PERSPECTIVES: What November Referendum in Catalonia Would Mean

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Top photo: Artur Mas, 129th President of the Generalitat de Catalunya | Credit: Wikimedia Commons By Julio Godoy*

BARCELONA (IDN) - Last December, the Catalonian parliament adopted a resolution that a referendum be carried out in November 2014, to decide whether the region remains part of Spain, or proclaims its independency. To say that the resolution constitutes a major challenge for the central government in Madrid is a euphemism.

Because, on the one hand, the Spanish constitution does not envisage referendums; and on the other, given the present climate of animosity reigning in Catalonia against Madrid, it is likely that a majority of the Catalonian population follows the 'separatists' – I use that term for lack of a better one: Catalonians rallying for independency claim they are nationalists, but that they simply don’t feel as Spaniards – among the political leaders and proclaims the region as a new independent state, and thus opens the way for other separatist movements in Spain, such as that of the Basque country. Finally, most Catalonians reject the monarchy and would prefer to ground a republic.
The choice by the majority in the Catalonian parliament of the date (November 9) for the referendum in Barcelona was motivated by strategic considerations: In September, less than two months earlier, Scotland will carry out its own plebiscite on the very same question – should the region remain part of Britain, or adopt independency? Catalonian separatists, led by the region’s head of government, Artur Mas, surely hope that the Scottish decision, if favourable to independence, would support the momentum, to finally get rid of Madrid.

A success of both the Scottish and Catalan independent movements would have serious consequences all over Europe: Similar nationalist movements have emerged in recent years in Belgium, in Italy, in France, and even in Germany, and they may feel encouraged by the Catalonian and Scotch separatisms. For the European Union, already battered by the economic crisis that followed the financial meltdown of 2007-2008, such a success would be a major challenge – for it would have to decide whether territories and populations already part of the union, can remain so, but as new member states. This so-called internal expansion of the EU would be a 'novum'; as of today, the EU has experienced the external expansion, that is, already existing states apply for membership and obtain it.

This challenge would add to the dramatic social and economic crisis the EU is suffering, and which has triggered a re-emergence of old nationalistic resentments – mostly against Germany, whose economic success and political influence over the continent is cause of envy; in some cases, as in Finland, France, Greece, and Holland, these nationalist movements have downright xenophobic characters; the EU participation in the so-called troika, that has imposed harsh neoliberal adjustment policies over half the continent, has aggravated the antipathy the body triggers all over; its incapacity to attenuate the social consequences – especially unemployment – of the crisis, or its collusion with international finance, also aliments nationalisms. The emergence of new states at its core, which may not be part of the EU, would further undermine the dwindling prestige of the bureaucracy in Brussels.

For Catalonia, the independency would also have lasting consequences: It is sure that the Catalonian population even after independency would like to remain part of the EU; but it may well be that the new state would not be accepted in the union – Madrid, for sure, would veto this membership. By the same token, Catalonia would also have to leave the Euro zone. In that case, Catalonia would at once lose the commercial advantages of both bodies, as well as the financial assistance it has enjoyed from Brussels; it would have to coin a new currency, and its international trade with its natural foreign partners would again suffer of taxes and tariffs, as in the old times. Its citizens would also lose the freedom they enjoy now to travel and settle everywhere within the EU.

Historical and current reasons

What for, then, the Catalonian independency? There are historical reasons for Catalonians to desire to get rid of the supremacy of Madrid: Catalonia existed as independent county under the kingdom of Aragon since the Middle Age and until the early XVIII Century, when the war of Spanish Succession brought about the forced unity of the territories in the Iberian peninsula with the exception of Portugal, with the House of Bourbons, based in Madrid, as head of the monarchy. King Juan Carlos is Bourbon – his controversial lifestyle, and corruption affairs his daughter has been associated with, have undermined whatever legitimacy the monarchy had.

As of today, Catalonians celebrate September 11 as their national day – the date of their defeat in 1714 against the Bourbons. Despite the defeat, and the enormous efforts made by Madrid to obliterate Catalonian culture, the Catalonian antimonarchist nationalism continued to exist, and it was most evident during the Civil War in the 1930s. Most Catalonians sided with the Republican movement against the Fascist Bando Nacional, led by Francisco Franco. Not coincidentally, the Franco dictatorship, which ruled Spain since 1939 until the dictator’s death in 1975, was most brutal in Catalonia and in the Basque country. It not only prohibited the local languages, and forced Spanish as national language upon these populations; it even went as far as to destroy some jewels of the typical Catalonian architecture that emerged in Barcelona in the late XIX and early XX centuries.

