Monday

17th Feb 2020

Opinion

Madrid, Barcelona and the war of Spanish secession

  • "Barcelona and Madrid need to engage in constructive dialogue" (Photo: Helena Spongenberg)

On the day Germans will be celebrating reunification, Spaniards will be focused on whether their country is about to fall apart.

On Sunday, 9 November, Catalonia, Spain’s most prosperous region, will vote in a non-binding consultative referendum on whether to secede from the rest of the country.

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Even though Artur Mas, president of the Catalan government in Barcelona, had promised a fully-fledged referendum, his plans were thwarted when the Spanish constitutional court ruled last September that such a vote would be illegal.

Undeterred, and under pressure from pro-independence Catalans, Mas will hold a vote this weekend asking the same question he had intended to ask in the actual referendum: ‘Do you want Catalonia to be a State? If so, do you want Catalonia to be an independent State?’

There are strong indications that the result of the vote will be a resounding ‘Yes’. This spells further trouble for the central government in Madrid headed by center-right Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and will inevitably lead to a worsening of relations between Madrid and Barcelona ahead of next year’s national elections.

Although the vote is non-binding and merely consultative, it does nothing to solve the problem of how to deal with the Catalonia’s claim to statehood. Indeed, it is likely to inflame it. What is clear is that the central government in Madrid will not allow Catalonia to hold an independence vote arguing that this can only be granted by the Spanish parliament in accordance with the constitution. The Constitutional Court agrees.

Yet, outside the realm of the legal, the problem is unlikely to go away and notwithstanding the consultative nature of the vote this weekend, Barcelona and Madrid need to engage in constructive dialogue. We argue that the divorce scenario is a non-starter – no government in Madrid is likely to allow a vote to take place; the impact of Catalonia’s exit from Spain would be too great.

An alternative

What is the alternative? Should Catalans focus their energies more towards securing a version of devolution-max? Two questions need addressing. What is this independence claim based on and what are the likely scenarios that might emerge in the near future short of statehood?

Catalonia’s claim to independence has intensified dramatically since the start of the financial crisis in the late 2000s. As the most industrial and prosperous part of Spain, Catalans have felt increasingly frustrated at having to share their regional wealth with the rest of the country, hit hard by the collapse of its property market and the resultant sharp rise in unemployment to over 25 percent of the Spanish population.

However, the demand for statehood is not confined solely to issues of wealth distribution. Catalan culture and language stretch back to the Middle Ages, and have fostered the creation of a strong Catalan national identity that is highly politicized. Further answers lie in the history of Spain during the twentieth century when the Franco regime adopted a brutal crackdown of both the Catalan language and its culture. Today, Catalan is a semi-official language but not an official European one. This is something Catalonia would like to change.

Catalonia is one of seventeen autonomous communities in Spain, governed according to the country’s 1978 constitution and laws generated by the Statutes of Autonomy; devolution powers vary between these communities but each has the same parliamentary structure. Catalonia has control over education, social security and health services and partial control over police.

Yet, there are a number of policy areas where Madrid could devolve more power and by doing so, possibly see of the threat of independence. The fiscal question, for example, has raised the political temperature over the last five years. Barcelona has become far more vocal on the issue of financial autonomy especially since the country’s economy began to flounder in 2007, which also plunged Catalonia into recession.

The central government in Madrid retains control over imposing and collecting taxes and, more problematically for Catalonia, redistributing that wealth to the various autonomous communities. Much like the EU budgetary system, richer communities become net contributors while poorer regions of Spain become net recipients.

According to the OECD, Catalonia is the main contributor to the Spanish economy with nearly 19 percent of Spain’s GDP. If Rajoy wants to keep the country together, he needs to explore ways in which Barcelona can have greater autonomy in the ways it spends revenues generated in Catalonia.

Similarly, although Castilian or Spanish is the official language of Spain, other languages, including Basque and Galician, are official in the autonomous communities. The status of Catalan could be raises to become an official national language and the central government could push for its recognition as an official EU language.

Embracing more devolution

In addition, Madrid could re-examine devolving more powers in the areas of policing, competition, industrial safety, and other fields where there are shared competences between Madrid and Barcelona (and other regions). Adopting a defensive posture, as Rajoy has done thus far, will not end Catalonia’s secessionist efforts.

These are issues currently under discussion in Britain between Edinburgh and London. British Prime Minister David Cameron has promised a ‘devolution revolution’ in the aftermath of the failed Scottish independence vote last September.

Spain’s prime minister might do well to follow suit and promise to rethink the relationship between the autonomous communities and the central government. While the rump UK would have survived if Scotland exited its 300 year union with London, the same cannot be said for Spain if Catalonia succeeds in its quest for statehood.

Rather than endure a prolong war of Catalan secession that could have damaging consequences for the whole country and its recovering economy, Madrid needs to take the initiative, embrace devolution-max and give Catalans reasons to believe that Spain is better together.

Dr Michael J. Geary is Assistant Professor of European and EU History at Maastricht University, The Netherlands and Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, USA. Leopold Traugott studies European Studies at Maastricht University.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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