A strong, unified Spain is in the American interest. We want a unified Spain to be prosperous and help burden share the costs of maintaining the liberal rule-based order set up after World War II. Spain has been a net contributor to this rule-based order for decades. Spain is a member of NATO and the European Union. It is also an exporter of culture; Spanish (not Catalan) is one of the most widely spoken languages on the planet.
The Catalans were part of a constitutional referendum in the 1970s where a clear majority voted in favor of the democratic constitution of Spain with specific cultural and linguistic rights for Catalonia. Catalonia received significant autonomy from Spain with the Catalan language incorporated as one of the official languages in the country. Once Catalonia joined the new Spanish constitution — just as American states did when they joined the American union— it surrendered the ability to break away as an independent state.
The US does not allow the secession of its states and nor does Spain. Therefore it is understandable that Spain does not want Catalonia breaking away. Mariano Rajoy’s center right government has been responsibly working through the courts, engaging with the Socialist opposition party, and dialoguing with the Catalan government to stop a Catalan vote. The Spanish government has been securing diplomatic channels as well. The US, the French and the European Union and others have come out against a Catalan vote and Catalan independence.
Earlier this week, President Trump rightly came out against Catalan independence. There is a scheduled “referendum” this Sunday, October 1st. There was a similar “referendum” a few years ago. However, it is unlikely that the referendum will be carried out across Catalonia.
President Trump is in good company in speaking out against Catalan independence. As a rule, the United States stays away from “internal affairs” of other countries unless events will impact our own interests. Several US administrations have voiced concerns on such internal developments. Examples include President Obama’s stance against an independent Scotland in 2014 and President Clinton standing against Quebec independence in 1995. More recently, in 2015, President Obama signaled he was also against Catalan independence.
Spain is a reliable friend of the US. We have many shared interests and values including the fight against terrorism and the end to the Chavez-Maduro regime in Venezuela. US independence owes a great deal to Spanish assistance. There is also the fact that more than 55 million Americans have some form of Latino or Hispanic descent.
Unfortunately, the Catalans have been winning the PR war. The Spanish government has not found good international communicators who can present the Spanish side of the story in a compelling way. The Catalans also benefit from the fact that Spain is seen as a great country and that this Catalan independence movement is a quaint, harmless, sideshow.
The fight now is not so much about historical complaints regarding the suppression of the Catalan language as it is a fight about money. The Catalans feel they are contributing more money to the center of power (Madrid) than what they are receiving. Catalonia was a part of the Kingdom of Aragon for centuries and later the Catalans backed the wrong side in a Spanish war of succession between the Habsburgs and the Bourbons in the early 18th century. The Bourbons won that war, and they still hold the throne in Spain. Fast forward 200 years and the Catalan language (similar to Spanish) was suppressed for 40 years under Franco. That was a terrible misdeed but this happened a long time ago. The Spanish government has been making up for it for the past 40 years. The complaints of the Catalans ring hollow.
The Catalans have overplayed their hand on a number of fronts. There are parts of Catalonia where there is extreme pressure to only speak Catalan as opposed to the other official languages in Spain. There is a form of oppressive political correctness and revisionist history in the region. The political class of Catalonia is also very dishonest which has not helped the Catalan cause. One only has to google “Pujol” and “corruption” to see what I am referring to.
What will happen on Sunday? It is very likely that the vote will not take place. If for some reason a vote does happen it will likely be perceived as illegitimate because of low turnout. The President of Catalonia will likely be removed from office by the Spanish courts for allowing the vote to happen.
What happens after Sunday? The national government and the Catalan government will likely negotiate a better fiscal deal for the Catalans.
What happens in the long term? The real worry is that Spain will become a bigger version of Belgium where partial cultural differences paralyze the society. As the events unfold, one thing is clear: an Independent Catalonia is not in America’s best interest.
Article Published in Forbes.com on September 29, 2017.