Separatists celebrating the independence of Catalonia from Spain on the streets of Barcelona, October 29,2017. Almagro/Press Association. All rights reserved. A few years ago, when a major political science conference was held in Spain, I rented a country house with some American colleagues for a week in deep Catalonia – near Ripoll. It turned out to be a medieval castle, replete with a chapel that our hosts had lovingly restored. Over those days, a world soccer championship that Spain eventually won was unfolding and we duly congratulated our hosts, only to find them deeply offended. A success of Spain, they told us, meant the opposite to them, as Catalans. The Catalan soccer players in the national team were opportunists, if not traitors.
Such deep nationalist resentment in a core EU member state presents the European Union with its next major challenge after Brexit. Catalonia is one of the regions that has profited most from EU cohesion programs during its development (in 2007-2013 it still qualified for 1.4 billion, although it has meanwhile been raised to the status of ‘very developed’). Spain, one of the few successes of fiscal equilibration after the euro crisis finds herself entirely destabilized by the unilateral proclamation of Catalonia’s independence following a non-constitutional referendum where less than the absolute majority voted in favor. The whole set of arguments of the Catalan nationalists for their independence could apply nearly everywhere else in Europe and if deemed acceptable for Catalonia the European ‘integration’ concept would become meaningless. A brief review of such claims from a scholar of nationalism might therefore be helpful.
To start with, the Catalan claim rests on the separate history and identity of the Catalans which entitles them to a separate path from the rest of Spain. But Spain as a whole, as, indeed, Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, United Kingdom (this is why it’s called ‘united’), let alone Poland and Romania, are the products of different regions, states or a part of states opting in at some historical moment when borders have been put into question – 1918, 1945, 1989-1990 – in order to combine their destinies into modern multinational states. Some of them opted for unitary states, others for federal ones, but none of the European nation states are based on collective identities where the region is based on a specific ethnicity.
Some EU states have been more respectful of the traditional, organically developed institutions of such regions (as in Germany), others less (as in Italy), but nobody was unwise enough to enshrine an ethnic character into EU regions, grounded in a feudal order predating the modern idea of the nation. Indeed, only the 1918 born Yugoslav kingdom was officially called the ‘Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes’ and despite the historical transformations it underwent, it was the persistence of this ethnic character which led to its tragic end.
A threat to their survival?
Therefore, the insistence of the Catalan Parliament on being allowed a unilateral right to secede is anything but democratic. There is no iron law of democracy allowing the right to unilaterally vote to leave a nation state that one has subscribed to before without coercion. Catalonia was no colony. Therefore, the citizens of the rest of a Spanish state based on the 1978 democratic Constitution have as much right to vote on the future of their joint project as do those who reside temporarily in the autonomous Catalonia (of which many are Spanish).
Of course, each region has its history and differences apply. For instance, the Communist Yugoslav constitution allowed the right of secession, as does Quebec’s. In the case of Scotland, the right was granted as a temporary power by Westminster to the Scottish Parliament to make it constitutional by a decision of David Cameron’s government. It was not unilateral.
Of course, if there is a real threat to the identity or survival of the minority group in the seceding region, its right to self-determination becomes stronger. The international community respects existing borders, but has acknowledged secessions by endangered regions or groups whose rights were systematically infringed by the state they lived in. This was the situation of Kosovo, where the entire education in their native language had first been suppressed under the Communist strongman Slobodan Milosevic, followed by a mass expulsion of Kosovar Albanians by the Yugoslav army once an armed conflict broke down. The Kurds can also point to the Anfal genocide that killed over 50,000 Kurds and the enforced change of the ethnic character of Kurd areas like Kirkuk through Arabization during Saddam Hussein. The forces surrounding them today are not so very different from the ones during the Iran-Iraq war that ended in their victimization, and so their argument that they alone can ensure their own safety (especially after their heroic fight against ISIS) is worth listening to. They have a legitimate claim which should be discussed peacefully.
But not so the Catalans. They have an advanced autonomous rule in a country ranked by OECD in the top ten in the world where fiscal decentralization (direct collection of taxes by the sub-national units) is concerned. Not only are their general human rights not infringed upon in democratic Spain, which also ranks among the most democratic countries in the world by Freedom House or Human Watch standards, but their linguistic policy had been, on the contrary, one of exclusion, not inclusion.
