Over the past few days, alarming protests have taken place throughout the northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia. These protests, which began as an effort to condemn the austerity measures of Spanish Premier Mariano Rajoy, have swiftly developed into a full-fledged independence movement—perhaps the most legitimate independence movement that Western Europe has seen in decades. The Catalan crisis is more than an isolated case, however. Instead, it points to key economic and cultural weaknesses in the most basic elements of the European political system.
The key problem in Catalonia is economic. A wealthy region, Catalonia produces about a fifth of Spain’s GDP and contains about 16 percent of Spain’s population. Due to Catalonia’s wealth, it contributes more in taxes to Spain’s central government than it receives back.
This inequality in tax policy has recently angered regional citizens because Catalonia has been hit especially hard by the current financial crisis. Though it remains the most productive and wealthy of Spain’s seventeen regions, it also has incurred the most debt, and Catalonian Premier Artur Mas was forced to beg Madrid for a bailout. Catalonia then demanded that Spain give the region more control over its tax dollars, claiming that the most productive region of the country should not give more in taxes than it receives back only to be forced to beg for a bailout.
When the Spanish government refused this demand, Mas declared that independence could be put on the table should Madrid refuse to acquiesce. He further set a date for new elections, in which parties seeking independence (or at least much greater autonomy) are expected to make large gains. Protests originally intended to counter austerity turned into pro-independence rallies, and now, more than fifty percent of Catalans claim to support secession.
The problem in Catalonia, far from isolated, points to a wider problem with both economic and cultural components. Economically, the current recession is tearing Europe apart both among and within its constituent states. On the European level, the crisis threatens the fabric of Europe itself. The European Union has become a bastion of disunity and discord. The Euro is in danger of collapse, nations are grappling for power, and protests have seized the continent. Furthermore, the newly apparent fragility of nation-states like Spain has had adverse effects on international markets, which could further fuel separatist movements while also disrupting the economies of Europe and the world.
The greater problem with Europe’s political system, however, is cultural, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Catalonia. In reality, most of Europe’s “national” cultures are mere political constructions. Some countries have become more homogeneous than others, but some—especially Spain—are basically multiple diverse nations grouped together under a central government. Regional tensions were muted in the era before the European Union because Europe’s governments were so nationalistic—the Franco government, for example, put severe restrictions on public displays of Catalonian language and culture.
With the European Union’s ascent, however, nationalism has seen a marked decrease in Europe, which has allowed regional cultures to thrive. Catalan language and culture have reemerged strong from the Franco years, and with them has come a robust sense of Catalan nationalism. As a Catalan friend told me, her pride and nationalism for Catalonia is constant, while her loyalty to Spain ebbs and flows. Lately, she has found herself more and more sympathetic to the idea of independence—an idea she claims was rarely voiced in public only a few decades ago. She, like many Catalans, resents that her language is viewed as secondary to Castilian Spanish, that Madrid collects taxes on her region, and that her nation’s rich culture often goes unknown on the world stage because there is no internationally-recognized government to support it. Catalonia has its own cultural, linguistic, and historical legacy—a legacy that instills pride and patriotic fervor in its people.
And so, two phenomena—one economic, one cultural—have combined to create the strongest possibility in decades for a new state in Western Europe. Many Catalans, proud of their national culture and resentful of Spanish fiscal policy, feel that they can succeed as a cultural and economic force. As Catalonian Premier Artur Mas recently pointed out, were Catalonia independent, it would be among the top fifty exporting nations in the world.
Catalan independence is a real possibility, which shows that our traditional ways of thinking about Europe—chiefly our idea that its states are stable, culturally homogeneous entities—may well be false. Although the Catalan independence movement is the strongest of its kind currently, it is far from the only secessionist movement active on the continent. Many regions in Europe have similar histories of cultural autonomy or even independence, and many also feel that they contribute much more to their central government than they get back economically. Scotland, Flanders, Padania, Bavaria, and Brittany (among others) are all home to secessionist movements of varying levels of power.
If the current economic recession continues to exacerbate the nationalistic fervor within these regions, the map of Europe as we know it could soon be redrawn. An independent Catalonia may well be the change that sets off such a chain of events.
John Griffin ’16, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Stoughton Hall.