By Channing Fisher
You could almost call it a smaller-scale Brexit. In fact, there’s even a trending Twitter hashtag, “Catalexit.” Catalonia’s fight for independence reflects rising nationalist sentiments across the globe, and has implications for people in the rest of Spain, Europe, and even here in Elsah, Illinois.
Catalonia is a region in northeastern Spain characterized by its own distinct culture and language. It was an independent kingdom in the 11th century before it became part of the neighboring Aragon kingdom, which subsequently came under Spanish rule in the 15th century.
After the Spanish civil war and the reign of Francisco Franco, the Spanish Constitution of 1978 reestablished a unified Spain with 17 autonomous communities that negotiated their relationship with the central government.
While it’s not a perfect parallel to the state system here in the United States, some comparisons can be drawn.
“We can experience mutual cooperation based on the desirability of a federal government while still working through natural tensions and issues such as those that invoke ‘states’ rights,’” said Duncan Charters, professor of languages and cultures at Principia.
Catalonia has its own government—the “Generalitat” in the native Catalan language—that is comprised of its own legislative and executive branches. These take the form of the Parliament and President Carles Puigdemont.
While Catalonia is autonomous in many ways, it still pays taxes to the central government in Madrid. One of the main motivations behind the push for independence is the discrepancy in the amount of taxes they pay and the budget they receive from Madrid. Indeed, they pay more in taxes to Madrid than the central government gives back to them in the form of services. In 2014, this discrepancy accounted for $10 billion worth in taxes that do not directly benefit the region, but rather go to other parts of Spain.
Catalonia is home to 16% of the population of Spain, and generates 19% of the country’s GDP. It produces more than 25% of Spanish foreign exports. Barcelona is located within Catalonia, making it Spain’s main tourist region.
“In terms of transportation, it’s the biggest bridge between Spain and the rest of Europe,” said Guillem Mata Granell, a fourth-year business student from Valencia, Spain. He speaks Catalan, but lives just south of Catalonia. As he currently works in the Netherlands, Catalonian independence would make driving back home drastically different.
Separatist movements in Catalonia have been active for years. “Many who were not extreme separatists supported the drive for independence as a way to force the Spanish government to stop ignoring their call for negotiations for greater autonomy,” Charters said. “This approach clearly did not have the hoped-for effect.”
“It’s not going to happen—Madrid won’t let it,” said Mata. “It’s one of the richest areas in the country, so it’s economically very important for Spain.”
On October 1st, 2017, Catalonia held a referendum for independence. As it was a breach of the Spanish constitution, the central government ordered the National Police and the Civil Guard to stop the vote from taking place. As many recall, the day of the referendum was marked by violence against voters and 844 Catalonians were injured.
The violence certainly deterred people from voting. But it also attracted the attention of the international community, potentially giving Catalonians the publicity they wanted. While only 42% of the population turned out to vote, 90% of those who did vote were in favor of independence.
On October 27th, the Parliament ratified an official Declaration of Independence. Madrid responded to the vote by imposing increased control over the region, and dissolving the Catalonian parliament and dismissing Puigdemont. This led to outrage and further demonstrations for independence. Currently, Catalonian leaders have fled the country and sought refuge in Brussels.
Independence is easier said than done. There are countless repercussions and implications of Catalonian independence that span a variety of topics. For instance, Catalonia would need to establish its own institutions for the functions currently handled by Madrid. They would need their own border control, customs system, international relations, defense department, and central bank, just to name a few.
Principia College students across a number of disciplines have followed the issue closely and it has been the topic of discussion in many classes.
Dr. Brian Roberts’ Contemporary European Politics class debated Catalonia’s potential future within the European community. An independent Catalonia would need to apply to become an independent member of the European Union, which requires support of member states within the EU. So far, no countries have vocalized their support, and some have even voiced solidarity with Madrid.
The nationalist sentiment in Catalonia is echoed throughout the international community. Just as Britain felt it got the short end of the stick as a member of the EU, Catalonia feels it would be more prosperous free of direct Spanish control. Kurdistan, a culturally distinct, autonomous region in northern Iraq, also held a referendum for their independence in September that garnered more than 90% support. Even the “America First” rhetoric in the United States reflects this trend.
Spanish classes on campus have taken the opportunity to discuss the issue in cultural perspectives papers and lively debates.
“This specific case can be helpful in understanding the reasons why different peoples in the world are seeking either independence or greater autonomy, for instance the Kurds in Iraq and the Bosnians, who have expressed solidarity with the Catalan people,” said Professor Charters.
There are even implications for sports fans.
“At this point we don’t know if Barcelona will be able to continue competing in La Liga, which is the main soccer league in Spain,” said Carson Hussey, a sophomore on the Principia Soccer team. “There’s a Catalan league, but it’s really small and the teams aren’t as good.”
Mata brushed it off. “Barcelona would definitely stay in the Spanish league. There’s too much money involved,” he said.
For now, the uncertainty and unrest in the area makes tourists reevaluate their travel plans to Barcelona and northeastern Spain.
“We’re considering alternate travel arrangements and activities in order to avoid any unexpected riots,” said one Principia student who is headed to Barcelona over winter break.
The effects of this issue are far-reaching, but class discussions of international issues can increase global awareness and encourage people to care about events taking place outside their own consciousness.
“Students realize that even in the case of complex situations they originally knew nothing about, they can find the sources to become informed even when the situation is confusing to the people involved,” said Professor Charters.
Principia students, professors and organizations have responded prayerfully to the issue. Each week, the Principia College Christian Science Organization features an international issue to pray about on its bulletin board in the concourse. A few weeks ago, it focused on the events in Catalonia.
“As Christians we have a duty to care about our fellow man,” said senior Robby Butler, CSO President. “Even if we can’t fly there tomorrow to give the Spaniards or the Catalonians a hug, we know our prayers are doing good somewhere.”