The Spanish autonomous region of Catalonia has won the right to secede from Spain following a contentious referendum marked by unprecedented violence. According to the latest reports by Catalan medical officials, 844 people had been hurt in clashes with police forces during the weekend. Catalan authorities said 319 of about 2,300 polling stations across the region had been closed by police while the Spanish government said 92 stations had been sealed off.
The result of the referendum opens door to a unilateral declaration of independence after Catalans backed secession with a 42.3% turnout. According to BBC, more than 2.2 million people were reported to have voted, out of 5.3 million registered voters. A Catalan spokesman said more than 750,000 votes could not be counted because polling stations were closed and urns were confiscated.
A complicated relationship
Separatist movements in Spain appeared immediately after the fall of General Franco’s regime, in 1975. In 1979, Catalonia was granted autonomous status and the Catalan language was recognized as official. Catalonia’s economic progress began in 1992 when Barcelona was selected to host the summer Olympics. Since then, the region has increasingly become an attraction for investors and millions of tourists.
Madrid and Barcelona – the regional capital of Catalonia – co-existed in relative peace until 2008. Until then, only 20% of the local population was supportive of the idea of secession. After the recession began in 2008, however, 80% of the Catalans realized (at least as articulated by the Catalan politicians) they are giving more to Spain than they are getting. A series of referendums followed, but without a significant result. In 2014, 80% of voters demanded secession. The 2014 referendum, however, had only a symbolic character. Now the authorities of the autonomous region are assertive: if people say yes to separation, Catalonia will become an independent state.
What is at stake for Spain?
Catalonia is one of Spain’s economic drivers providing about 20% of the country’s GDP. Catalonia is the leader in terms of export; has a well-developed industrial sector; and is an attractive center for investors from all over the world. Catalonian universities are also among the most renowned in Spain. Barcelona and the beaches of Costa Brava attract millions of tourists every year – about 18 million in 2015, which is a quarter of Spain’s foreign visitors.
Despite the billions of revenue that Catalonia generates, the region is third in debt among the Spanish municipalities. The main concern for Spain is if Catalonia secedes, how much debt it would take with it. According to the existing legislation, Catalonia is obliged to pay a major part of its revenues to the state’s treasury. Having entire disposal over its funds is one of the main arguments that Catalan politicians bring up while agitating for independence.
What happens next?
What happens next if a new country emerges on Europe’s map? This question raises a number of hypotheses. Most of the economists agree that, in the short term, there will be an economic cost for both Spain and the autonomous region. The cost would very much depend on the conditions of the eventual departure of the Catalans, including how the state debt would be distributed and whether Madrid would impose economic sanctions. Another important question is whether the region will be able to stay in the EU using the euro.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said Catalans had been fooled into taking part in an illegal vote. The government in Madrid now discusses a response to the biggest political crisis Spain has seen in decades. As BBC reported, Spain’s justice minister warned that any declaration of independence could lead to article 155 of the country’s constitution being invoked which allows the national government to intervene in the running of an autonomous region.
As for the European leaders, most of them remain silent. Europe wary but muted ahead of Catalonia’s independence vote, wrote the National Post. In response to the region’s requests for intervention, the European Commission — the EU’s executive arm — repeated that the referendum was an internal Spanish affair and that it respected Spain’s constitutional order, the National Post reported. The only European leaders who reacted on the day of the referendum were the Prime Ministers of Scotland, Slovenia, and Belgium. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel was the first to condemn the violence in Catalonia. Yet, this was not about reacting to the referendum but about reacting to the violence on the streets of Barcelona and other Catalan cities. Although the referendum would be a challenge for the Spanish authorities, it would be far from the first challenge for the EU.
Katarina Koleva is a PhD Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and Managing Director of iAffairs.
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