A year after Scotland’s referendum, Catalans vote later this month in an election that could make or break one of several separatist movements that pose a challenge to European unity.
By Léa Surugue
Patrick Roca never used to consider himself a rebel. But times have changed.
“We Catalans do not reject Spain, but we feel very disillusioned,” said Rocca, who was born in France of parents from Spain’s Catalan region.
Rocca is one of a large number of Catalans — from the wealthy region surrounding Barcelona in northeast Spain — who are fed up with Madrid’s rule and want independence.
Rocca said he grew dissatisfied after Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy came to power in 2011. “The economic crisis has caused a lot of tensions,” he told me. “We have contributed too much to Spain’s recovery and received little investment in return in our region.”
Catalonia accounts for 15 percent of Spain’s population but 20 percent of its economy. A feeling that the region gives more than it receives from the central government has fueled an independence movement that has gathered steam.
In an unprecedented show of support, more than half a million people took to the streets of Barcelona last week to call for autonomy from Madrid. The march celebrating Catalonia’s annual national day came two weeks before a regional election that could make or break the independence movement.
Independence movements are difficult to snuff out.
Catalan’s independence movement is one of several tearing at European Union member states, compounding challenges for the bloc’s leaders who are struggling to manage an unprecedented flow of migrants and refugees as well as the rise of anti-EU political parties.
Separatism in Europe does not necessarily mean anti-EU. Proponents of Scotland’s independence, who lost a referendum there a year ago, said they wanted separate membership for their region in the EU.
But separatist movements can undermine national unity and make it harder for leaders to ask citizens to make sacrifices for the greater EU good. And there is no precedent for a region to break away from a member state and then join the EU separately.
Like Spain and Britain, Belgium, France, Italy and Germany all face separatist movements that are among several dozen nationalist, regionalist and autonomist parties throughout Europe.
Rooted in culture, language and in some cases ethnicity, independence movements are difficult to snuff out. Although the pro-independence movement lost the referendum in Scotland last year, they elected a record number of supporters to Britain’s Parliament, keeping secessionists’ hopes alive for another day.
Spain has long had a thorny relationship with Catalonia, known for its beach resorts, the Pyrenees mountains and surrealist artist Salvador Dalí.
Is independence the answer?
La Diada, the holiday that was celebrated last week, commemorates the defeat of Catalan forces in 1714 by troops loyal to King Philip V of Spain. Under General Francisco Franco’s rule last century, autonomy was revoked and use of the Catalan language was curbed.
After Franco’s death, Catalonia regained some autonomy but remained part of Spain.
Long a celebration of cultural identity, La Diada has taken on political overtones and now symbolizes the fight for independence.
This year, La Diada coincided with the start of the campaign for the election of a new regional president, set for September 27. Hundreds of thousands of people packed Barcelona’s center, raising colorful separatist banners.
Pro-independence parties say that if they win, they will implement a plan to make Catalonia independent within 18 months.
But Economics Professor Enrico Colombatto of the University of Turin doubts that independence would solve Catalonia’s problems.
“It is true that there have been important transfers from Catalonia to the rest of Spain. But this is not the cause of Catalonia’s economic problems,” Colombatto said.
“High taxes and excessive regulation are. There is no sign that this would change if they became independent, as the pro-independence parties do not have any proposals to enact concrete reforms.”
Léa Surugue is a recent graduate in Journalism and International Relations from Sciences Po in Paris and City University in London. Now splitting her time between Paris, London and Madrid, she is working as a freelance journalist, covering human rights, health and development policies, and European politics and economics.