Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Catalonia Can't Have Its Cake and Eat It, Too

By Julie GokhmanPublished November 8, 2015

Written by Julie Gokhman, 11/08/2015 Catalonian officials are calling for independence from Spain while still maintaining European Union membership. The autonomous region may be a big fish in a small pond right now, but secession is not a feasible solution for their complaints.
On September 27th, an election in the autonomous region of Catalonia, Spain, led to the "Together for Yes" coalition winning an absolute majority in the regional assembly, thus creating a secessionist majority in the Catalan parliament. A region with sense of a fierce independence fueled by memories of Franco-era oppression,   Catalonia is one of the richest and most industrialized regions within Spain. Because of its position as a manufacturing and service sector powerhouse, the region has turned away from Spain in the midst of the country's debt crisis, believing that it offers more to the country than the country can offer to it. Although support for independence hovered around only 25% just five years ago, nearly 50% of Catalan now supports a departure from the Spanish state.

With the secessionist party now in power, Catalan officials are aiming for an independent state within 18 months, despite Spain's firm stance that secession is unconstitutional. However, while Catalonia is chomping at the bit to be an independent state, its secessionist leaders wish to remain members of the European Union.

The European Union Commission, however, confirms that if Catalonia separates from Spain, it will not retain its position in the political-economic union. Specifically, British Prime Minister David Cameron has warned that a seceding state must "take its place at the back of the queue," with German Chancellor Angela concurring, stating that a seeding state must "reapply for membership." Artur Mas, the recently chosen president of Catalonia, argues that there is no precedent in the European Union for what Catalonia aims to do, and thus automatic membership should remain on the table.

Pragmatically, Artur Mas' position makes sense. Membership in the European Union provides a strong common currency, tax-free trading among members, and free and open movement between member states for European Union citizens. This idea of ending Catalonia's relationship with Spain while maintaining its European Union membership is entirely unfeasible.

It is clear that Catalonia wants all the benefits of being a part of the European Union while escaping the authority of Spain. The economic reasoning is understandable, until one considers that while Spain is experiencing a debt crisis, the European Union is struggling as well. Even if Catalonia can escape its warden, it will be asked to contribute its economic capabilities and revenues to the European Union — just as it is currently doing for the Spanish central government. Whether Catalonia falls under Spain's umbrella or that of the European Union, it will be forced to contribute more financially than it may consider ideal.

Perhaps Catalonia ought to secede from all previous political associations and stand as an entirely independent state. Let the region form new alliances, treaties, and currency. Catalonia is, undoubtedly, a strong region. But if it does not exist within a state that has already manufactured a critical foreign policy foundation, Catalonia is not nearly as strong as it claims to be.

Yes, Catalonia may be a large fish swimming in a small pond, but this is not reflective of its readiness to be on its own in the ocean. Its economic concerns are understandable, but economic downturns are a common feature of the international system and are not an excuse to secede and set a poor precedent for future, similarly grumpy, regions. Culture clashes are also a contributor to this international drama, but they, too, are a common feature of the world today.

Catalonia is undergoing growing pains as it grows more rapidly than the state that contains it. Secession, however, is not a solution. Catalonia cannot leave Spain while maintaining the benefits of European Union membership. They cannot have their cake and eat it, too.