The current climate of repression in the Spanish region of Catalonia has reached boiling point in the past week. 2.3 million Catalans (43%) turned out for an unofficial vote with 90% backing independence, despite confiscation of ballot boxes and violent opposition from central government controlled police. 900 Catalans were injured and several regional officials were arrested. Further protests in opposition to the oppression have taken place, allowing the total percentage of the population of Catalonia now wanting a referendum to rise to 75%. But how did the call of independence arise? What are the implications of such a vote succeeding?
The identity of the region of Catalonia predates the Spanish Kingdom by c.300 years, beginning with the union of the Crown of Aragon and the County of Barcelona in 1150. The merge with the rest of Spain or ‘Castile’ occurred in 1479. Throughout the union there has been greater and greater integration, however there has been renewed feelings of an individual identity and culture in the region since the 19th century, which saw multiple campaigns for autonomy. It was not until 1931 that Catalonia received the freedom they wanted, with increased independence from the government in Madrid, having their own parliament and executive known as the ‘Generalitat’. After the civil war of 1936 – 1939, Catalan autonomy was revoked and ever since there have been growing cries for independence from the region, especially exacerbated by the 2007 economic crisis which hit Spain particularly hard.
Today Catalonia retains its self-governance with its own police force, and it is using such devices to attempt to secede from Spain.
In addition to the historical and executive differences, the two nations vary culturally. Catalan is a language that has been spoken exclusively in Catalonia and Andorra for centuries but has had limits placed on its use by the central Spanish government. However, it is once again on the rise and has been closely linked with the movement towards independence. The region has banned bull fighting as it is said to be inhumane, Flamenco dancing is far less common that it is in the rest of Spain and they even have their own flag. These differences are felt to not be properly respected by the Spanish government and the region would prefer to be removed from the Spanish union rather than be incorporated any further.
Moreover, Catalonia provides a huge share of income to Spain which does not get reinvested into the region from where it came. Catalonia accounts for 1/5 of Spain’s foreign investment, 1/4 of Spanish exports and 1/5 of the country’s GDP whilst only 16% of the population lives in Catalonia. €14 billion are taken in taxes each year from the region back to Madrid and distributed to the rest of Spain rather than being used to improve the lives of Catalans . This is a further key reason why secession is on the mind of many in the region.
It is clear that Catalonia is culturally and politically detached from the rest of Spain, but should these calls for independence be allowed to flourish and reach fruition? The first point to discuss is that of self-determination. The Unprecedented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO) defines self-determination as ‘the right of a people to determine its own destiny.’ This was encouraged by both Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin after World War I and sets out that a nation should be allowed the choice to self-govern. This principle has been included in multiple international agreements including the Atlantic Charter in 1941 but the principle was never clearly defined. The route to a decision was not made clear, nor was what constitutes a ‘people’, which can make this process difficult and convoluted. If we were to follow this principle that a people can, if they choose, have the choice to govern themselves, then Catalonia should be able to have a referendum on independence.
Despite this the democratic constitution of Spain states that the country is a union and reaffirmed this point regarding “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”. The constitution ‘was approved by more than 90% of Catalan voters’ so some in Madrid have been claiming that the protests are unconstitutional and that the brutal police response has been justified. This can never be the case. Despite the fact that this clause exists, any disruptions of democratic processes by force is not only anti-democratic but also violates the non-aggression principle (NAP) and is particularly abhorrent when committed to oppress individual freedoms as was seen across Catalonia. Such brutality and a disregard for freedom is in fact a further reason that independence should be encouraged.
A more convincing argument is that Catalan independence could be the catalyst for the Balkanisation of Europe. After the Ottoman Empire left the Balkans, several nations came and went including the likes of Yugoslavia, a nation to unite Slavic people. However infighting and protest led to its implosion and the creation of 9 new states who fought for territory from each other. The fear is that the same thing may happen in Europe as small separatist groups such as those in Flanders, Scotland, Basque and Bavaria, to name a few, claim independence and fight for it. Some claim that unity is vitally important for Europe, but for a libertarian, individual choice and liberty is more important. The only reasons a libertarian would oppose a movement for freedom would be if conflict was either the means or the result of such a break or if independence is in neither party’s interest. However, although conflict is a potential issue, smaller nations with smaller governments with fewer overarching laws, governing less, gives greater freedom and would be greatly proposed by a libertarian.
Catalonia has a viable reason to leave and other than a vague sense of unity, there appears to be no true reasons given to oppose the move. However, the case of whether it makes economic sense for Catalonia to secede is another matter. The region, despite being part of Spain, still has debts amassed to the tune of €42 billion and may then require an EU bail out, causing both Catalonia and the rest of Europe to be weakened as a result. There would also then be the potential for increased taxation where these taxed Euros would not be able to be reinvested in the region, as instead it will be used to pay off debts for decades. Not only would Catalonia’s economy falter, but Spain’s too. As previously discussed, 1/5th of Spain’s GDP originates from Catalonia and an already struggling Spain would see a large proportion of its income removed. Despite this, Catalonia currently has a €2000 higher GDP per capita than the rest of Spain and is in fact higher than the EU average, however there is the potential for large firms to move away from Catalonia in favour of Spain to avoid instability; Caixa Bank are leading the charge, moving their headquarters from Barcelona to Valencia. The Spanish government have signed a directive to make it easier for firms to leave Catalonia, presenting a huge problem for the region’s prosperity and future outlook . Economically then, Catalan independence makes little sense.
The only reason Catalan independence would actively benefit the region would be the peace gained from doing so. The people of Catalonia should be given the choice and not prevented from voting by force, however a yes vote may see Catalonia, Spain and perhaps Europe economically impacted by such a decision. A vote should be given, and the use of police brutality to quell the protests is an abhorrent use of state control. Although, for Catalonia’s future, a no vote is the strongest vote.