Author: Stephen Nemeth
Recent Catalan elections held Sept. 27 resulted in a surprising victory for secessionist parties. Obtaining 72 seats, a majority in the 135 seat regional parliament, secessionist coalition Junts pel Si (JxSi, or “Together for Yes”) and the leftist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) party now have the numbers to push for independence from Spain.
This victory is substantial in European politics, showing that even countries in industrialized Western Europe are not completely homogenous. Should the regional government become successful in its goal of seceding within 18 months, or at all, the new government’s behavior and timeframe for assembling could likely serve as the best example for other European states’ independence movements.
Just a year ago, Catalans were watching intently as Scotland voted on its independence referendum. Today, the tables have turned. The actions of the Catalans in the coming year and a half could pave the way for other independence movements in Europe, especially for Scotland. How the Catalan government negotiates with the national government, establishes national governing structures of their own and ultimately achieves independence within the framework of an increasingly constricting European Union (EU) will set a precedent for other secession movements supporters to break away.
In recent years, more Catalans have argued that the Spanish government does not respect Catalonia, specifically its language and culture, despite the region being the second largest in Spain and the country’s richest, accounting for 19 percent of the national GDP. With the Spanish government’s continued staunch opposition to Catalan independence, this places Catalonia in a strong position to negotiate its share of the national debt.
The Spanish government could work on a secession agreement with Catalonia, in which both sides assume part of the national debt, or Catalonia could secede without taking responsibility for any of that debt. For Spain, which has a debt as large as its annual GDP, and only affords Catalonia, one of it’s largest economic regions, with 10 percent of national government investments, it is a risky bet. It is a tough game to play on both sides of the board, but one that favors the Catalonians.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has said that he will discuss issues of decentralization with the Catalan government, but not the topic of independence. Should the Catalan government tread carefully and maintain a face of levelheadedness and calm, they could garner intranational, and potentially international, support for their cause.
Catalan President Artur Mas, a leader of Junts pel Si, said months before the Sept. 27 elections that while Catalonia is still a part of the national government, governing institutions need to be established in case the public votes in favor of independence. This was an intelligent move on his part to garner support among the citizens in Catalonia. But additionally, it suggests a level of preparation that has not been considered in other independence movements that currently exist.
The issue that looms over the Catalonian independence movement most visibly, however, is a Spanish veto of any Catalan bid for EU membership post-separation. In this respect, Rajoy presents the most pressing threat against Catalan independence.
But the Catalan economy is doing well, and the Spanish economy is not. The politics of the EU and the euro are dragging Spain down, and Catalonia, backed by their distinct historical identity, seems to have the upper hand in this case. They may even be better off without the EU should they manage their trade agreements well before the split. Although Rajoy may not be happy with the idea of a separation, he does not seem to have much leverage. Independence movements need an example like this one; hopefully, a successful one.
The Catalan government controls a relatively large region with a relatively well-off economy. A smooth exit from the Spanish nation could inspire other independence movements to be more bold: after all, the same happened in Catalonia when the Scottish were considering independence last year.
Stephen Nemeth is a junior history and politics major. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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