By: Twumasi Duah-Mensah
On September 6th, the regional government of Catalonia in Spain passed a law allowing for a referendum among the region’s people. The referendum will decide if the Catalans will break away from Spain and become their own independent country. The vote will take place despite calls from the central Spanish government for the wealthy region to call off the vote.
Ever since the decision to go ahead with the referendum, protests have been rampant, and Spanish authorities have tried to block the vote. They reason that it is unconstitutional for a part of Spain to break away, for Spain is defined as unified and indivisible in the 1978 Constitution. Catalans counter that it is unconstitutional for the central government in Madrid to block the vote, for Spain is defined as a democracy in the Constitution.
The main reasons for the push for Catalonian independence include the mismanagement and lack of recovery from the country’s economic crisis, increasing antagonism between Catalans and the rest of Spain, lack of defense of the Catalan language, and overreach in the regional economy by a central government that granted a Statute of Autonomy to the region in 2006.
The independence movement seriously strengthened in 2010 when the Statute of Autonomy was revoked by the Spanish government. Barcelona saw more than one million people protest the decision. Ever since, tensions have run high, with a vote held in 2015 for independence. Only 40% of the voting population voted, however. Since 2012, the people of Catalonia have organized protests and demonstrations advocating for independence every September 11th, the Catalan national day.
Efforts to block the vote include seizing ballot boxes and referendum documents, arresting officials trying to advance the vote, sending cruise ships to block the port of Barcelona, fining members of the national electoral board who were overseeing referendum operations, and controlling the public funds of Catalonia to make sure no funds go to voting. 700 Catalan mayors have been summoned by the national government to be questioned about their involvement in the independence movement.
Spanish police also raided a prominent Catalan newspaper and arrested its editor-in-chief, Francesc Fàbregas, to get information on the newspaper’s activity. Fàbregas, however, refused to say anything. A judge has also accused the editor of three separate crimes relating to the October 1st referendum.
In response, Catalan president Carles Puigdemont has called for open dialogue between the region and the Spanish government. He has also claimed that the vote will still go on, and referenced the Franco regime’s oppressive nature and lack of democracy in a tweet. “We will not accept a return to the darkest times. The government is in favour of liberty and democracy,” tweeted Puigdemont. Conversely, Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has called for an end to the civil disobedience by the Catalans.
The region, with a population of 7.5 million, is split on independence. While there is more support from rural towns, the majority in major cities like Barcelona support a unified Spain. As reported by the Telegraph, a Metroscopia/El Pais poll published on Sunday found that 56% of Catalans think the referendum in its current form is illegal, and 82% think that Rajoy and his party are strengthening the cause of independence forces instead of weakening them. A survey at the end of July found that 49.4% of Catalans did not support independence, while 41.1% supported it.
Barcelona’s citizens, however, have a great amount of autonomy granted by the local government. It presents its problems to the citizens (mostly derived from the economic crisis), encourages them to suggest solutions, and uses taxpayer money to work towards those solutions. There are several other ways the city engages its citizens, so a significant amount of them may vote to leave Spain to retain this autonomy and won’t think they need to be apart of the country to sustain themselves.
With its position on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, Catalonia, especially Barcelona, has a dynamic economy. Its export economy is strong, as it accounts for 25% of all exports from Spain. 65% of its exports go to countries in the European Union. Its gross domestic product per capita is €27,698, compared to the EU’s €25,500. Tourism accounts for 12% of the region’s GDP. It plays a major role in EU research with its major industries in biopharmaceuticals, chemicals, information technology, and medical technology.
In response, the EU has stated it will not interfere with the vote, but has “great interest in the maintenance of stability in Spain.” Chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker referenced the “Prodi doctrine,” which asserts that states wishing to secede from a Union member state must leave the Union and gain independence that is in line with the member state to come back.
It’s likely that even if Catalonia votes to secede from Spain, the central government will stomp out the result, even though the regional government claims the vote will stand. One way or the other, the situation will get much worse before it gets better.