Equalisation payments from the wealthier to the poorer regions in Spain are significantly higher than in other countries of Western Europe, but the catalyst for the Catalan drive for independence is not the economy, at least not to a great extent. In fact, support for separatism started ticking upwards when Spain’s Constitutional Court significantly curtailed the powers laid down in a new Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia which had been approved by both the Catalan and the Spanish parliaments. Regardless of whether the Constitutional Court’s decision was right or wrong, it sparked outrage at what many perceived as yet another Madrid-based Spanish body riding roughshod over the democratic will of the Catalan people.
The victory of the Spanish People’s Party in the 2010 general election only added fuel to the fire. The centre- -right party saw the economic crisis as an opportunity to recentralise powers, something which obviously didn’t go down well in Catalonia and certain other autonomous regions. President Rajoy tried to sound conciliatory, but the damage was compounded by the words and actions of Education Minister Ignacio Wert, who pledged to “Hispanicise Catalan pupils” and drafted a law which would have relegated Catalan to the status of fourth educational language, behind not only Spanish but also English and a second foreign language. Many Catalans whose natural instinct would have been to oppose separation from Spain saw this as an all-out attack on their distinct cultural and linguistic identity and reluctantly shifted their stance. Wert’s plan backfired spectacularly as an otherwise moderate chunk of Catalan society was pushed into backing independence as a response to his adversarial tactics.
As it tries to ride the wave of public backing for independence and avoid being swept by it, the Catalan government has repeatedly gone out of its way to reassure everyone that Catalonia’s separatism is anything but isolationist. President Artur Mas himself has pledged his allegiance to European federalism by calling for a distinct Catalan state within a United States of Europe, where he suggests his nation could play the same role as Massachusetts in America (not that far-fetched, actually...). Despite a handful of dissonant voices here and there, Mas’ Convergence and Union party and its parliamentary allies have managed to present a mostly unified front when it comes to an independent Catalonia’s place in Europe.
As in Scotland’s case, there has been considerable discussion on whether an independent Catalonia would get to keep its place in the European Union. The Spanish Government says it would not, which was dismissed by EU officials, which were in turn refuted by higher EU officials, which were in turn overruled by even higher EU officials... The whole issue is about as clear as mud, and in all honesty it looks like it will only be resolved if Scotland and/or Catalonia vote for independence and a test case is brought before European courts. In any case, the Catalan Government has a Plan B that consists of joining EFTA as soon as possible following independence in order to dampen the economic shock of withdrawal and buy enough time for EU accession negotiations to proceed.
The other key question revolves around the currency of an independent Catalonia. While the political class is almost uniformly in favour of keeping the euro, the media and society are more or less evenly divided among those who think Catalonia would remain a full member of the Eurozone, those who believe it would fall out of the eurozone but be able to continue using the common currency à la Montenegro, and those who’ve been scalded by the euro crisis and would like Catalonia to print its own currency.
The Catalan independence process should not be seen as Catalonia turning its back on the world, Europe or even Spain itself. Indeed, while the short-term effects of a yes-to-independence vote would certainly be disruptive, in the mid-to-long term the Catalan society and political class see the nation firmly anchored to a federal Europe.
Granted, a year is a very long time in politics, so Catalans may very well end up getting cold feet and reluctantly vote to stay in Spain (although, unlike in Scotland, the pro-independence lead in opinion polls is the sort of margin that could realistically withstand a fierce and protracted referendum campaign). One thing, however, is for sure: come 2014, the eyes of Europe will be trained on this small corner of the north-west Mediterranean looking for its place in Spain, Europe and the world.