Six Questions on Catalan Independence

An Overview of the Current Situation

by Simon Harris - January 2016

A British A Level student recently wrote to me with 6 questions on Catalan Independence for a piece of school work and as the questions were interesting, I answered them.

Hopefully, my answers will provide a quick overview to the current situation in Catalonia for the general reader, and make it clear why I personally don't think that Catalonia should wait to get Spain's permission.

I believe that Catalonia has a strong enough democratic mandate to take independence and an independent Catalonia would soon be an officially recognised member of the international community.

* These answers were written shortly after the Spanish general elections of December 20th 2015, which left Partido Popular with 123 seats, PSOE with 90 seats. Podemos with 69 seats and Ciudadanos with 40 seats.

1. Do you believe that a referendum on independence will realistically happen, given the amount of opposition and that Mariano Rajoy has stated 'there will be no Catalan Independence'?

I think it's very unlikely that there will be a referendum because all major Spanish parties, apart from Podemos, base their arguments against it on Article 2 of the Spanish Constitution, which states that the Spanish nation is indivisible and sovereignty resides in all the Spanish people. This means that a part of the Spanish nation, like Catalonia, doesn't have the right to decide its own future separately.

There are 350 seats in the Spanish Congress and the sum of Podemos, the Catalan parties Esquerra Republicana and Democràcia i Llibertat (Convergència) and Basque Nationalist Party add up to less than 100 seats. Due to the different organisation of constituencies, the Partido Popular actually have a majority in the Senate.

The constitutional change necessary to hold a referendum requires a 66% majority in both houses and then an election and then another 66% in both houses so it's pretty much impossible.

I can't see PSOE changing their opinion because they would be scared of being accused of participating in the destruction of Spain and therefore, losing voters. So Podemos and their Catalan franchise, Catalunya Sí Que Es Pot, who campaign for a referendum seem deluded to me. Strangely though, Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, one of the partners in the Junts pel Sí coalition, have started talking about the right to hold a referendum again.

2. Despite the support for independence, roughly 50% of the Catalan public are opposed to it, what are some of the main arguments against independence?

I have to correct you on this. In the elections to the Parliament of Catalonia held on September 27th 2015, the pro-independence parties (Junts pel Sí/CUP)polled a total 47.8% of voters whilst the explicitly anti-independence parties (PP, Ciudadanos, PSC) reached 39.11%.

This means the middle-ground there is of just over 12% occupied by Podemos franchise Catalunya Sí Que Es Pot and former Convergència coalition partner, Unió, who are both in favour of the right to decide in a referendum, and various small parties, such as Animal Rights Campaigners all of whom are not necessarily against independence (or in favour). To put this simply, there are 48% in favour, 40% against and 12% don't knows.

As far as arguments against independence are concerned, I find it quite difficult to work out what they really  are. This tends to be quite common in independence debates, by the way. The pro-independence side normally says 'when we become independent we'll be able to do this and this and this' and the unionist side says 'no you won't'.

I think the main argument is really about identity and some people just feel more Spanish than Catalan. In the last survey I saw, 49.7% of people in Catalonia feel either only Catalan or more Catalan than Spanish whereas 8.9% feel only Spanish or more Spanish than Catalan. The remaining 35.9% feel as Catalan as they do Spanish. I think these people in the middle are just worried about change and an uncertain future.

The unionist arguments often talk about bad effects on the Catalan economy and that there would be a boycott on Catalan goods. Given that Catalonia pays 15 billion euros more to the Spanish government than it gets back in public spending every year, this is unlikely and although some Catalan products may get boycotted, most are quite difficult to identify. Will Volkswagen car parts made in Catalonia not be used in Volkswagen cars built in the rest of Spain? This means the effect on the Catalan economy is likely to be much less than the fearmongers suggest.

The other big one is losing European Union membership, which is another rather poor argument. Firstly, following Greece, Brexit and the mismanagement of the refugee crisis, it is not unreasonable to ask whether Catalonia would want to be part of the EU. Also EU membership consists of various elements - trade agreements, the Euro and Schengen. The only one that's really important is the trade agreements, which will be in place before any declaration is made so the threat of expulsion mostly hot air.

If independence is agreed ideally following a referendum everything needed to create a new state will be in place. If independence is declared unilaterally, there be a couple of years of political and economic instability but most studies show that, in the mid to long term, the country will be more prosperous even so.

3. What will those against independence do if it does happen, will they leave Catalonia?

My experience of talking to friends who voted against independence is that the majority would prefer to remain part of Spain partly because they feel more Spanish than Catalan and partly because they are worried about what might happen if things change. However, most of them aren't that bothered so if life remained pretty much the same, they'd grumble a bit and then get used to it.

I get the feeling that about 20% are militantly anti-independence. Perhaps a few would leave if they could but I think the majority would stay and form a new radical pro-Spanish party.

4. What are the obstacles that Catalonia would face if it does become independent?

The main problem is international recognition. If nobody recognises you as an independent country then you can't really trade with other countries or participate in world politics.

However, Catalonia is very strong on international diplomacy, which annoys the Spanish government no end, so I'm very confident that the key agreements will be in place before any declaration is made.

5. What effect would independence have on the rest of Spain?

This is an interesting question. The default answer is that Spain would lose an average of €16 billion a year, which are the result of a tax deficit where Catalonia pays more tax to central government than it gets back in investment in public services and infrastructures. This would obviously be an enormous blow to a country that has a national debt amounting to 98% of its GDP.

The Catalans are 16% of the population and create 20% of the GDP and 25% of the exports so Spain would be weakened economically, at least initially.

However, the country has a massive, unwieldy and inefficient  bureaucracy and an electoral system based on closed lists, both of which encourage corruption. If the independence of Catalonia provoked it to get its own house in order, Spain could fulfill its full potential and paradoxically also end up more prosperous. Catalonia's aim, by the way, is to be a strong and loyal trading partner with Spain.

6. Could independence in Catalonia cause other Spanish regions to begin campaigning for it as well?

A quick answer to this question is 'Yes'.

The radical Basque leader recently released from prison, Arnaldo Otegi, has openly expressed his admiration for the Catalan independence movement and is likely to stand for election on this platform, which will reignite Basque calls for independence in the autonomous elections this autumn.

A secondary part of the Catalan independence movement involves calls for reuniting the so-called Catalan countries, which include the Valencian Community, the Balearic Islands and French Catalonia, all of which have strong Catalan-speaking minorities.

The most highly taxed region of Spain per capita are the Balearic Islands so if an independent Catalonia were economically successful, I wouldn't be surprised to see the two regions forming a confederation in a decade or so. Valencia has very close ties with Madrid but its strong Catalanist minority would definitely favour closer ties with an independent Catalonia. French Catalonia would have much more difficulty breaking away from France, and I very much doubt whether a majority of its people would ever want much more than increased cultural ties with an independent Catalonia.

Other parts of Spain, such as Galicia, Andalucía, the Canary Islands and even Aragón have their own parties but are not strong enough either economically or culturally to go it alone.

If you think there's been an oversight or you can provide more more detail about a particular event, I'd be delighted to hear from you.

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