Despite the succession war that followed, the wedding of 1469 between Isabel and Ferdinand de Trastámara, respectively soon-to-be Queen of Castile and King of Aragon, was one of the few fortunate cases of consensual royal marriage in the Middle Ages. However, while bride and groom deliberately agreed to join themselves in joyous matrimony, the same did not apply to the Castilian and Aragonese people, who suddenly found themselves under the same flag with little to no regards towards the linguistic and cultural differences between the two nations. No wonder that the long-lived Kingdom of Spain had to deal with several clashes between the two cultures throughout its history up to the present day. The recently rekindled tensions concerning Catalan independence culminated on the 15th of October 2015, when the president of the Generalitat de Catalunya, Artur Mas, was summoned to court with a charge for treason. How could the situation escalate to such an extent?
After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain slowly started recovering from the turbulent revolutionary experience: the monarchy was re-instituted and a new Constitution was written. However, the non-Castilian minorities – such as Catalans and Basques –, who had suffered heavily from Franco’s cultural repression, demanded more guarantees from the government, which responded by allowing a certain degree of autonomy to those regions, with the idea of creating a semi-federal state. In fact, Catalunya was able to write its own document, called the Estatut de Autonomia, which was however subordinated to the Spanish Constitution and did not allow the Catalan people the freedom they desired: for instance, the Catalan language was still excluded from official documents, and the Catalan citizenship was not recognized by the government. In 2006, Catalunya made an attempt to change the Estatut, which would have then included acceptance for the Catalan language and culture, as well as the right for the Generalitat to self-administrate, collect taxes and write laws on a regional scale. The independence movement originated after the decision by the Spanish Constitutional Court to veto the new version of the Estatut, which caused widespread indignation among the Catalans and brought them to the point of demanding, in 2015, a referendum for the ultimate independence of Catalunya. The strict majority of seats (62) obtained by Junts Pel Sì, party in favor of the referendum, at the regional elections of 27th September, is but the symptom of a severe disease that threatens to shake the whole Spanish state. When Artur Mas, current governor of Catalunya, suggested to proceed with the referendum in light of the electoral result, he was sued for treason and summoned to court, a move from Madrid that perhaps betrays fear more than it was meant to convey authority. Is then a Catalan independence a concrete possibility for the near future? And what would be the consequences of such an event?
Catalunya is a wealthy and fertile region: facing the Mediterranean Sea, it counts a population of over 7 million inhabitants, with nearly 2 million concentrated in its capital and landmark city, Barcelona. Tourism – not to mention the thriving football business – is a vital resource for its growing economy, which gives a substantial contribution to the overall Spanish economy. However, many Catalans perceive Madrid’s level of investment in the region as inadequate, compared to the estimated annual fiscal tribute from Barcelona of around 16 billion euros (approximately 10% of Catalunya’s GDP).
In order to investigate the truthfulness of such claims – and also to evaluate the scenario of an independent Catalunya -, professor Ángel de la Fuente, former researcher at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), calculated and published a “territorialized account” for Catalan finances, a transcript of all revenues and expenses for the Generalitat de Catalunya with the net balance of the two.
After a desperate search of the paper, I have a few observations to make: first, I found it quite difficult to locate and access the official papers – I had to find the reference in one of de la Fuente’s publications -, which somehow hints that the average Spanish citizen usually has a really hard time dealing with its country’s statistics; second, the data, only published in 2015, are actually relative to the year 2012. Things can change in three years, can’t they?
Another peculiarity of these accounts is that, while the author clearly stated that their purpose was to address the feasibility of Catalan independence, no reference is made to the claims of a fiscal deficit. While this doesn’t necessarily prove the independentists’ point, it certainly shows a certain lack of transparency between the Spanish government and its citizens. Shady and full of technicalities as they may seem, the accounts suggest that, as of 2012, an independent Catalunya would enjoy a surplus of around 8.5 billion euros. Whether or not we include the additional 16 billions suggested by the independentists (and whether or not we consider the changes in the Catalan economic landscape that are likely to have occurred over three years), we can clearly see that an autonomous Catalan administration would at the very least be able to make ends meet, making independence feasible.
Catalunya has a rich, colorful and self-standing culture (think of artists like Joan Mirò or Salvador Dalì, as well as Anton Gaudì, author of Barcelona’s landmark cathedral, the Sagrada Familia) and an ancient history. Many could see Barcelona as a new proud European capital. It should also be said that Spain’s repressive policy under both Franco and the new monarchy did little to help the non-Castilian minorities integrate and feel welcome: Ignacio Wert’s effort to promote teaching in Catalunya exclusively in the Spanish language, to the disadvantage of Catalan-speaking teachers and students, left the proudest Catalan nationalists utterly outraged; furthermore, cases of anti-Catalan propaganda are all but rare in Spanish politics, especially during electoral campaigns. Should it obtain independence, Catalunya would not only be freed of its alleged fiscal burden: as former territory of another EU country, it would become itself part of the European Union and of the Euro area, with all the privileges that follow. Moreover, a more centralized government in Barcelona would allow a better management of the infrastructures and services for Catalan citizens, enhancing the population’s welfare.
Catalunya’s discomfort with the present state of the union is therefore at the very least understandable. The legitimacy of Catalunya’s call for emancipation, though, is still matter of dispute in the halls of the Cortes, the Spanish Parliament. The principle of self-determination, addressed by most independentists, does not technically endorse the secession: in fact, according to international regulations, this principle is not retroactive – i.e. it cannot be applied to political and geographic realities preceding the Second World War. This is, of course, nothing but a play on words, and yet it may preclude the intervention of the international community, in case Spain decided to solve the controversy the hard way. Our only certainty is that the outcome of the trial against Mr. Mas, to be determined in the next days, will be decisive for the dispute, for the government doesn’t seem too cooperative at the moment: zealously preventing any attempt to negotiation. Madrid and its ministers seem ready to go to any length in order to preserve the legacy of Isabel and Ferdinand. Catalans, on the other hand, seem just as ready to make history.