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Catalonia’s drive for independence and the emergence of global cities

The pro-independence movement in Catalonia has created a singular coalition that includes the beneficiaries of globalization, the elites of a global city, and those left behind by globalization. Español

lead Hundreds of pro-independence activist demonstrate during the general strike in Barcelona on October 3, 2017. Miquel Llop/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

There are two large metropolitan areas in Spain: Barcelona and Madrid. While Madrid, with a population of 6.5 million, sits in third place in Europe, after London and Paris, Barcelona is in sixth place, with nearly 5 million. The two are global capitals and compete primarily in a European and international arena, although the tensions between them can be seen as drivers of the current political-territorial dispute in Spain. 

Both are members of a small group of cities – not more than a dozen in Europe – where resources and information flow at high speed, in a game of planetary dimensions. In this sense there is no direct competition between Madrid and Barcelona; it is only that they compete in the same league, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

However, the current conflict between Catalonia and Spain cannot be fully comprehended without understanding that, in the context of globalization, both cities, and the large metropolitan areas in which are embedded, are trying to concentrate the prominence and accumulate most of the resources linked to growth and power. For this reason, any analysis of the territorial conflict in Spain should incorporate this dimension if it is to avoid falling into an outdated understanding of the current political conflict. 

Asymmetric competition 

It must be understood that a metropolitan area is a top-level node in this globalized world, drawing resources from its surroundings while it distributes them. So, it requires a political articulation that normally implies the recycling of traditional state models that emerged in the 19th century, albeit with some significant changes.

Obviously, if this state recycling does not take place smoothly, adopting new functions that permit develop intense relations with other areas and territories, the development of the metropolitan area and its global position can suffer, even though (of course) it all depends on its competitive advantages. Global cities need states; in fact, they certainly need to make them theirs. A state can serve a single metropolitan area converted into a global city, as in the cases of Paris and London, or it can serve more than one, as we see in Italy and Germany. Logically, if such support is distributed, the capacity and projection of global cities does not reach the same proportions, as shown in the cases of Milan and Rome, or Berlin and Frankfurt; but note that these are cities belonging to two relatively new states, both formed in the second half of the 19th century.

Without digging into historical revisions, tensions between Barcelona and Madrid in recent decades, and especially since the start of the great economic crisis initiated in 2008, contain an element of dispute over the role of the state in supporting the construction of global cities. Barcelona’s economic, cultural and social elites perceive that they do not receive enough support from the Spanish state, since it directs its support towards turning Madrid into a global city. They complain that Spain’s model is a state with a single global city, having the largest possible projection and heaviest possible economic weight. 

Madrid’s political and economic elites perceive Barcelona as something alien to their state model.

Madrid’s political and economic elites perceive Barcelona as something alien to their state model, and consider that in any case its global positioning should be subordinated to the objectives of promoting a single great global city in Spain. Unlike Italy or Germany, the Spanish state has bet on a single global city. Or, to put it in other way round, Madrid elites have mainly captured the state.

It is obvious that this is a conflict between the elites of two European global cities which share a state, where one of them has captured the state, to propel its own development in the global arena. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the elites of the other global city in Spain are considering the idea of building a state of their own. The awareness of such a need is a fundamental difference in the political positions in recent years of much of the Catalan elites, compared to their positions over the previous two centuries, when there were no major claims for a state of their own.

This ambition is often formulated through nationalist speech, but also with cosmopolitan arguments, and discussion of investment and the distribution of fiscal resources. In many cases, this involves a similar tension, based on the absence of a state capable of backing and assisting the position of Barcelona and its surroundings as a global city.

Without going more deeply into Spain’s current political configuration, it should be noted Spanish state's significant weaknesses in knowledge and specialized skills. Outdated and widely inefficient recruitment procedures, an old-fashioned organizational model, and its numerous bodies of civil servants undergoing constant internal struggles and heavily corporate, have together generated a weak state when it comes to acting in a globalized environment. It is unable to autonomous leadership as to territorial matters and depends heavily on the large business corporations that have contributed to made Madrid its global capital. This interpenetration among a few national champions –that benefited from state support, and very much so, in their global expansion – and within the state itself as an organization, has been consolidated in the age of globalization, contributing to the upholding and projecting of its global city. 

Will the state evolve into a model of two global cities?

It is difficult to imagine how this model can be reversed, and how Spain could adopt a state model with a number of global cities, or at least two, and evolve into a format of neutrality. There are examples in Europe, but the difficulties of such a transformation would be extreme, given the existing historical and social conditioning.

In fact, one could view the efforts to reform the Catalan Statute in 2006, and the claims for a fiscal pact for Catalonia at the beginning of the 2010s, as a bid by its political and economic elites to establish a model that would permit the absorption of additional resources and capabilities from the Spanish state, yet which would still be compatible with the state’s commitment to support Madrid as a global city.

