On October 14th 2019, nine of the 12 separatist leaders of Catalonia stood trial for their roles on the referendum of 2017- declared illegal by Madrid- receiving prison sentences from 9 to 13 years. The crimes that they were trialed on included sedition, misuse of public funding and civil “disobedience”. Almost immediately after the verdict was made public, protests sparked in Barcelona and later on, across the entire region. On October 19th 2019, more than 500,000 people attended the pro-independence peaceful rallies that quickly became violent. The feeling of resentment by some Catalans towards Madrid is nothing new and thus, their reaction comes with no surprise.
Indeed, the richest region of Spain has always had a turbulent past with the Spanish capital’s centralism. With the Spanish Civil War, which ended in 1936 with the victory of the Nationalists over Republicans (mainly supported by Catalans) led by Francisco Franco, the region lost its autonomy, and its culture was heavily repressed by the central government: the public use of Catalan was prohibited, only allowed to be publicly and freely spoken in the Stadium of Barcelona, and, later, at the very well-known Camp Nou, FC Barcelona’s stadium and symbol of the independentist movement. Thus, there’s a historical resentment that arises every time the central government interferes some bit on regional matters. Also, the 2008 economic crisis contributed to the bitterness towards Madrid, as Catalans felt they had given more to the central government than what they had gotten back from it. In 2017, the region represented 20 percent of Spain’s total GDP.
The increasing discontempt in the region culminated on September 6th 2017 when Carles Puigdemont, President of Catalonia, announced to the government of Catalonia that a referendum would be held on the 1st of October 2017, questioning its citizens if they wanted Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic. Unlike the 2014 referendum (which was merely informative), this one would be binding and it would be done with or without the approval of the central government. This sparked tensions between Madrid and the autonomous region, with the former declaring it illegal and denouncing the lack of democratic guarantees. Nevertheless, the referendum was held, amidst Spanish efforts to stop the voting. 90% of people who voted chose independence, even though only 43% of eligible voters actually participated. As a consequence, the central government triggered Article 155, dissolving the autonomy of the region.
An Independent Catalonia?
What would an independent Catalonia mean? To Spain, this situation would imply the loss of its most prosperous, innovative region. Regarding Catalonia, even though the region has almost complete autonomy (in economic, fiscal, social and cultural terms), the path to independence would have a major impact on many levels: firstly, its relationship with the European Union; the institution has been an important supporter of Spain’s monitoring of the situation and has declared that if Catalonia became independent, it would be automatically out. If it wanted to be part of it, it would have to join through the normal lengthy process, which could take years. Consequently, it would be out of the Europe Group and could not enjoy the backing of the ECB. Thus, the economic consequences of leaving the European Union are undeniable: with closed borders, tourism could be affected, as free movement would be constrained and demand for tourist activities could shift to other places; shipping costs would increase as well as the possibilities of tariffs, if no trade deal was struck. Jobs would, therefore, be affected. Also, foreign and internal investment would decrease, as companies would re-allocate their headquarters to more stable places. Indeed, over 2000 companies have already moved their fiscal quarters to other parts of Spain, due to the instability in the region. Thus, economically speaking, it seems that the negative effects of independence outweigh the positive ones.
Catalonia and the EU
Nevertheless, independently of the negative economic impact of leaving the EU, how do Catalonians actually feel about the institution? The support (or the lack of it) from the EU has been crucial in politically dividing separatists and unionists. The EU has actively supported Madrid and legitimized its action, which many consider “undemocratic” (as the exercise of voting was denied by the Spanish central government). On the separatist side, many have called for European mediation and action to protect fundamental rights (freedom of speech, the right to vote, which the separatist faction considers that it was not respected), which was denied by the EU. The fact that the EU has supported the Spanish central government and didn’t attend the separatist demands reflects on the trust towards the institution. Knowing this, trust in the EU has risen to those who consider that Catalonia should be a region of Spain (with no autonomy) and those who defend the current situation (as an autonomous region). On the other hand, trust in the European institution has been steeply decreasing to those who think that Catalonia should be an independent state or should be a state within Spain. Thus, as the desire for autonomy increases, so does the mistrust towards the EU and the greater is the breach between unionists and separatists. This difference was particularly sharp in 2017, especially after the referendum on October 1st. The (in)action of the EU and the Spanish authorities aggravated even more the already existent fracture in Spanish society.
