The Case Against Catalan Independence

The secessionist movement in Spain has been looking for friends in the United States. Republicans and Democrats alike should remember why Spanish unity is a boon for America.

Spain has been a great friend of the United States, as both a NATO member and a trade partner. It is a major net contributor to the rule based global order — more than 2000 Spanish troops are involved with numerous UN missions around the world — and spends around $1.5 billion on foreign assistance annually. Spain also has shared interests in improving democracy in Venezuela, largely supports the goals of a full democracy in Cuba, and has been involved on the security side of things in the Sahel. The current Spanish national government has expressed support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a U.S.-European free trade agreement. In short, Spain is a reliable partner of the United States.

When the current prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, was interior minister, he was one of the first senior officials to come to the United States to meet with the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks to signal Spain’s cooperation with America in the War on Terror. Rajoy is also the leader of the People’s Party (PP), which produced such friends of the United States as Jose Maria Aznar and Ana Palacio. These friends of ours were willing to send troops to Iraq and Afghanistan in the teeth of strong disapproval in Spain. This support, along with the al Qaeda terrorist attacks in Madrid just before the 2004 general elections, cost the PP its government and our friends their political careers. I wrote about our potential for partnership when Prime Minister Rajoy was elected in 2011.

A unified Spain is a stronger global partner than a divided one. The secessionist movement in Spain’s Catalonia region, however, is trying to split off. The region has a population of around 7 million, and a history of autonomy going back centuries within the kingdom of Aragon. Catalans speak a Romance language with “Iberian and Gallo-Itallic roots” — simply described, the Catalan language is very similar to Spanish with a bit of French mixed in. Depending on the poll and depending on the day, the numbers are all over the place on how much of Catalan society wants to secede. As of today, a clear majority does not seek secession in Catalonia.

Catalonia fully participated in the transition to democracy in the late 1970s and a sweeping majority in Catalonia ratified the Spanish Constitution, which allowed for strong Catalan autonomy. The Spanish Constitution that they agreed to does not contemplate secession. Unfortunately, the Spanish national government has not always helped the cause of Spanish unity. If Spain were to have a Catalan prime minister the way Canada has had a French Canadian prime minister or the UK has had a Scottish prime minister, the issue might calm down a bit. There are intense fights between the Catalan and National governments over spending, taxes, and language instruction that have a lot of history and symbolism wrapped up in the debates. Every election, whether for the national congress or for municipal elections, such as the one coming at the end of September, has a “crypto referendum” feel. I have written about this issue elsewhere.

Those Catalonians who favor secession constantly seek symbols of legitimacy for their cause. If you have not visited Barcelona, do not follow the Barcelona football team, or have not read George Orwell’s book about the region, Catalonia is not on the average American’s radar screen. The secessionists take advantage of this ignorance and visit the United States often. Typically, they get a polite response in policy and academic circles in Washington and elsewhere because Spain’s country brand is great. Since Spain is not a “problem country” there is a bit of “okay, this sounds quaint — a corner of Spain wants to secede.” As a result the secessionists are received in the United States with curiosity but little real interest given the many other things in the global “inbox.”

With all the above, their DC lobbyist deserves a bonus because the Catalan “foreign minister” came to town a few weeks ago and met with some our best Republican members of Congress, including Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). The meetings and the related quotes from the meeting were widely disseminated in the Catalan press and gave the impression that there was support in the United States for the Catalan secessionist cause — right before an election in Catalonia later this month.

To be clear: officially, U.S. policy across Republican and Democratic administrations is that Catalan secession is an “internal issue” and the United States does not take a position.

Unofficially, the secession of Catalonia is clearly not in the U.S. interest, just as a split of Scotland from the UK is not in the U.S. interest. When push came to shove, President Obama made a statement in the run up to the Scottish election signaling that America hoped Scotland would remain in the United Kingdom. Just as President Obama weighed in in favor of unity of the UK, any Republican or Democratic president would weigh in in favor of Spanish unity if it came to a vote (assuming the U.S. enjoyed a high enough approval rating in Spain).

A secessionist Catalonia would have a very difficult time getting into the European Union because Spain would veto its entry. An independent Catalonia would have the same problem with using the Euro. U.S. and other multinational companies that have operations in Catalonia would likely relocate to different parts of Spain or the EU given the uncertainty potential secession poses from a business perspective. It is unclear given NATO enlargement fatigue if an independent Catalonia would be admitted to NATO, even before considering a near certain veto by Spain.

It would have been better for these members to reiterate U.S. policy — which is that Catalan independence is an internal matter. If they are going to meet with advocates of Catalan secession, they should also meet with groups advocating Spanish national unity. These groups are active in Catalonia as well as in other parts of Spain, and their cause has at least as much support in Catalonia as does secession. Given our deep relations with Spain, the pro-American Spanish Government, and our clear interest in a unified Spain, Republicans should either be “fair and balanced” on this issue or, better yet, clearly discourage Catalan secession.

article published in on September 18, 2015.

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