In Catalonia students are only taught in Catalan in their first years of schooling, English is more promoted than Spanish as a foreign language (although the majority of Catalans have long indicated that Spanish was the number one mother tongue, before this statistical item was dropped). The obligatory use of Catalan as the sole medium of instruction for all school subjects has been championed by Catalan nationalists over the past decades with little contestation, although in no other region of Europe has a group which does not have the linguistic majority managed to promote a monolingual model.
True, the Spanish dictator Franco had once banned Catalan in schools, but arguing in democratic Spain that one has to go completely in the opposite direction to do justice or make reparation, goes too far. In fact, in a bilingual society a bilingual model should be promoted to ensure social communication. Had a similar policy existed in Scotland, they would have gained independence by now. This long term linguistic policy is a proof of an exclusionary, not inclusionary identity politics. Indeed, the many people who rally for independence are the products of such schools. Unfortunately, academics have long gathered evidence that organizing states on identity lines – giving each group each own police and army, for instance, does not result in anything else but secession. What if people in Baden-Wurttemberg, a region which always comes out on top of Europe’s net donor regions, claimed that from tomorrow onwards they wanted to keep all their income in Baden-Wurttemberg?
Furthermore, although they live in a region which has benefited the most from European redistribution from the rest of Europe in earlier years (two different lavish highways connect Lerida to Barcelona, a sign of abundance rarely seen anywhere else in Europe), they seem themselves less inclined to return this generosity. Catalonia is not plundered by Madrid, whose redistribution to poorer Spanish regions is twice Barcelona’s (5 versus 10% of GDP).
Economic solidarity within nations and the Union is a guarantee for bad times
What if people in Baden-Wurttemberg, a region which always comes out on top of Europe’s net donor regions, claimed that from tomorrow onwards they wanted to keep all their income in Baden-Wurttemberg rather than redistributing it to poorer EU regions, and that otherwise they would threaten secession? And yet this region does not owe the debt that Catalonia does – all the great separation plans rest on the assumption that secession is good for business if there are no more taxes and the 72 billion euros in debt (16.34 percent of Spain's) are no longer paid to Spain. Catalonia has 16% of Spain’s population and its grievance is that it pays almost 20% to the budget in taxes. But that is how Europe works – more urban areas, and capitals in particular redistribute to more rural ones and those whose economies do well help those who experience downturns, as economic fortunes are not everlasting. Economic solidarity within nations and the Union is a guarantee for bad times – Europe is full of cities which once had mighty economic power on the European scene and are today just charming places to visit for the amateurs of UNESCO heritage sites. Surely it would be good business for all of us to leave our debts unpaid and leave with all the income when we are riding high? Of course, this might appeal to more naïve voters.
And what if every region where the political majority happens to be different at one moment in time than in the centre – it happens every day, anywhere, when you hold free elections – just left, calling the others Fascists or Communists? Last, but not least, there is the argument regarding the monarchy. Yes, this is a deep division between Republicans and Monarchists. Funnily enough, in the constitutional textbooks we have all been citing, two economists once calculated that Greece would have been as prosperous as Spain had it only kept its monarchy and the stability advantage it entailed. So more neutral outsiders can even find some good features in constitutional monarchies.
Nationalism and populism combined
The combination of nationalism with populism is not new in Europe and has been resurfacing in recent years. But the Catalan story is exemplary. If we accept such self-serving and irresponsible arguments in one case, the whole of Europe is gone. This is why both Vladimir Putin and Nigel Farage champion the Catalan cause, because it enfeebles Europe. Could something that propaganda channel Russia Today champions daily, the cause of Catalan independence, be good for the rest of us, Europeans? Perhaps it is time to think more critically of charismatic Catalan national heroes, before they rally all the separatists of Europe. In the early 1990s, Italy also had similar problems, when the Northern League (Lega Nord) party enjoyed an electoral breakthrough in Veneto and Lombardy precisely by campaigning against Rome and the “centralist state” allegedly ripping off the hard-working North to redistribute resources in the parasitic South.
When independentists moved to real action – civil disobedience, tax strikes, occupation of public places like San Marco bell tower in Venice, the government struck back by legal methods and eventually accused them of crimes ranging from tax evasion to terrorism. And no, Italy was not ruled by Fascists at the time, but by left-winger Eurocrats like Giuliano Amato and Romano Prodi.
October 29, 2017. Hundreds of thousands pro-unity supporters gathered in Catalonia's capital of Barcelona. Amalgro/Press Association. All rights reserved.
 Persson, T., & Tabellini, G. E. (2005). The economic effects of constitutions. MIT Press.