Friday, 27 October 2017

Catalan independence: What will Catalonia gain?

When I think about my favourite European cities, there is only one city which always come out on top. Barcelona.

I love Barcelona, it's almost the perfect the city. You have the mountains, the sea. Beautiful architecture, an historic Medieval quarter, great bars and restaurants and a successful and glamorous football team. It has everything I want from a city.

I've naturally taken a great interest in the referendum vote and the declaration of Catalan independence by the President of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont. The question that dominates my thinking about the crisis is this: What does Catalonia expect to gain from independence?

Catalonia is the richest region in the Spain. I remember back in 2001 I spent two weeks in the city studying Spanish. One afternoon after my lessons had finished I got chatting to an English guy in a Tapas bar on Las Ramblas.

He lived in the Pyrenees and had come down to Barcelona for the day. He explained to me how Barcelona and the Basque country are the two richest regions in Spain. Many people emigrate from other parts of Spain to Barcelona.

Catalans he said had a reputation for being a bit 'stuck up' they think they're better than other people in Spain. Only a few weeks ago I read something similar from the Times journalist John Carlin. He argued that Catalans aren't snobby they're just reserved in comparison to other regions of Spain.

Unlike in this country, Spain is a more federalised and de-centralised state. Different regions have autonomous control which have been significant features of the country since the end of Franco's dictatorship in the 1970s. From an outsiders point of view Catalonia has vast regional powers which they now appear to have lost as a result of this referendum.

Catalonia seems very good at telling a story that they are an oppressed people. I studied Spanish history at university and I have a book about the history of Barcelona FC by Jimmy Burns which talks about the political oppression Catalans suffered during the civil war and under Franco's dictatorship. The question now is whether this history of oppression still rings true today.

Both the Madrid government under Mariano Rajoy and Carles Puigdemont must take equal responsibility for the crisis. Unlike the UK's Scottish referendum, Catalonia's was illegal and with a turnout of only 43%. 90% who voted may have voted for independence but with such a low turnout, I don't understand how Catalan separatists can claim they have a true mandate for independence.

However, the government and Mariano Rajoy's reaction was totally over the top. Why not just ignore the result and say it has no legality, rather than cracking down on independence demonstrators and thereby falling into the role of the centralised Spanish state bad guys. Surely that's what Catalan nationalists want?

The impression that Catalan nationalists give is that they are a nation being held back by the rest of Spain. They think of themselves as being more sophisticated and European than the rest of Spain. There's no doubt that the recession in recent years and issues over tax distribution have played a part in fuelling the separatist cause and the notion that Catalonia will flourish under independence.

What's needed is better dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona and agreements on the level of economic and political power that Catalonia should have.

This crisis has echoes of Brexit here in this country. It's a movement based very much on passion and emotion. Sadly for supporters of Catalan independence, I struggle to see what the economic and political benefits of independence will be for ordinary Catalans.



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