As Europe Centralizes Power, Catalonia Yearns to Break Free

The Autonomous Region in Spain Pushes to Reclaim Financial, Political Independence

independencia

“Catalunya no és Espanya.”

More than just a slogan, it’s become a rallying cry for the nearly 7.5 million Catalans who wish to demonstrate to the world that their culture, history, and language are far removed from the traditional concept of Spain.

As a recent visitor to the city of Barcelona—the capital of Catalonia—I deliberately took interest in the sentiment of separation because of the region’s similarities with my own birthplace, the Canadian province of Québec, which also hosts a vibrant independence movement.

Photo by Melanie Pfeffer

Closed Chapel in Park Güell, Barcelona, Catalonia. Photo by Melanie Pfeffer.

Much like the sovereignty movement in Québec, the pro-independence forces in Catalonia want to break free from the financial and political controls in Madrid. And they are using the distinct Catalan identity as the key underpinning for a future without Spanish rule.

In a time of grave economic crisis in Spain, where centralization of power and inflated debt are the only offered cures to disaster, Catalonia is in a unique position to rebuke the dictates from Brussels and Madrid and chart its own path to freedom.

Why Freedom?

When I spoke to local Catalans about why they aim to be free, they summed it up clearly into four main points:

  • To protect and defend their Catalan culture and language.
  • To stake their claim to territorial integrity within Spain.
  • To remove the political strings pulled from the central government in Madrid.
  • To recover the large tax contributions from Catalonia, redistributed throughout Spain.

In short, they want to decide their own future at the most local level as possible.

Currently, there are over 180 town halls flying only the Catalan flag, the traditional red and yellow stripes with the blue star. They refuse to endorse or even display the Spanish flag.

The Catalan Flag hangs from a balcony in Barcelona

The Catalan Flag hangs from a balcony in Barcelona. Photo by Melanie Pfeffer.

In Sept. 2012, the town of Sant Pere de Torelló became the first municipality to declare independence from Spain—the first “free Catalan territory.”

After nearly 40 years of dictatorial Spanish rule by Generalísimo Francisco Franco, who suppressed the Catalan language and stamped out all autonomous movements in the region from 1936-1975, the town’s gesture has ramped up the emotional connection to the idea of a free Catalonia.

In modern times, one of the key representative vehicles for Catalan independence is the Futbol Club Barcelona, popularly known as Barça. Its matches often become very patriotic and nationalistic affairs for Catalans, complete with flag-waving, anthem-singing, and the “call for independence” at 17:14 in the match. That represents the Sept. 11, 1714 defeat of Catalan troops fighting for secession from Spain.

This short Guardian documentary on FC Barcelona’s role in Catalan independence goes into more detail, showing the club’s political motivations as well as cultural significance.

But beyond just football matches, Catalans are also prone to stake their claim for independence in the streets.

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1.5 million Catalans march for independence in Barcelona on Sept. 11, 2012.
Source: Generalitat de Catalunya.

On Sept. 11, 2012, the National Day of Catalonia, over 1.5 million Catalans descended into the streets of Barcelona to call for self-determination.

Just two weeks later, the Catalan Parliament voted 84-21 to begin the process for a referendum on independence, leading nearly two-thirds of the Catalan electorate to opt for pro-independence parties months later in the Nov. 2012 regional elections.

On Jan. 23, 2013, the newly-elected Parliament declared sovereignty from Spain and promised a referendum in 2014.

The Economic ‘Engine’ of Southern Europe

While Spain may be in the midst of its worst economic crisis, suffering with an all-time high 26 percent unemployment rate, Catalans believe their economic fate would be better without Spain.

“In any case, Catalonia is one of the Autonomous Communities with the mildest recession in Spain and continues to be that with the highest GDP,” writes the Catalan News Agency earlier this week, pointing to the 0.2 percent drop in unemployment in March.

In 2012, while the Spanish GDP shrank by 1.4 percent, Catalonia’s fell by just 1 percent—not such a huge difference, but enough to add to the perception of the rest of Spain as an economic burden on Catalans.

Barcelona's beautiful beach, watched over by the business and finance section.

Barcelona’s beautiful beach, watched over by the business and finance section.

