Homage to breakaway Catalonia unlikely
“It’s like a divorce. And like any divorce you have to put a price on everything when it happens. Only this divorce is taking place after hundreds of years of marriage.”
Inés Arrimadas believes her comparison gives an idea of how painful and damaging Catalan independence from Spain would be.
Her Catalan-based party, Ciutadans, staunchly opposes the northeastern region’s push to break away from the rest of Spain. But as pro-independence groups are expected to triumph in the November 25th Catalan elections with the promise of a referendum on independence in their manifesto, Ms Arrimadas and her colleagues face an uphill battle.
Pro-independence feeling has grown enormously in recent months, making the breakaway look, if not inevitable, then at least more likely than ever before.
For Andreu Porta, of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), a grass-roots independence movement, the process is more like the inevitability of adolescence than the trauma of divorce.
“It’s a period of change,” he says. “And you either accept that you’re turning into an adult, with all the difficulties that entails, or you don’t.”
But critics of the process point to countless obstacles – both economic and institutional – in the way of independence, as well as negative repercussions if the process were to go ahead.
One of the most disputed issues is whether, assuming Catalonia becomes independent, it will be accepted as a member of the European Union. The figurehead of the independence drive, regional premier Artur Mas, frequently speaks of Catalonia as a future member state of the EU. He has also suggested that the referendum question he plans to put to his people could refer to Catalonia’s place in the EU.
Yet his plan took a knock in October, when Viviane Reding, a vice-president of the European Commission, informed the Spanish government that the EU would not recognise the unilaterally declared independence of any region in the bloc. In addition, Spain, as a member state, could feasibly veto Catalonia’s eventual efforts to rejoin the bloc. Given the Spanish government’s opposition to independence, that would appear likely.
If this were the case, Catalonia’s continued use of the euro would also appear to be in doubt.
Joan Vidal, head of the office of the Catalan government, accepts this is a problem, but he believes pragmatism will win through.
“For us, it doesn’t make sense that Europe, which wants to integrate, which wants to develop commercial relationships and human relationships, begins a process in order to expel from the union some territories and some people,” he said.
“We think that if we really carry out a democratic and peaceful process, the European Union should find a way to allow [Catalonia] to be a part of the European Union.”
Mr Porta of the ANC offers a similar argument, insisting it is not in the EU’s interests to lose a region with a GDP the size of Portugal’s and with obvious economic assets, such as the port of Barcelona. He points to the reunification of Germany as proof that the bloc can respond positively to territorial developments if they are peaceful.
However, no amount of goodwill on the part of the EU will necessarily stop Spanish businesses from moving away from an independent Catalonia. The president of Grupo Planeta, José Manuel Lara, warned in September that he would move the publishing and media giant out of Barcelona if the region broke away.
“No publishing business has its headquarters in a foreign country or in one that speaks a foreign language,” said Lara, himself a Catalan.
The Catalan business community has kept relatively quiet while the independence debate has raged between Madrid and Barcelona. However, its members are reported to be divided on the issue.
A recent report by El País newspaper suggested Catalonia would be bankrupted if it gained independence in the current climate. With the region contributing 18 per cent of Spain’s gross domestic product, the newly independent territory could have to take on that portion of the country’s financial obligations. This could help push Catalan debt from €40 billion up to €150 billion, the article claims.
For pro-independence Catalans such forecasts are exaggerated and alarmist.
They believe that if the region can recover the €16 billion that it loses to the Spanish state each year in taxes, it will have a substantial cushion to ease the financial trauma of breaking away.
“We are the seventh country in Europe in terms of GDP per capita. We could function perfectly as an independent state,” says Mr Vidal, who sees Scotland’s negotiation of a referendum with the United Kingdom government as a healthy example to follow.
“The United Kingdom shows that when there is a majority of people voting for one option then they develop a way for these things to be expressed,” he said. “We expect to do the same with the Spanish government.”