The European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK) are undergoing a divorce. However, the EU members may face yet another challenge: Catalonia, a part of northeastern Spain, is slated to hold its own independence referendum in October this year. Most countries treat this as an internal matter of Spain. However, if successful, the referendum may affect other EU countries and also the UK, despite Brexit.
In June, Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont said Catalans would answer the question, “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state in the form of a republic?” in their independence referendum on October 1.
Catalonia is the region of Spain where Catalan is spoken. The region is better off than the rest of Spain and includes Barcelona. The Catalan finance ministry claims that Catalonia contributes to a quarter of Spain’s exports and generates 19 per cent of Spain’s GDP and receives only 11 per cent in expenditure from the central government.
The Spanish government claims Catalonia receives special assistance from it, outside of funds in the national budget, in the form of ad hoc loans for unplanned payments.
Experts say the separatist sentiment in Catalonia has been boosted by a combination of nationalism, language and economy including a high unemployment rate. It is clear that the Spanish government must do more to re-engage with Catalans who want to break away Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has vowed to block the referendum and has overwhelming support in parliament. The constitution of Spain declares Spain to be a single, indivisible whole, making ‘regional’ self-determination legally impossible. A Spanish leader stated that if there was a vote in favour of independence, Catalonia risked becoming a largely unrecognised state.
Though Catalonia is part of Spain, there is a possibility that a successful independence bid may spread to other countries. Catalonia is just one of seven Països Catalans (Catalan speaking regions) and 17 regional governments. Others might raise independence demands if Catalonia’s vote succeeds.
Catalan countries refer to territories where the Catalan language is spoken, spread over Spain, France, Italy and the entire sovereign microstate of Andorra. Specifically, the term includes the Spanish regions of Catalonia, Valencia, the Balearic Islands and parts of Aragon, in France it includes the Roussillon, and in Italy, the city of Alghero in Sardinia.
In the United Kingdom, the question of Catalonia has put in a fix the Scottish National Party (SNP), which advocates independence from the UK. Should the SNP support Catalonia’s referendum? If it does so, will Spain retaliate by blocking an independent Scotland’s entry into the European Union?
Spain has currently taken the stand that while it does not support an independent Scotland, it would not block Scottish attempts to join the European Union.
SNP cannot afford to antagonise Spain. It also cannot refuse to support Catalonia’s bid for independence, as SNP itself is advocating Scotland’s independence from the UK. The SNP has been urged by supporters to endorse Catalonia’s referendum. Many members of the Scottish parliament have backed a motion backing the Catalonian referendum.
Politicians, as usual, have come up with a solution: SNP should congratulate whoever wins the referendum.
Whether the referendum will result in Catalonia’s independence and whether the separatist movement will engulf France, Italy and Andorra is yet to be seen. But every member of the EU as well as the United Nations, may one day have to choose between Catalonia and Spain.