Catalonia is on the verge of declaring independence from Spain, which is refusing to let it go. Would this mean the birth of a nation or the dissolution of Spain? Would Catalan independence be a catalyst for other ethnic independence movements, ripping apart other European nations, as well as the European Union?
Catalonia, one of the 17 semi-autonomous regions that constitute Spain, is the northeast corner of Spain, a triangle tucked between the Pyrenees Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. Though it has an area of only 12,397 square miles, it has a population of 7.5 million. Its capital, Barcelona, is the second largest city in Spain. The Catalan language is more closely related to Italian than Spanish. And the Catalans have wanted to break away from Spain for more than 500 years.
Today Catalonia is an economic powerhouse within the economic basket case that is the rest of Spain. With only 16% of the population, Catalonia accounts for one-fifth of Spain’s gross domestic product, as well as one-fourth of its exports. Its 215.6-billion-euro economy is about the size of Portugal’s and is bigger than the economies of most nations in the European Union. This economic success means that Catalonians feel held back by the central government in Madrid, which is all the more dependent on their remaining part of the country.
The regional Catalonian government had called for a referendum on independence to be held on October 1. The central government in Madrid, aided by a court ruling, forbade the election. Catalonians held the vote anyway. Spanish police shut down voting places and confiscated blank ballots, but they re-opened and were restocked with ballots as soon as the police left. Riot police roughed up voters. But still, over two million Catalans found a way to vote, and 90% voted for independence. That was only 40% of the possible voters, but, under the circumstances (including the heavy-handed tactics of Spanish police), the independence party declared victory.
Some are raising the prospect of a civil war, something Spain has bloody experience with. The European Union worries that Catalonian independence could “make Brexit look like a cakewalk.” Europe is full of countries made up of ethnic groups that have been clamoring for nationhood–the Scots, the Flemish, the Corsicans, the Bosnians, and more (see other independence movements in Europe). In Spain alone, if Madrid were to accept the secession of Catalonia, how could they keep into the union the even more militant Basques? The entire nation would come apart at the seams.
Some see these movements as part of the larger revival of populist nationalism associated with Donald Trump. But this is quite different. These are expressions not so much of nationalism but of ethnic identity. Nations are at risk. President Trump wants to make America great again. But what if one of America’s many ethnic groups sought to break away to form a new nation? What if Hispanic Americans demanded that they be allowed to form their own nation, consisting of California, Texas, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico?
I tend to be sympathetic to these kinds of decentralizing movements, but I’m not sure what the consequences of an independent Catalonia would be. What do you think would be best? Does any of this affect the interests of the United States?
Photo by Ivan McClellan (Flickr: Catalan National Day) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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