Spain is a success story for democracy and development, and a net contributor to the global liberal order over the last four decades. One reason for this success has been Spain’s ability to maintain national unity for over five hundred years despite ethnic and linguistic diversity. A push for Catalan independence, however, calls that unity into question. A potential breakup of Spain by Catalonia is not in the U.S. interest, not in Europe’s interest, not in Spain’s interest and ultimately, not in Catalonia’s interest.
President Artur Mas, the Prime Minister of Catalonia, is visiting the U.S. this week to push an independence agenda. His efforts to split Catalonia from Spain should be more than a niche news story here in the United States. At a time when Europe is in significant political and financial turmoil, President Mas’ aspiration to create an independent Catalan state should be viewed with considerable skepticism.
The reality is that an independent Catalonia would face a messy divorce from Spain. Under any independence agreement Catalonia’s economy would take a serious hit—Catalans would have to assume a significant part of Spain’s debt. This challenge would be further complicated by the need to find a currency other than the Euro, as Spain would veto Catalan membership in the monetary union. For that reason alone, not to mention political uncertainty, there would be a likely exodus of multinational and Spanish companies to other regions in Spain. An independent Catalonia would have a hard time getting NATO membership for the same reasons.
Spain was assembled through the merger, mainly by marriage, of smaller kingdoms with long and distinct histories; this is reflected in its national coat of arms. Several of these regions have longstanding cultural practices, dialects, and even languages. Catalonia is one such region— its language, Catalan, is a Romance language that shares both Iberian and Gallo-Itallic linguistic roots. Catalan is mainly spoken in Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, and an adjoining region in France. While most Spaniards have a sense of national identity, regional and local identities hold strong.
One of the historic debates in Spain has been “what level of independence should various regions have?” After the Spanish Civil War, Franco’s answer was a total repression of the Catalan and Basque languages for ideological reasons, as well as to punish the Catalan and Basque nationalist forces who fought against Franco in the Civil War. Following Franco’s death, Spain held a constitutional referendum in 1978 as part of the transition to democracy under King Juan Carlos. Catalonia had strong voter turnout (67 percent) and even stronger support (91 percent) for the new Spanish Constitution. Among other things, the constitution righted the wrong of Franco era repression of Catalan and Basque languages by enshrining both cultural respect and high degrees of regional autonomy. As a result, Spain has four languages with official or co-official status: Castilian Spanish, Catalan, Basque, and Galician. Primary and Secondary Schools in Catalonia mandate that all subjects are taught in Catalan, with the exception of several hours each week set aside for Spanish learning.
While it is true that Catalonia makes up about 20 percent of the GNP of Spain and sends more taxes to the center than it gets back in the revenue sharing process, it is also the most heavily indebted region and has required significant bailouts from the central government. This has become one of the main sticking points in Catalan relations with Madrid.
Unfortunately, Catalans are no longer content with their relationship with Spain. Understandably, the modern state of identification with Catalan language and culture is a form of psychological response to the Franco repression. Given that the current generation of Catalan politicians and two generations of young people have been raised in an all-Catalan environment with an emphasis in the schools on Catalan historical grievances, today’s mentality should not be altogether surprising. A series of economic and political crises in Spain itself have also created a window for political leaders like Artur Mas to push for Catalan independence. He has tried to make various elections virtual plebiscites, and while each has fallen short in its own way, he has not been dissuaded in his efforts.
It is a great irony that Artur Mas’ political mentor, Jordi Pujol, may be one of the reasons that Catalan independence fails. A corruption scandal in the Pujol family has set back the Catalan independence cause, as it undermines one of the movement’s key arguments: vote for an independent Catalonia and we will give you clean politicians. It’s also true that in the 40 years that Franco has been dead, Catalonia has undergone significant demographic change. Today, nearly one fifth of Catalonia’s residents are non-Spanish immigrants, and more residents identify Spanish as their primary language than Catalan. It’s not clear how these residents would view independence.
Unfortunately, Spain’s national political parties have not helped the argument for continued unification. There has not been a Spanish Prime Minister from Catalonia in modern times. There is no Catalan Gordon Brown (Scottish) or a Catalan Jean Chretien (French Canadian). The Popular Party led government, the party most closely identified with Spanish unity, has been particularly adept at making enemies in Catalonia. The “informal referendum” on independence this fall indicated that upwards of 80 percent of Catalonians favor independence, but with approximately 40 percent voter turnout—there is a perception that only those who favor independence cared to show up for the vote. The national government refuses to allow Catalans hold an actual referendum on the issue, insisting that any such vote is illegal. The general perception is that an independence vote in Catalonia would likely fail, but among other fears, the national government believes that allowing Catalonia to hold a vote would encourage similar movements in other Spanish regions.
Because this issue is so obscure and almost overlooked in the U.S., Artur Mas will likely get a polite but limited hearing of his point of view in New York at Columbia. A divisive and confrontational leader at home, he should be asked hard questions about how Catalan independence would truly affect his people and their chances for long-term prosperity.
Article Published in Forbes.com on April 8, 2015.