Also, before 2017, Catalan regionalism and “nationalism” was very pro-Europe, unlike other nationalist movements. For instance, Catalan participation in the European elections was 13 pp above the European average. However, after 2017, the relationship with Europe has bittered. As shown by the increasing of eurosceptic electorate by the party, PDeCAT (Catalan European Democratic Party), the most pro-Europe party in the region in 2016 became the third most eurosceptic, in 2017, also, newly elected Catalan Members of the European Parliament Carles Puigdemont and former minister Toni Comín were among those whose access to the EP was denied after the 2019 European elections. With this, Catalonians felt attacked by the EU, as the MEPs chosen by 1.7 million citizens to represent them were denied accessibility to exercise their democratic rights. Naturally, this situation changed the feelings of attachment to the EU, varying among territorial preferences. Due to the events of 2017, independentists and people who identified themselves as only Catalan have naturally grown resentment towards the EU, while unionists and people who identify as only Spanish have increased their European support. Thus, the region’s relationship towards the EU has definitely depreciated.
Besides having consequences within its own borders, Catalonia’s pro-independence movement could also have repercussions outside. This could strengthen other separatist movements, such as in Lombardy and Venice (in Italy), Flanders (in Belgium), Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales (UK) or the Basque country (Spain, again). This would divide Europe even more (as the unity and cohesion of the continent is constantly being threatened over the last few years, with the growth of right-wing nationalist parties and most recently, with Brexit). For instance, in Flanders, the New Flemish Alliance, a nationalist, conservative party which has a relevant representation in parliament has been striving for a gradual and peaceful secession of the region from Belgium. It has been reported that the party even hung a Catalonia flag to support its pro-independence cause. In Lombardy and Venice, there’s more of an autonomy issue, as the northern regions of Italy feel that their taxpayer money is being used to support the poorer south rather than investing in the regions. In 2014, a non-binding referendum was held in Venice, with 89% of voters voting for independence. In the case of Scotland, the country also held a binding referendum in 2014, with separatists losing, having 45% of total votes. Nevertheless, with Brexit and the will of Scotland to remain in the European Union, the independence issue is constantly arising. Thus, pro-independence movements are still alive and the example of Catalonia can have a propeller effect and expand to other regions that have the same sentiment.
Generally speaking, the EU has been regarding secessionist movements as a domestic issue, meaning that these matters are out of the EU’s competences scope. If a region wants to emancipate as independent and wishes to remain in the EU, it must take all the steps, which can be a lingering, lengthy and costly process, to both parties. However, nowadays, this impartiality has to be questioned. With the rise of right-wing nationalism and populism (started with the refugee crisis of 2015) and Brexit, the very own existence of the Union is threatened, as Europe is more and more divided. Thus, an independence movement would only imply, in the short-run, a greater division and a fall-out of the ideal of a united Europe . This helps explain why the EU has been a strong supporter of Madrid and “closed its eyes” to some questionable methods used by the central government. It may explain why it didn’t let Catalonia MEPs enter the European Parliament, even though it assumed itself as “impartial” regarding the whole matter. Thus, when the unity of the EU is at stake, any domestic matter becomes a European one.
As for now, protests continue in Catalonia, whether in the form of rallies at the Plaça de la Universitat or by blocking the Spain-France highway. Scots, Venetians, Flemish and all other pro-independence regions watch carefully how the Catalonian story unfolds. Nationalist societies, such as Poland, Hungarians and Russians also observe attentively the whole situation. The rise of identity politics, on both sides of the political spectrum, is a reality that the European Union cannot ignore anymore.