Catalonian Independence Is About Identity, Not Economics

The world has been facing a few high profile independence crisis as of late, and everyone is trying to understand where these ongoing sagas are headed

The dynamics of independence movements the world over - and there are many - are complex and multifaceted. Trying to reduce these movements to singular primary issues never provides the observer with a full picture and consequently cannot give policymakers and world leaders tools with which to address them.

The biggest story these days is the growing unrest surrounding the Catalonian bid for independence from Spain. From the beginning, reactions of authorities in Madrid have been pretty hard line. Police forcibly shut down polling stations during the independence vote and arrested scores of demonstrators.

The events in the Spanish territory hit an important milestone at the end of last week when the province’s parliament voted overwhelmingly for independence in defiance of the central government. In response, Spanish authorities took drastic legal measures to assert direct control over Catalonia, nullifying the province’s unique self-governing status. On Monday, European media reported that the president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont along with five of his former ministers, fled to Brussels via France in order to avoid prosecution promised by Madrid.

Yes, the situation in Catalonia is certainly escalating. The independence bid may soon come to an abrupt halt with central government authorities now stepping into the province and with its most important leaders now in exile.

As the world is observing all of this, it is interesting to see the assessments of all the international outsiders looking in, and frankly - in the opinion of this writer - how seriously they often miss the point.

Some, for instance, have focused on the economic issues, presenting the thrust for independence as motivated primarily by money. Indeed a popular chant of secession protesters has been “Madrid nos roba”—“Madrid is robbing us”—by which they mean the federal government is taking more than it gives in transfer payments. Catalonia holds just 16 percent of the Spanish population but accounts for about a fifth of Spain’s $1.2 trillion economy and about a quarter of all Spanish exports and industry. Most crucially, it pays Madrid $12 billion more in taxes per year than it gets back.

Another point of discussion has been the legal debate. This stream of thought denounces the independence movement because Catalonia does not fall within the technical confines of “self-determination” as outlined by the UN. These commentators lambast the attempts at secession for undermining the Spanish constitution and “disobeying” the rightful legal authority of a unified Spain. This narrative presents the conflict as a legal debate, between Catalonians claiming a lawful right to independence, and authorities in Madrid countering that the province is and always will be, part of a unified Spanish Republic.

These are all exercises in over-emphasizing superficial issues.

While there is no doubt that these factors are important, and arguments evolving out of them may be used to bolster the respective sides, they do not lie at the core.

At the root of the current crisis is the simple fact that Catalonians maintain and have always had, a unique and distinct group identity that differs drastically from their Spanish counterparts. This includes differences in language, culture, and many unique historical differences as well, being only forcibly forged into union with other parts of the Iberian Peninsula at multiple times throughout the Middle Ages and modern history.

It is not legal minutia or markets, but rather a shared identity that forms the cohesive element for a unified society. This enables a diverse and multi-faceted political body to stay together despite differences. Take the United States for example. Any honest observer would not call the full spectrum of America homogenous. Cultural, social, environmental, and economic considerations differ drastically among different groups and locations. From its get-go, the US was founded on federalist principles that maintained high independence for the sub-groups, in this case the states, in governing themselves and establishing the policies that affect the day to day lives of people. That was done in recognition of America’s wide diversity already at the time of its inception two and a half centuries ago.

Despite this vast variation in interests, support for any actual effort to go through with a secession has been relatively low in the modern period of the United States. This is because despite all of the grievances, real or imagined, Americans tend to somewhat identify with each other. They share a language, a common history, common cultural icons, and for the most part, values. This is the factor that prevents secession from taking place, even in instances where the situation may look beneficial from a purely “economics” perspective, such as in the case of the state of California, which receives back only 99 cents for every dollar it pays in federal taxes, the national average being around $1.22.

Catalan’s have arguably never had this sense of unity with the rest of Spain. While Catalonia has been supportive of unification attempts in modern Spain - two of Spain's seven founding fathers, responsible for the country's current constitution, were of Catalan origin - the province’s relationships with these unions have always been peppered with assertions of independence. After the current Republic was established in 1978, Catalonia promptly restored the Government of Catalonia or Generalitat de Catalunya, the local authoritative body which had been in exile since Francisco Franco’s fascist government came to power in 1939. A brand new Statute of Autonomy was also declared in 1979.

This latest bid for independence can hardly be seen as a sudden, out-of-nowhere movement to secede from a central power motivated purely by economics. It is rather the latest in a centuries-long story of a distinct group of people working out their relationship with their neighbors in Iberia.     

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