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Questions of Spain’s Future persist after Indecisive Catalonia Election

Questions of Spain’s Future persist after Indecisive Catalonia Election

The future of Catalan statehood remains unclear after a September 27th parliamentary election yielded inconclusive results. The election—widely interpreted as a referendum on secession from Spain—resulted in three nationalist parties combining to win an absolute majority of seats in parliament, yet failing to capture a majority of the popular vote.

The vote serves as the culmination of three years of infighting over Catalonia’s financial contribution to Spain’s complex tax system. Although it is difficult to calculate the disparity between the federal taxes Catalans pay and the investments in services they get back, independence campaigners put the figure between €13.5bn and €17.5bn. For perspective, the Catalan regional budget for 2015 is only €22.5bn. Compounded by the fact that state investment in Catalonia has been steadily dropping, Catalonia’s rapid movement towards statehood begins to make a lot of sense.

While the economic issue may have served as the tinder setting alight a fire of secessionist fervor, the firewood has always been a separate identity many Catalans reserve for their native region. Catalonia has retained its own distinct language and cultural identity through centuries of union with Spain. National identity is of course an emotional issue, and Catalans express varying degrees of connection with their region and country.

Nationalist leaders were quick to point to their newfound control over parliament as a mandate to take Catalonia farther along the path towards statehood. In a Politico op-ed, Artur Mas, the president of Catalonia and leader of the secession campaign wrote:

“The victory of the pro-independence camp is unmistakable: The people of Catalonia have given a democratic mandate to their political representatives to begin this exciting process. Accordingly, the new Catalan parliament and the new executive government (made up from its members) will soon make a public declaration announcing the beginning of a political process that will culminate in full independence.”

But Catalonia is certain to encounter substantial legal hurdles if it were to declare independence. For one, Spanish law forbids any region from separating unilaterally. Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy, a fierce critic of the independence movement, has argued that the democratic approach would be for all of Spain to vote in a referendum on Catalonia's future because the loss of Catalonia would affect all of Spain. Despite making a mess of the principles underlying the right to self-determination, Mr. Rajoy is right to be concerned: the loss of Catalonia, one of Spain’s richest and most industrialized regions, would be a tremendous blow to the Spanish economy.

Whether the secession movement can withstand internal pressures that will begin to mount as Mas’s government moves toward secession is also doubtful. It bears repeating that fewer than half of the Catalan electorate voted for parties with a secessionist platform in what was generally considered a plebiscite on  independence. According to analyst Mauro Guillen, the divide cuts across urban rural lines with rural areas and smaller cities supporting the independence movement in greater proportion to metropolitan Barcelona.

More broadly, a successful independence movement could fan the fires of other would be secession campaigns across Europe, disrupting the already fragile constitution of the EU. David Cameron, who earlier this year dealt with a struggle to maintain the unity of his own United Kingdom with the Scottish referendum, warned an independent Catalonia would have to "take its place at the back of the queue" if it sought to rejoin. And Germany’s Angela Merkel said she supported Mr. Rajoy on respecting “national law.” As some of the worst challenges in the post-Cold War era begin to unfold, an EU weakened further by even greater divisions is the last thing heads of state—and the European people—need.

- Luke Shapiro 


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