Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Delegate or Disintegrate: Catalonia's Quest for Autonomy

By Blake MichaelPublished October 24, 2014

The Scottish Referendum held this past September has called into question the economic validity of secession in the globalized world. Catalonia, a region of Spain with a distinct culture and language, may break the mold by means of attempting to secede as an economic powerhouse. The fate of the Spanish nation may very well lie on the decisions made by her national government through the end of the year, with the Catalonian Parliament calling for an independence referendum on November 9th.
By Blake Michael, 10/24/14

Overshadowed by the impending Scottish referendum, almost two million Catalonians took to the streets in Barcelona in mid-September to demand political recognition. This massive display of regional solidarity was the latest in a series of events highlighting the dramatic rise in political participation and the increasing nationalism within the Catalonia region of Spain, causing tensions to rise near the breaking point in recent weeks. The regional government of Catalonia has announced that a referendum on independence will be held on November 9th in defiance of the national government. It has become clear that, at this point, a serious amount of change is not optional; however, with the right amount of political will, dissolution just might be.

If you need a little convincing that unity is still possible after seeing pictures of two million draped in red and yellow marching through the streets of Barcelona, you need only take a look at Quebec. When the separatists held a referendum in 1980, support for independence was at 60%; however, after nearly fifteen years of Canadian refusal to increase regional autonomy, the 1995 plebiscite failed by an incredibly thing margin. After weeks of incredibly close polling giving the separatists a lead, the Quebecois decided to stay within Canada in a 50.6% to 49.4% vote. This decision was reached largely due to the efforts of Prime Minister Jean Chretien, which included personal pleas for unity and promises of increased regional autonomy. 

If that sounds at all familiar, it's because that's exactly what David Cameron spent the weeks leading up to the vote trying to do. After getting emotional, the prime minister urged a crowd in Scotland to never "let anyone tell you that you can't be a proud Scot and a proud Brit." The Scottish referendum, which drew 84.59% of elegibile voters, was decided in many ways because of the promises made in London of greater Scottish control over taxation and local regulation. Secession was prevented only by the willingness of the national government of the United Kingdom to transfer some control over to the Scottish Parliament. 

The lack of similar action on behalf of the Spanish Government has led to a meteoric rise in support for independence within the region, climbing from 19% in 2010 to 48% in 2013 and reaching nearly 60% last month. Catalonia, unlike Quebec and Scotland, is not a net-importer of wealth; rather, the region makes up almost 20% of Spain's national GDP and sends much more in taxes to Madrid than it receives in return for remaining in the union. With a booming economy and knowledge of the Catalan language increasing- 90% of Catalonians between 15 and 29 profess fluency- Catalan nationalism is gaining traction and becoming extraordinarily difficult to ignore. 

However, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has made it quite clear over the course of the past few months that he does not believe it to be constitutional for Catalonia to secede, and has closed the door to a Scottish-style referendum. As time passes and the fires of regionalism burn ever stronger, his time is running out to find a way to convince the people of Catalonia of their place in Spain. The national government has come to a crossroads, with only one way forward leading to the preservation of the nation.  

If Spain is to remain united, the government must offer the same autonomy and local control which was able to quell secessionist passions in Quebec over the last decade and to prevent the dissolution of the United Kingdom last month. If it does not, it risks sparking a regional crisis among the four European nations sharing nine million Catalan speakers and fracturing the nearly six hundred year old Spanish nation. Like Scotland and Quebec, Catalonia has a culture distinct enough from the national government to warrant a desire for regional autonomy; however, unlike Scotland and Quebec, Catalonia has the institutional and economic power to support an independent state. Massive change and institutional reform is no longer optional; unity, however, certainly is.