The present economic crisis has potentiated these historical reasons for independency. Catalonians – not only the most radical separatists – rightly see the Spanish fiscal system as a pillage of their resources.

Unbalance

According to official figures, Catalonia is the fourth richest region in Spain, as measured by the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. However, Catalonia pays the largest contribution to the Spanish central budget, only after Madrid. To make this unbalance worse, the region's benefit is a relatively low investment from Madrid. In 2009, for example, Catalonia contributed almost 62 billion Euros in taxes to the central budget, but only received public investments for well over 45 billion, amounting to a deficit of 8,5 percent of the Catalonian GDP. This unbalance has been growing since 2007. http://www.diplocat.cat/es/internacionalizacion-politica/67-deficit-fiscal/227-the-fiscal-deficit-between-catalonia-and-spain

On average and excluding money flows from the social security and unemployment systems, Catalonia contributed between 1986 and 2010 19.7 per cent of the revenue of the Spanish administration, but it only received 11.2 per cent of the expenditure of the Spanish Administration

As Elisanda Paluzie, professor of economics at the University of Barcelona, puts it, Catalonia feels as “a cash cow (which) pay(s)Swedish-level taxes in exchange for sub-par public services.”

Dividing lines

Another conflict is the teaching of Catalonian and Spanish as official languages. While Catalonia wishes that the former language be obligatory in its whole territory, and has created so called immersion courses for those Spanish immigrants who only speak Spanish, Madrid insists that Spanish enjoy preponderance in the school teaching.

As in many other conflictive issues, Catalonia has in recent past sought changes in the Spanish state structure, to transform it to a federal state. But Madrid – either the central government or the constitutional court or both – have rejected these reforms, on the basis that they would be illegal or unconstitutional. As if law were not only the normative social consensus resulting from a given political balance.

Madrid’s opposition to Catalonian reform attempts has been most of the time simply imprudent. A good example of this irrationality is the essay by the Madrid social scientist Enrique Gil Calvo, who in an op-ed in the El Pais newspaper published December 31, 2013 called Catalonian separatism “an irrational regression”, an “ethnical, self-victimising, anti-Spanish nationalism.” Gil Calvo even compared Catalonian separatism with the German “voelkisch” nationalism of the 1930, “obviously … without the Nazi criminality.” As the old Latin saying goes: Dear Enrique Gil Calvo, si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses.

Multi-ethnic

Actually, Catalonian leaders have since decades publicly affirmed the multi-ethnic nature of their society. Artur Mas, head of the local government, said in Nov 2007, “Catalonian is whoever feels she is Catalonian, whoever lives in Catalonia, and wants to become a Catalonian. The feeling of affiliation is most important than the administrative status (of a person). In any case, the will to be Catalonian is the most important criteria.”

Furthermore, Spain is in crisis and needs a drastic reform. Spain suffers a rate of unemployment of more than 25 percent. The unemployed among the young reach 50 percent. The national economic crisis – the result of the collusion among banks, real estate speculation, and government corruption – did not lead to prosecuting and punishing banksters, construction moguls, or corrupt officials, but instead in mass expropriations of middle class home owners.

The flagrant multiple corruption cases discovered during the past decade, that mark practically all political parties, unions, and even the monarchy, also show the deep moral decomposition of the Spanish polity. The Monarchy, which played a most exemplar role defending democracy during the attempted coup d’état of 1982, and appeared to have gained recognition in the whole of the country, is now plagued by scandals.

King Juan Carlos (75 year old) has been making the headlines of the yellow press for his love affairs, instead of offering comfort and guidance to a disappointed society. His daughter faces now a trial under the charges of misappropriating public money. The Catholic Church seems to be trapped in the Middle Ages, when Spain was a stronghold of inquisition, and keeps defending untenable positions in social matters. It is as if the sudden liberalism that Spain showed during the 1990s, and that led people think the country was on a sure path to steady development, was a mirage – and the official Spain had returned instead to the extreme mediocrity of the Franco dictatorship.

No wonder then that many Catalonians may want to step down from this corrupt unjust country. It remains to be seen whether the EU would leave them alone.

*Julio Godoy is an investigative journalist and IDN Associate Global Editor. He has won international recognition for his work, including the Hellman-Hammett human rights award, the Sigma Delta Chi Award for Investigative Reporting Online by the U.S. Society of Professional Journalists, and the Online Journalism Award for Enterprise Journalism by the Online News Association and the U.S.C. Annenberg School for Communication, as co-author of the investigative reports “Making a Killing: The Business of War” and “The Water Barons: The Privatisation of Water Services”. [IDN-InDepthNews – February 6, 2014]

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