalan tax payers money was used to stabilize other Spanish regions. Along with a number of big and small businesses were transferred from Barcelona (Catalonia’s capital) to other regions of Spain (mainly Madrid).
In 2010, the Catalans lost their patience as massive anti government protests were held throughout Barcelona. Also reviving the once suppressed aspirations of an independent Catalan state. An alliance of regional political parties held an independence referendum on 9 November 2014. Despite the constitutional court decision to suspend the process. The referendum had two questions. Firstly related to Catalonia becoming a state and if yes, then secondly related to of that state becoming independent. The result was a 81% yes – yes vote. However, the turnout was low only 42%. Moreover, in 2015 regional elections of Catalonia. The pro Independence coalition, Together For Yes won by 62 seats. However, this was not enough to achieve the majority. Since they had to form a coalition, which they did with the Popular Unit Candidacy (CUP). As they formed a minority government.
A victory for independence vote in a symbolic referendum in 2014, a pro independence government in Barcelona and an unhappy Catalan public, due to Madrid’s interference in their economic policies. Are the perfect ingredients which can strip off Catalonia from Spain. The recent announcement by Catalonia’s president, Carles Puigdemont, to conduct a decisive independence referendum on 1st of October this year. Is likely to be the final nail in the coffin. However, the independence referendum is not as simple as you think. To better understand this we need to take account the historical background, the Spanish view and the Catalan view.
The Historical Background
The Catalan culture and history dates back even before the existence of the Spanish identity. The crown of Castile ruled Spain largely, In the late 15th century. Catalonia was part of the crown of Aragon. They were united by marriage, which formed the kingdom of Spain.
During 1640 to 1652 the Catalans revolted against the Spanish crown . Known as the Reaper’s Wars. In the Spanish war of succession (1702 – 1715), the Catalans sided with the house of Habsburg, who lost the war to the House of Bourbon (who are monarchs of Spain till today.) which resulted in the abolition of Catalan institutes.
However, the beginnings of separatism in Catalonia can be traced back to mid – 19th century. The Renaixença movement, was a cultural movement which firstly started or developed the Catalan nationalism.
After the Spanish civil war, the Franco regime brutally attacked the Catalan identity. He banned the language and prohibited any sort of expression or act which was associated with the Catalan culture. However, after Franco’s death in 1975 and Spanish transition to democracy in 1981. Catalonia was converted into one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions. As Catalonia, later gained greater autonomy by having its own parliament and president.
The Spanish View
The Spanish establishment in Madrid firmly rejects an idea of an independent state of Catalonia by the means of a referendum. According to them this is illegal and against the Spanish constitution. According to article 155 of Spain’s constitution, Madrid could stop independence vote of regional government on two major points. Firstly, if the referendum does not comply with the constitution law. Secondly, if it acts against Spain’s interest.
They also argue that the last referendum, which was held in 2014 was not won by the majority. Since the turnout was only 42%, which means more than half of the population did not participate in the referendum vote. Along with this they criticize the regional Catalan government, since they are as a minority government. Modern day Catalonia does not only consists of Catalans living in the region. It is now ethnically diverse, 36% use Catalan as their primary language and in Barcelona the capital of Catalonia only 2% speak Catalan. So due to these factors the Spanish establishment argues that the minority government in Catalonia does not have enough mandate to hold an independence referendum and if they will a victory in the referendum for pro independence forces, will be a decision forced upon the non Catalans in the region.
Perhaps the biggest concern for the Spanish is the economic one. The Catalans represents 16% of the Spanish population. Catalan’s economy represents 20% of the whole Spanish economy and also 25% of the total Spanish exports. Spain, a country which has a debt of 99.4% of its GDP. Loosing its most richest region, with a significant amount of labor force and an active financial hub. Can bring a massive scale of destruction to the Spanish economy, which can also trigger independence movements in other Spanish regions as well.
The Catalan View
As we have discussed earlier in the historical backgrounds. Catalonia has its own culture, distinct identity and language. In the historical perspective, many nationalist Catalans believe that they were a sovereign nation. Who were invaded and occupied by the Spanish military. According to them till today their sovereignty has not given back.
Catalonia has a population of around 7.5 million people. Their territory represents 6% of Spanish land. In 2012 the autonomous region generated $255 billion GDP. They have an impressive €27,000 ($30,000) GDP per capita. Barcelona is a massive trading hub for the European Union. The Industrial sector is primarily based on food and beverages, chemical production, bio pharmaceuticals and medical technology. Along with Barcelona is an important tourist destination.
Such indicators show Catalonia’s economy in a healthy state and can afford to become an independent country, if you look through the economical point of view. They believe economically they don’t need Spain for survival but instead Spain needs Catalonia to survive.
From the political point of view. Two major political parties have dominated Spain, since its transition to democracy. The center right Peoples Party and the center left Socialist Workers Party. However, despite dominating much of Spain, both parties have never even received half of the population vote in Catalonia. As regional political parties dominate Catalonia’s politics. Because of this the regional Catalan political parties always feel under represented in Madrid.
As for the Spanish constitution, many Catalans believe that it is a controversial constitution. Since during its creation, it was created under politicians who were mostly Franco’s companions. This is why, they consider the Spanish constitution having Franco’s traits.
To be honest, if you neutrally look at the whole issue. The Spanish government has made a mess. First of all, during the 2008 financial crisis they failed to create a constructive plan for economic recovery. They hurt the Catalan autonomy, by forcing economic policies from Madrid. The most disgraceful part is that during this time of development of a pro independence movement in Catalonia, since 2008. The major political parties were in a political tug of war. Even leading to snap elections in between, neglecting the developing situation in Catalonia.
If you listen to the Catalans, they have reasonable points to become independent. Especially if you take look on the situation economically. The Catalan economy is thriving and its growth rate is even higher now than the Spanish economy. For example, if you compare the unemployment rate in 2015. Spain had an unemployment rate of 23.67%, whereas Catalonia had 19.1%.
However, according to the law and constitution the Spanish have a strong justification to keep Catalonia in Spain. The Major problem with Catalonia is that even if they become independent they don’t have a military. Spain’s military is not one of the most powerful in the world, but has enough strength to invade or occupy Catalonia, if it becomes independent.
In reality the spirits are high like never before in Barcelona and the administration is tense like never before in Madrid. In my opinion, I think that the referendum will take place, ignoring any decision or retaliation from Madrid and pro independence forces will win. However, Madrid will also ignore Barcelona’s actions and here comes the critical point. Spain just can not let go its richest region during a time in which Spain’s economy is struggling and trying to recover. So most probably if the pro independence forces win, Madrid is likely to use military to stop them. Where as Barcelona is likely to resist Madrid in such a situation.
The European Union told Catalonia to respect the Spanish constitution, as they relate this situation to the populist movements which led to Brexit and Donald Trump’s electoral victory in the United States. The American mainstream media are also siding with the Spanish on this issue. However, the biggest miscalculation they are making is that, unlike Brexit or Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential elections which were driven by right-wing populist movements. The pro independence forces in Catalonia are a part of a left-wing populist movement.
So whether Catalonia will become independent peacefully or by a bloody revolution through a civil war. Spain has missed the Catalan train and it is a matter of time by peaceful means or by a bloody struggle the birth of the Republic of Catalonia is inevitable