Catalonia: Spain's "Scotland"?

In November, the autonomous region of Catalonia will hold a “popular” referendum for independence from Spain. While certainly noteworthy, Spain might not be headed for a breakup just yet. 

On November 9, the autonomous region of Catalonia will hold a “popular” (i.e. non-binding) referendum for independence from Spain. The year chosen has particular importance as it marks the 300th anniversary that Catalonia became officially integrated into the Spanish Kingdom, thus losing the autonomy it had enjoyed since Count Borrel ended the ties that bound the then county of Barcelona to serve the Capetian king.

Some may attribute Catalans’ call for independence to the recent European economic crisis. It is true that the region’s current leader, Artur Mas, claims that Spain has ignored Catalan requests to renegotiate the region’s fiscal agreement and that he along with other politicians such as Soledat Balaguer, journalist Pilar Rahola, and economists including Mireia Borrell-Porta and Xavier Sala-i-Martin have said that it is time for Catalonia to stop subsidizing the other less prosperous Spanish regions and to renounce a central government which does not redistribute the contributions fairly. Catalonia is Spain’s most prosperous regional economy and accounts for roughly 16 percent of Spain’s population. Most economists support Catalonia’s claims that the deficit between what the region pays to Madrid and what it receives in return for regional projects and spending amounts to around 16 billion euros annually. To be sure, historian and scholar of Catalan nationalism Enric Ucelay Da Cal agrees that the economic crisis has influenced the rise of Catalan separatism, but this is because it is seen as destroying distinctive hallmarks of Catalan culture. For example, the state of the economy has affected small businesses that have traditionally supported the Catalan economy.

The latest controversy involves Madrid’s insistence that Catalonia should foot the bill for students in the school system who wish to be educated exclusively in Spanish to the tune of 6000 euros. Spain’s lack of consideration for Catalan language and culture has also become a common gripe among the Catalans themselves (see for example the series of interviews Guardian columnist Jon Henley conducted at the time of the 2012 elections in Catalonia).

Although the financial crisis has certainly fanned the flames of separatism in Catalonia (and elsewhere in Europe), the underlying issue is the Spanish government’s lack of respect for the Catalan culture and language. A long tradition of negotiation has allowed the Catalans in Spain to successfully bargain with the state for a level of political and cultural recognition, generally without the specter of violence, at least in the recent democratic era. Indeed, it seemed that the latest reward for this pragmatism was Catalonia’s 2006 statute of autonomy, which included mention of the region as a “nation” and affirmed further control in legal, linguistic and financial matters.

In mid-2010, following nearly four years of deliberation, the Constitutional Court of Spain declared that the revised Catalan Statute had gone too far in its demands, ruling that fourteen out of the 129 articles of the Statute were unconstitutional and that another twenty-seven would need to be interpreted in the way established by the Court’s ruling. In particular, the Court deemed the mention of Catalonia as a nation to be in direct contradiction to the second article of the Spanish Constitution, thus stripping this notion of any legality. The Court also took issue with the elevated status of the Catalan language over Spanish in the media and other public domains, the proposed bilateral relation of Catalonia to Spain, the preeminence of the Catalan Supreme Court over the Spanish Supreme Court and claims for greater fiscal autonomy for Catalonia.

It is after this ruling that a discernable change in Catalan attitudes towards Madrid can be traced and that talk of independence increased. This change in attitude in the public domain was visible by over one million Catalan demonstrators, who took to the streets in Barcelona to protest the decision of the Constitutional Court of Spain on July 10, the eve of the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and Holland. The march was buoyed by the slogan: “We are a nation. We decide.”