Catalan independence: what you need to know

And what comes next

Brandon Boylan

Government and governance, International relations | The World

6 October 2017

Catalonia’s recent independence referendum has intensified the crisis in Spain, and the country’s response has only strengthened the region’s resolve to separate. Brandon Boylan looks at how they got there, and what comes next.

On Sunday, 1 October, Catalans went to the polls for a referendum and overwhelmingly voted to separate from Spain. Catalonia’s leaders will probably proclaim the region’s independence in a matter of days. The Spanish government has declared the referendum illegal and pledged to maintain the territorial integrity of the state. As the two sides become more intransigent in their positions, the prospect for compromise dwindles. The story is not new: minority separatism is at the crux of respecting state sovereignty on the one hand and honouring people’s right to self-determination on the other.

Catalonia’s recent bid for independence diverges from the agenda of its historical nationalist movement. For centuries, the region has celebrated a vibrant nationalism – but one that has centred on protecting and promoting Catalan language, culture, and tradition rather than fighting for sovereignty.

It had been regionalist and then autonomist, but independence had never been a dominant feature. Catalans had been satisfied living with distinction in a unified Spain. This held true even during a time Catalans should have wanted out of the country the most – during Francisco Franco’s reign (1939-1975). The military dictator championed Spanish nationalism and quelled, often violently, expressions of nationalism from the peripheries – namely Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Galicia.

It has only been in the past decade that Catalonia has wanted outright independence. Polling indicates that Catalan support for separatism had been under 20 per cent in the 2000s, rising precipitously from 2010 onwards. Of the 43 per cent of Catalans who headed to the polls on Sunday, 90 per cent voted to separate.

The development of the independence objective in recent years is rooted in inter- and intra-communal politics. Catalonia desires to rectify fiscal grievances with the national government within a context of cultural and identity difference. Its frustrations with carrying the economic burden in Spain coalesce with well-entrenched feelings of ethnic distinctiveness.

Since Spain’s transition to democracy and the Catalan government’s reinstatement in the late 1970s, the region’s moderate Convergència i Unió (CiU, or Convergence and Union) alliance has usually dominated elections. In recent years, however, CiU has collapsed owing to the independence question, and its primary constituent party has allied with the main independence-seeking party, which has been growing in popularity, to maintain its control. These factors make for a particularly obdurate stance.

Neither Spain nor Catalonia has good options to derail the collision course. Spain must keep Catalonia for fear of new provocations for independence in other nationalist communities – primarily the Basque Country and Galicia.

For fifty years, the violent Basque nationalist organisation Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA, or Basque Fatherland and Freedom) fought for an independent Basque country. Basque violence has waned in recent years, and the fear is an independent Catalonia might reignite old passions and even violence in the Basque homeland. Basque cries of hypocrisy would be immutable. The ethnic, linguistic, and historical dimensions of Basque nationalism make the region particularly prone to restlessness, but the danger of Spain’s system of devolving power to autonomous communities means any region, regardless of its degree of distinctiveness from Spanishness, could demand more autonomy to the point at which it favours independence.

A complicating force is that Catalonia is the economic powerhouse of the country and if the region separates, Spain loses roughly 20 per cent of its economy.

Meanwhile, Catalonia’s road to independence will be rocky. Given their aggressive rhetoric and the clear mandate from their constituents, Catalan leaders are not likely to back away from their current positions.

Most immediately, the police violence that erupted in the wake of the referendum, and any future independence declaration, will likely perpetuate if not intensify protests. Moreover, Catalonia wants to join the European Union (EU), but the likelihood of doing so is low. Even if the region managed to receive recognition for its claim to statehood from a critical mass of the international community, it would not receive the required unanimous endorsement to join the EU from all current Member States. Entry into the EU would be rejected by Spain but also by other countries with their own minority nationalist movements.

Catalonia’s survival outside the EU framework would be difficult but possible. In light of the Brexit vote, the United Kingdom is working to establish a trade agreement with the EU and actively searching for new trade deals with countries around the globe to have in place when it officially sheds EU membership. Although the EU will be hesitant to trade with a quasi-independent Catalonia, the region might find some receptive partners outside Europe. To its advantage, Catalonia has strong economic and political institutions on which to state-build in the event of independence.

Given the unyielding yet rational positions of each side, the conflict is likely to be protracted. Spain could offer a carrot or stick, but neither’s success is certain. It could make economic concessions, but it might very well be too late. It could escalate force, but doing so will only make the Catalan position more intractable and be wildly unpopular in Europe.

The most probable scenario for the indefinite future is that Catalonia remains in legal limbo, much like Kosovo has since its declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008. Spain cannot let go of Catalonia, and Catalonia now cannot be a part of Spain, signalling that the status of Catalonia will head into political ambiguity for some time to come.

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