Though Catalonia boasts one of the nation’s highest GDP’s per capita, it also remains the most indebted region of Spain. Independence supporters reject this fact because of the €16 billion in taxes—nearly 8 percent of Catalonia’s GDP—sent to Madrid each year.

If Catalonia achieved independence, it would be ”like some kind of engine of the south of Europe,” claims Marc Guerrero. He is a senior leader in Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, one of the two main separatist parties leading Catalonia’s government.

Artur Mas, the CDC party leader and current president of the Generalitat of Catalonia, has made economic secession and sovereignty the ultimate selling point of Catalan independence.

The Paradox of Europe

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of envisioning a free Catalonia is where it would stand in Europe. Though nearly 51 percent of Catalans support independence from Spain, according to the Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió, the number falls dramatically when exclusion from the European Union is factored in.

In the city of Barcelona, Catalans told me the hardest part about independence would be entry into the EU, which would most definitely face a Spanish veto and a subsequent rejection.

Despite Catalonia's push for independence, most residents wants to stay in the European Union.

Despite Catalonia’s push for independence, most Catalans want to stay in the European Union. Photo by Melanie Pfeffer.

Herein, therefore, lies the ultimate paradox: much like the Scottish National Party in the United Kingdom, who are seeking their own referendum in 2014, the pro-independence parties in Catalonia want independence from a national government, but are happy to give up some of their sovereignty to the supranational authority of the EU in Brussels.

So though they want to achieve political and financial independence, they want to continue to observe laws and regulations passed by the European Commission. They want to continue to use the Euro. They want to continue to have Brussels impose fiscal targets while threatening large penalties for spending too much.

Rather than seek the Belgian solution or the Dutch solution by falling back on the EU, Catalonia should seek the Swiss or Norwegian solution. They should seek independence and remain in the community of European states, individually negotiating treaties and boosting their potential for economic dominance in southern Europe.

The Catalan people may stand a chance for independence from Spain, but if they wish to completely retain their sovereignty, monetary authority, and have the power to enforce their own laws, they cannot wed their future to the European political project—their freedom depends on it.

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Yaël Ossowski About Yaël Ossowski

Journalist, writer, and host of Liberty In Exile, broadcast on the Liberty Radio Network and the No Agenda Stream. Follow him on Twitter @YaelOss and Yael.ca.

7 comments
Juan Garcia
Juan Garcia

From 1700 to 1714 there was a civil war in Spain. Our last King (Carlos II) had died without descendants. Then half of Spain (Castilla, Andalucia, Navarra, Galicia, etc.) chose a candidate Bourbon, Felipe de Anjou, as was the last will of Carlos II, while the other half (mainly the territories of the old Crown of Aragon, that is Aragón, Catalonia, Valencia nd Balearic Islands) preferred a Hapsburg to become the new king of Spain, Carlos, the Archduke of Austria (eventurally he became Charles VI of the Holy Roman Emperor after the failure to become king in Spain).

That civil war called War of Succession (not was of Secession). Aragoneses, Valencians, Catalans, Balearics did not want any independence from Spain; they just wanted another king, the Archduke Carlos from Austria. In fact Catalonia first accepted Felipe de Anjou, but afterwards they rebelled and changed their mind). They lost, everybody forgot. That was 300 years ago. We all forgot that war, even Aragon, and Valencia. Spain also lost against the Romans 2000 years ago, again we lost against the Moors when they invaded our country in the eighth century, and we already forgot. Even the wars against Napoleon in the XIX century have been forgotten. But the nationalists of Catalonia want to remember that especially defeat in 1714 and use it for their political purposes.

Catalonia has always had privileges in prejudice of Castilla, that became poor because the laws protecting Catalonia goods, more expensive than buying them abroad. All Spain (with people migrating to Catalonia region and being forced to buy their goods) has enriched Catalonia, even in Franco times the factories as SEAT and many others, very important, were granted to Catalonia in prejudice of other Spanish regions. Now that this region is rich thanks to the rest of Spain, they do not want to pay their part in the economy of the whole of Spain, although Catalonia is not the region that most contribute to the economy of Spain (being Madrid with much difference).

