Catalan bid for independence reflects larger problems of Europe

By He Zhigao Source:Global Times Published: 2017/10/12 21:38:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The recent demand for Catalan independence is one of those issues besetting Europe which has cast a gloom on the continent. Separatist sentiment has been at its worse in Spain but finally ended in a compromise, with Catalonia's president postponing a formal declaration of independence on Tuesday.

Catalonia is at a crossroads of economy and politics, making it hard to wriggle out of a system through a referendum. Its bid to secede from Spain has left a painful scar.

The nation state is the most modern political institution. It is easy to obtain collective loyalty, protect the weak, and allocate resources fairly. Spain is a constitutional monarchy and Catalonia is an autonomous community. The constitution guarantees the autonomy of the ethnic areas. There are two different systems of taxation for the central government and regional ones. Catalonia has its own language and culture and is led by a government eager to achieve independence. With 16 percent of the population of Spain, Catalonia contributes 20 percent of Spain's output and produces 25 percent of the country's exports. Hence, losing Catalonia is unimaginable for Spain.

The turnout of an independence referendum on October 1 was 43 percent, but 90 percent (more than 2 million people) voted for Catalonia to secede. The rest of Spain and Catalonia pull different ways because of disparate political systems, demand for economic and social reforms and the conflict of cultural identities. Catalans felt deprived when the benefits of globalization accrued inside Spain. A feeling of deprivation and isolation propelled the tendency to secede.

To some degree, the integration of Europe intensifies the desire for independence. Integration not only strengthens supranational institutions, but also highlights the effect of local governance and regional autonomy. It's consistent with European advocacy of multiculturalism, and in line with decentralization under European pluralistic structure. At the beginning of integration, it was a way to rescue the nation state. It led the nation states to recover from World War II fast and achieve economic development and political stability. But as populism exists with a feeling of anti-globalization, the European Union becomes a part of the trouble and not the solution.

In those EU member states which have been influenced enormously by the European sovereign debt crisis, there are problems in economic development and benefits of allocation. The bloc is found wanting in sufficient number of political systems and institutions to deal with people's frustration and deprivation.

As democracy in Spain is imperfect, it leads to excessive political participation and the failure of political institutions. The issue is under glare when the economy falters.

At the level of the political party, it reflects populism. At the federal level between the centre and region, it reflects the division of the regions.

No side will gain from the separation of Catalonia. Long-term uncertainty may affect decision-making and investments.

Recently, some corporate headquarters located in Catalonia prepared to move, which may hit tax revenue. The EU and other member states have been worried about the spillover effect of the referendum crisis and appealed for talks to find a solution within constitutional limits.

Catalonia didn't have advantage over Madrid in this game. Although the independence of Catalonia means it will have more power to control its economy and politics, the region will not be permitted into the EU, the European single market, and the Schengen area. It can't gain autonomy, legal validity, international recognition and development space as the EU area will not recognize it.

Political stability and power virtually guarantee national unity. Development and political stability will give a sense of belonging and identity toward the nation to the provinces. If political and social problems cannot be solved, especially the problems of slow economic development and high youth unemployment, Catalonia will keep going back to the independence demand. This may change Spanish and European politics.

The author is an associate research fellow at the Institute of European Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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