Is Catalonia Spain’s Scotland?

Catalonia’s regional government last week “suspended its campaign for a planned independence vote,” reports Raphael Minder for The New York Times. And so ended “separatism September.”

As Paul Taylor noted in a Reuters dispatch republished by The International New York Times, had Scotland voted “yes” in its own independence referendum on Sept. 18, the result may have been a “political earthquake” that would “whet appetites for self-rule from Catalonia to Flanders.”

The Scots voted “no,” but Catalan appetites remained thoroughly whetted. “Tens of thousands of pro-independence activists marched across Catalonia on Tuesday” — Sept. 30 — “to protest the Constitutional Court’s decision to suspend the November 9 referendum on self-rule,” report Miguel Noguer, Pere Ríos and Carlos E. Cué for El País. “Wearing yellow shirts that symbolize the independence drive, demonstrators cried ‘Votarem, votaremos’ (‘We will vote’) and waved estelades, an alternative and unofficial Catalan flag used by separatists.”

This comes as no surprise to William Cole, a university professor and book dealer living in Barcelona. In an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times, he explains, the Catalans’ “centuries-long marriage with Spain, never a happy one, has been on the rocks for some time.” The eastern region is Spain’s coastal-industrial corridor, earning far more in income than it receives in support from Madrid. Linguistic and cultural differences with the rest of Spain only aggravate the economic divide. “If Catalans want independence, there should be a path,” Mr. Cole writes. Madrid’s unwillingness to allow a vote, “in the eyes of many Catalans, offers conclusive evidence that Spain is not a fully functioning democracy.”

Pro-independence Catalans are not going down without a fight. “Leaders in Catalonia are defying Madrid by pushing for a non-binding ‘consultation’ vote on November 9,” according to Agence France-Presse. And though the Catalan regional president Artur Mas has publicly discouraged civil disobedience, he is standing his ground against arguments that the formation of an independence commission in Catalonia directly contradicts the Spanish constitution.

Unlike Scotland, a potential Catalan referendum polls decidedly toward independence. An April poll conducted by the Center of Opinion Studies (which, it’s worth mentioning, is run by the Catalan government) “indicated that 47 percent of the region’s population favored independence and 28 percent were against it,”according to Al Jazeera America’s Philip J. Victor.

But Scots still had the support of their central government. Catalonia’s referendum movement enjoys no such support — and not just on constitutional grounds. “Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy recent said it ‘divides Catalans’ and ‘alienates them from Europe and the rest of Spain,’” Mr. Victor reports. And, as mentioned, “Spain would suffer a significant economic hit if Catalonia — which accounts for 20 percent of the country’s economy — were to become independent.”

“Rajoy is so vehemently against a Catalan referendum that he even started a war of words with Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond in the days before the Scottish vote,” writes Elaine Tang for The New Republic. “He and his ministers threatened to block Scotland’s entry into the European Union and prophesied economic peril and European catastrophe should Scotland have left Great Britain.”

“But by resolutely denying a vote and stubbornly refusing to even entertain a discussion, Rajoy is only exacerbating matters,” she explains. “As the country grows more polarized, Catalan independence grows more popular and the protests are only getting bigger.”

It grows so big, the rest of the world is starting to notice — but “the discussion has not yet registered on markets themselves,” writes Tobias Buck for The Financial Times (registration required). “Yields on the country’s debt are close to historical lows and shares in bellwether Catalan companies have continued to perform well. According to senior Spanish officials, this proves that fears of a big rift between state and region are overblown.”

All in all, unlike Scotland, the independence debate in Catalonia appears to be driven by a more fiery passion. Animosity between Barcelona and Madrid is far more pronounced than between Westminster and Holyrood. A “feeling of distrust already had deep roots in Catalonia,” writes Xavier Vilà Carrera for World Affairs. Under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, Catalans, along with Basques and Galicians and other ethnic minorities in Spain, were ruthlessly targeted. The public use of Catalan was banned, as was the application of non-Castilian (official Spanish) names to newborns born after 1938. Thousands of Catalan activists were executed or fled into exile during Franco’s reign, according to the BBC. Those wounds are perhaps still sore.

Written by Jake Flanagin


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