Catalonia independence poses risks for Spain
SPAIN faces an even greater and more destabilising threat than its debilitating economy which has seen finances nosedive over the last five years and unemployment rocket to more than 25 per cent.
The new threat, which some politicians say cannot be allowed to happen, is Catalonia breaking away from Spain as an independent state.
If it were to succeed in forming a separate state, it is possible that Spain could unravel with the Basques being tempted to follow suit.
Spain’s current financial and economic challenge is serious even by European Union standards of crisis.
Spain’s public debt is more than 90 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). Its economy has slumped by 7.5 per cent in the five years from 2008-2013 and unemployment is the worst in Europe after Greece.
But former Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, said, ‘An independent Catalonia is impossible’.
His comments follow growing pressure for secession which would pose a really serious problem for Spain.
The roots of Catalonian nationalism go back to when Catalonians rebelled against Madrid, during the final phase of the Thirty Years War in the 17th century.
Calls for Catalonian separatism continued in the late 19th century and during the Second Republic (1932) and the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).
Victory for General Francisco Franco in 1939 saw Catalonian separatism crushed. All symbols of Catalonian identity were supressed and the language banned in public institutions.
Once the constitutional monarchy was established following the death of the Spanish dictator General Franco in 1975, the constitution of 1976 developed a largely autonomous regime for practically all Spanish regions.
In reality there are two real nations in the Kingdom of Spain - the Basque country and Catalonia which both have a historical tradition of independence with their own language and culture.
Basque separatists continued an armed struggle against Spain from the 1960s until a ceasefire in 2010. ETA, an armed nationalist and separatist terrorist organisation, has killed more than 800 Spaniards including politicians, magistrates, soldiers and policemen in its struggle for independence. Dozens more have been kidnapped and hundreds of Basque terrorists are in Spanish jails.
Catalonian nationalism has used a non-violent strategy to achieve its objectives.
Catalan is now the main language in Catalonia and the Balearics with only two to three hours a week of lessons in schools being given in Spain’s main language, Castilian, although there is a bilingual system in theory.
This explains, in part, the profound change in attitudes towards independence over the last 15 years which has seen a swing from 33.6 per cent of Catalans in favour in 1996 to 52.3 per cent in September 2013.
Those Catalans rejecting independence, according to polls, have dropped from 53.5 per cent in 1996 to 24.1 per cent in 2013.
The latest crisis over independence was spurred by a rally on Catalonia’s national day on September 11, 2013, when a 402 km (250 miles) human chain of more than one million people linked arms across the region.
The spectacular show of support, with people draped in Catalan flags and Catalonia’s national colours, was promoted by parties supporting an independent Catalonia under the motto ‘Catalonia - a state in Europe’.
The rally was a sign of increased pressure on Spain’s central government to allow an independence referendum in 2014 to coincide with the 300th anniversary of Catalonia’s independence in 1714.
Eighty per cent of Catalans want a referendum on independence.
Spain’s central government in Madrid is resisting moves for a referendum on constitutional and legal grounds. But it is doubtful the Spanish government can stop it.
The calls for independence also come at a difficult time for Spain’s monarchy when its popularity is being questioned following a series of scandals.
Achieving independence, even if through a peaceful and democratic process, would raise passions and be complex for both Catalonia and Spain. The road to independence is full of uncertainty for Catalonia, Spain and the European Union.
The most optimistic scenario sees the region’s capacity to survive and thrive given a presumed fiscal feasibility of the state to be with an increasingly diversified market for its exports beyond Spain.
The worst-case is an almost catastrophic forecast with significant falls in GDP, relocation of businesses, an exponential increase in public deficit and the devastating impact of leaving the euro as a breakaway state.
But if Catalonia is successful in achieving independence it could well tempt the Basques to follow suit.