Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has vehemently opposed the referendum for Catalonian independence set to be held on 1 October 2017. However, the region’s President, Carlos Puidgemont, is determined to go ahead with the vote despite severe push back from the central government and judicial order that the referendum be suspended until further investigation. Three years after a failed independence referendum that saw the prosecution of former Catalonian president Artur Mas, is an independent Catalonia a real possibility?
Catalonia’s history stretches centuries before Gaudi and Barça FC made the region into a tourism mecca. Catalonia was an independent state until the 15th century when King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castille married, and united what is now known as Catalonia and Spain. Although Catalonia lost some of its autonomy due to this union, it was the fall of Barcelona in 1939 to Francisco Franco that shot the fatal blow to Catalonian autonomy and identity. After Franco’s death, Catalonia regained some of its autonomy. However, recent anger with Madrid has refuelled the independence movement over allegations that the central government unfairly distributes wealth among the regions.
The first obstacle to the reality of an independent Catalonia is Madrid’s hostility towards allowing a referendum. Unlike Scotland’s 2014 referendum that Westminster permitted, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is unlikely to allow a referendum and/or accept the result of a “yes” vote. Further, even if the referendum leads to the victory of the “yes” vote by a majority of the voting population, celebrations will be put on hold until questions of law are solved with the central government in Madrid.
Then there is Europe… what would an independent Catalonia mean for Europe and would Catalonia be able to remain in the European Union? Since Brexit, there has been an unofficial assumption that if Scotland were to leave the United Kingdom, they would be welcomed into the European Union as an independent state. However, Catalonia should not be quick to assume that they would receive the same welcoming party. Many states may feel that the Catalonian independence movement will further escalate the identity politics that has lead to the rise of populism across Europe. There is also the fear that independence could weaken the Eurozone, given that Catalonia contributes approximately 19% of Spain's GDP. Many Catalans will see the importance of Europe to the region’s prosperity, and the fear of economic hardship is likely to outweigh their anger towards Madrid’s hostility.
The Catalans will also be thinking about the practical realities of becoming an independent state. What would border control look like? Would they continue to use the euro? What support will be offered from the Spanish government in the transition from an autonomous Spanish region, to a fully-fledged sovereign state? Without a clear plan of how an independent Catalonia would function, Catalans will be making a life-changing decision based on assumptions rather than assurances.
The Catalans have every right to feel frustrated. They contribute significantly to the Spanish economy yet feel that they are not receiving their fair share back. Their unique language and culture has had to take second place to Spanish historically, and they feel Madrid is not interested in negotiations. We are witnessing a time of momentous change for Europe, however, and such change calls for rational and reasoned thinking, which is of course true for both Barcelona and Madrid.
As Puigdemont has told Al Jazeera: ‘If Madrid agrees, even just to the existence of a problem, between Spain and Catalonia, acknowledging the problem and starting talks, I think that would send a positive sign to the people of Catalonia and to the world’.
Just like the construction of Gaudi’s masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, the road to Catalonian independence will be long and expensive, but will the final result be worth it? If Brexit has taught us anything, it’s that Europeans need to think seriously about their lives outside a united and stable Europe. The pro-independence Catalans will find strength in their defiance against Madrid’s hostility towards Catalonian cultural, political and economic autonomy. However, thought must and will be given to what an independent Catalonia would actually look like, not just in respect to Catalonian identity, but how the new country would interact with Spain, Europe and the world. Given the current state of Europe, Puigdemont’s ambiguous independence plan and Madrid’s hostility, the future of an independent Catalonia is far less picturesque than the unfinished Basilica that watches over it.
Elena Christaki-Hedrick is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.