Divergent perceptions and other commitments – all in the middle of a harsh Spanish fiscal and financial crisis – prevented the completion of such agreements, triggering higher-risk alternatives that had been discarded until that moment by the Catalan elites. Besides, EU single market and globalization also helped to consider alternative scenarios.

There’s something else

A struggle between elites of two global cities favoured very asymmetrically by a state can become bloody, but this would be a limited explanation of the aggravated social and political conflict between Spain and Catalonia over the last few years. As much as one cannot look upon the role of the state in the territory as if we were at the beginning of the 20th century, this alone is not enough to explain the mobilization capacity and the intensity of the feelings aroused. There is something else. 

Globalization has not only generated the phenomenon of global cities, it has also produced profound changes in the distribution of income between different social sectors, as well as access to well-paying jobs. Following the studies of Branko Milanovic and other analysts, we know for a fact that among those left behind by globalization there are numerous segments of the middle class and skilled workers from the developed countries. 

The reasons for this relative impoverishment are related to global competition that led to open trade agreements and promoted new technologies; its political consequences have become apparent in recent years. Events such as the recent election of Trump in the United States, or the UK voting in 2016 to leave the EU, are in a way related to this process of relative impoverishment of some social groups in the developed countries, to the extent that speeches calling for a reversal of globalization and a return to models of markets protected by states can now be perceived increasingly as a political option. 

These developments are also present in Spain and in Catalonia – not in the form of a rise of the extreme right, fortunately, as in France or just recently in Germany, but in forms buried in numerous political behaviours, conditioned political strategies or multiple social mobilizations. We cannot analyse in detail the political implications of these social changes in Spain, but we can highlight some very visible aspects. 

Although Catalonia benefited also from the afore mentioned territorial pact, the weight and the visibility of its global city destabilized the equation.

One central element is the challenge to the maintenance of the classical benefits of the welfare state, focused on the distribution of resources in a passive way to many social groups affected by economic changes, direct or indirect, as a result of globalization, that are especially intense in some areas of the country. To some extent, strong state support to launch a global city was legitimized by keeping such policies for large social groups across the entire Spanish territory. 

To oversimplify, we could point out two large groups. There are several generations of workers who have experienced relatively stable employment and the welfare state benefits established in the 1980s by socialist governments. There are also professional sectors and large groups of young people who have enjoyed hardly any welfare safety nets, and whose prospects of stability and professional advancement are slim. Both groups share expectations and frustrations about the political-economic model, betting on different policy options to avoid welfare dismantling. 

Although Catalonia benefited also from the afore mentioned territorial pact, the weight and the visibility of its global city destabilized the equation, as well as its particular social and cultural integration with different legitimate discourses. Yet in Catalonia it has generated an additional alternative, which attracts a broad segment of the second group and, possibly, some members of the first group. That alternative is the option of an independent state of Catalonia. 

Setting aside its eventual plausibility, these perceptions encourage the mobilization of broad sectors of losers – or potential losers – due to globalization in Catalonia, and those who in recent years have experienced wage reductions, lack of opportunities, professional stagnation, or even exclusion from the labour market. 

Among the attractions of this additional alternative are the expectations of better social benefits, because the new state will have, predictably, a greater income. There may also be higher expectations of growth, with the perception of a more sustainable economic model, as well as diffuse expectations about state-building opportunities and further potential support for professional careers.

A singular coalition 

The pro-independence movement in Catalonia has created a singular coalition that includes: beneficiaries of globalization, the elites of a global city, those left behind by globalization, and the popular sectors that are losing opportunities in comparison to previous generations and are witnessing shortages or are being left out of the welfare state. 

This alliance, not so conspicuous in daily politics in Catalonia, but very effective, is held together by three very important conditions. First, there is the common perception that it is a non-zero sum game bigger that zero, where everyone will benefit. Secondly, there is the shared perception of belonging to a political community, a well-defined territory with elements of cultural identity, widely recognized; and third, the balance between rural territory and a global city that does not generate major tensions. 

However, cities still need states.

Thus, the independence movement in Catalonia is not only a nationalist movement, although there is a strong nationalist component within it; nor is it a movement based on irrational feelings, mired in a glorious past. It is also a political response, with a strong strategic component of territorial base, to the challenges that globalisation is creating in all developed countries, particularly in its current multi-polar phase. 

The struggle for survival and well-being of political communities in the developed north has just started. Global cities and regional integration mechanisms have much more capacity to adapt to these changes than European states established many centuries ago -unless they actively transform and innovate themselves. However, cities still need states.

About the author

Jacint Jordana is professor of Political Science and Public Administration at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra. Currently, he is director of the Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals (IBEI), an inter-university research institute devoted to international studies. His main research area is focused to the analysis of public policies, with special emphasis being laid on regulatory policy and regulatory governance. 


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