To promote independence ideals in the schools it is forbidden to speak Spanish, even in the patio, while playing and it is forbidden in shops to write in Spanish. Catalan is compulsory in all the signs, or you will be fined. It is against the human rights, but nobody complains because people are afraid. The nationalists say it is to protect their language, which is less spoken than Spanish Castilian in Catalonia. But that does not happen in Scottish schools. In Scotland nobody is punished for speaking English in the school, nor in the shops is compulsory to write in Scottish, for instance. Nationalist Catalans are against the Children Human rights. They control all the newspapers and TV channels to indoctrinate the Catalans to become nationalists and to hate teh other 16 regions of Spain (we are 17 regions, or autonomías). Their strength is based on hatred to the rest of the regions of Spain and they control all the newspapers and local television that continuously preach hatred against Spain with historical lies and changing the history in their favor, with false interpretations. Many of the leaders of the Independence parties should be judged and put into jail for all they are doing to the fresh minds of children, not only Spanish, but also from Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, etc., which mother language is Spanish and force them from the early age to speak only Catalan and indoctrinate them in the hatred. If ever Catalonia obtains independence from Spain their repression against those Catalans who speak Spanish, about 60 per cent of the Catalans (in fact Catalan is a minority language within Catalonia) would be worse. Many compare the Spanish speaking people born in Catalonia as the Jews in Germany preceding the WWII.

For your guidance, I was born in Barcelona, as well as my father and my grandfather family (my mother family is from Aragon).

Juan García

Carlos Branno
Carlos Branno

Catalonia's desire for freedom is not solely based on economic grounds. Catalonia has been decried for centuries; ever since 11th September, 1714, the Spanish governments have put all the regions of Spain against Catalonia. The aim has been to generalize the idea that Catalans are spoilt children who are always complaining. The troops of Philip the Filth not only raped women and daughters, burn down crops, maimed fathers and children, they also tried to wipe out an identity, a history, a language, and now their heirs are surprised to see that Catalonia wants to be free, free from a bunch of crooks who have pillaged our larders for 300 years to feed their lazy children, children who thrive within a shoddy constitution that praises human rights to the gallery. One thing is for sure, if Catalonia had not been treated so cruelly, we Catalans would not mind to be Spanish, and independency projects would only be the dream of only a few, but they have insistently tried to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. They say we ask for more money from the central government, but although Catalonia is the third community to pay more taxes (so they say in Madrid), it is in the tenth position to receive funds from the same central government, so this is what kills the goose that lays the golden eggs.

William Frankum
William Frankum

Artur Mas, however, does not agree with the idea of independence from Spain. As you say he believes in economic seccession and sovereignty, but he feels independence would lead to great sacrifices. These include immediate economic and financial costs, a worsening of Spain's social crisis and furthermore, new tensions within Catalan society. I like parts of your article because it provides a good overview of why SOME Catalans are demanding independence. However, I dislike the way that you have twisted certain statistics to make your argument, which is verging on propaganda. For instance, to say that 2/3 of the Catalan electorate voted for pro-independent parties is simply not true. Many of these parties that you are referring to agree with economic seccession and sovereignty, however don't all demand independence hands down. Furthermore, the people that vote for them do not all do so based purely on the issue of independence! 

Ian Galope
Ian Galope

Catalonia has a long history with anarchism...

The Mobile Writer
The Mobile Writer

I was excited reading about their quest, until I came to the part about wanting to remain a part of the European Union. You don't mention why they want to remain part of the EU. I can only assume it's for the financial reasons, and perhaps for the ease of entry and exit along borders.

Are there any other reasons why they want to continue with the EU (assuming that they know what the risks are if they do)?

YaelOss
YaelOss

@The Mobile Writer Speaking with the locals, they said they wanted to remain in the EU for free trade zone, Schengen (which allows them free travel in Europe), all European-negotiated treaties, and the like.

What they're most skeptical about is sending even more tax dollars to either Madrid or Brussels, or having laws from the outside imposed on them (with regard to education, health, language, etc).

So you're right about the financial trade aspect and the travel, but they still seek further autonomy--I'm just not sure staying in the EU would ever guarantee that.

The Stateless Man
The Stateless Man moderator

@The Mobile Writer Point well taken, Jeff. Yaël and I are as skeptical of the EU and centralized power as anyone, and that part of the article and movement is more than ironic.