Catalonian independence: Risk to the Spanish nation-state or threat to the EU?

Published 23.10.2019 01:48
Catalan pro-independence demonstrators gather in front of the Spanish regional government office in Barcelona, Spain, Oct. 20, 2019. AP
Catalan pro-independence demonstrators gather in front of the Spanish regional government office in Barcelona, Spain, Oct. 20, 2019. AP

If Catalonia only wants to break away from Spain to send a 'see, we did it' message to Madrid, it would be extremely shortsighted

Over the past week, according to one count, up to 500,000 demonstrators took to the streets in Barcelona to protest what they say are unjustified and unfair court sentences for a number of Catalan independence movement leaders and to make their point that the idea of independence is even more vociferous. For this reason, a general strike was called on Friday.

However, what unfortunately made more headlines than discussing the questions linked to whether or not the latter demand would ever make good political and economic sense was the mayhem caused by splinter groups and violent individuals, leading to a partial lockdown of the city center and the temporary closure of tourist attractions as well as reported clashes in other parts of Catalonia. Riot police promptly reacted yet in a manner that some witnesses would describe as an excessive use of force.

So is there a way out of the impasse, and what will happen next?

Heavy sentencing

There are two distinct possibilities for how to analyze the court verdicts involving 12 independence movement leaders and former Catalan government ministers with former Vice President Oriol Junqueras receiving the harshest sentence of 13 years in prison and the same amount of years being barred from holding any public office. On the one hand, it appears that the Spanish Supreme Court wanted to set a clear signal in order to make certain Spain as a whole would know who is in control here. With charges including staging a rebellion as well as embezzlement of public funds, it was not a small move. Yet on the other hand, the question on everyone's mind is the following: with the numbers of protesters so high and the momentum not fading but building further, is a confrontational strategy truly the best solution to heal the wounds and come back to the negotiating table?

Unless of course there is no more room to maneuver, no more issues to elaborate on, debating whether the status quo is really the best for Spain and Catalonia is on the agenda. In that case, calls for a second independence referendum will never be acknowledged by Madrid and the 2017 results will remain meaningless – 92% voted in favor of independence; however, voter turnout was extremely low at only 43%.

The one person Spanish authorities want most though is Carles Puigdemont, who for the time being is staying put in Belgium. Following the 2017 referendum and the declaration of independence from Spain, Madrid announced the decision null and void and arrested a number of key political figures, except for regional President Puigdemont, who had fled to Belgium. New Catalan elections were called, which the independence-leaning parties won again; yet Catalonia was put under the direct rule of the Spanish capital. Labeling those months and ensuing two years as tumultuous times would be an understatement.

Whether or not Puigdemont will be extradited is an open question for the time being. Analysts are confronted with three potential scenarios. First, if he returns voluntarily and is arrested upon stepping onto Spanish soil, would he become a hero in his own right, and the independence movement become even stronger? Or second, if he is extradited and arrested as well, would he become that very same martyr figurehead and people in the streets would cry foul and demand independence no matter what? Or third, in the case that he neither turns himself in nor is extradited, would his reputation as the orchestrator of an independent Catalonia slowly but surely fade and a leaderless movement eventually crumble? After all, Belgian authorities most definitely would not wish to be seen as openly supporting a division of Spain as calls for a division of Belgium itself are already in the air but are successfully kept under control by Brussels.

Who is afraid of what?

In the transition period from Franco's fascism toward democracy, a new Spanish constitution was written. This allowed in total 17 regions and two cities to adopt the status of decentralized and partly autonomous regions, including Catalonia. In political science, Spain is thus referred to not as a federal country but a highly decentralized nation-state, a unitary parliamentary and at the same time constitutional, monarchy.

There had always been criticism directed towards Madrid with a view to although promoting decentralization that in particular the distribution of much needed European Union (structural) funds after becoming a member state in 1986 were used as a leverage to better control of what goes on in those 17 regions and two cities.

However, Madrid could not completely end calls from independence promoters in Catalonia for even more autonomy.

Catalonian independence could one day become a catalyst for similar demands in other regions; besides, Catalonia as a newly formed state would apply for EU membership and as Catalonia is a rather wealthy part of Spain with a per capita GDP of just over 30,000 euros ($33,400) – the same as Scotland for that matter – would probably have no trouble getting in. What's more, a split would lead to serious economic concerns everywhere else in Spain as a key contributor to Spain's overall wealth would have left the nation.

From Brussels' EU administration's point of view, Catalonian independence in a post-Brexit world could indeed lead to copycats not only in Spain but everywhere else in Europe, where a newfound nationalism paired with populism mixed with euroskepticism is clearly on the rise. Once nationalism gradually becomes small-state nationalism in a sense of breakaway regions becoming republics or states in their very own right, today's EU and the way it functions would be no more. Brussels grudgingly accepts the fact that Brexit is now a certainty – it could not manage another "exit," neither from an existing member state nor from five or 10 newly formed "mini-states" that perhaps decide to not even join the EU in the first place.

What is best for Catalonia?

Only if an independent Catalonia becomes a full EU member with its own vote in the Council of Ministers could it exercise leverage over Madrid for fair treatment; for example customs controls at a new border. Its economy would stay safe and its international relations, too. Having said that, an independent Catalonia outside the EU would have to come to terms with similar notions that arose in the north of Scotland: could we survive economically? How long would it take to agree on countless free trade deals? Would we get our own seat in the United Nations? What about foreign direct investment, tourism, education and health care? It would take a decade to sort things out, to put it mildly.

In conclusion: if Catalonia only wants to break away from Spain to send a signal to Madrid in a sense of "see, we did it," it would be extremely shortsighted. If the independence idea is, however, anchored in a much wider and honest belief in that smaller states can engage in better politics in the name of their electorates more easily and directly, the picture would change dramatically.

Regardless of the outcome – just like everywhere else, the electorate will ultimately vote with their paychecks and pockets and based on ideology – both sides, Madrid and Barcelona, should thus proceed with the utmost care.

* Political analyst, journalist based in London

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