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Catalonia’s Independence Referendum and the Shadow of Secessionism in Europe

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In recent months, the Catalan autonomous government has taken unprecedented political steps towards independence from Spain, angering Madrid and putting EU leaders on edge.

In June the regional government announced that the referendum would be finally held the 1st of October. Voters will be faced with the question: “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent country in the form of a republic?”. The government also approved a bill that allows the region to declare its independence within 48 hours from the vote.

The region has been part of the Spanish state for centuries, yet many Catalans regard themselves as a nation apart, with their language, culture and history. The region is one of the country’s 17 “autonomous communities”, with powers over matters such as education, healthcare and welfare, and a police force of its own. Despite occasional rumblings of discontent, the arrangement was, until recently, broadly accepted by Catalans and Spaniards alike.

However, in the space of only a few years, the cause of secession has moved from the fringes of Catalan politics and society on to centre stage. The current Catalan government is the first in more than 80 years to advocate secession from Spain. The same applies to the regional parliament, where pro-independence deputies are in the majority.

The Spanish government several times has publicly condemned the referendum and has repeatedly taken legal action against moves to hold independence votes. According to Madrid, the vote is illegal since the 1978 Constitution gives sovereignty to all Spaniards, meaning they all have a say over the whole of the country’s territory.

Nevertheless, Spanish actions have proven useless to deter Catalonia’s secessionist intentions. Nationalists in Catalonia, as well as in the Basque Country and Galicia, argue that Spain should follow the example of the United Kingdom – providing referendums for regions that have a strong sense of identity.

But the Spanish government points out that the UK has no constitution and says the situation in Spain is similar to the situation in Germany and Italy, where the Constitutional courts have ruled against moves by regional nationalists.


But what does that means for the European Union?

Some are convinced that Catalonia’s quest for independence should be framed in a broader European context, where economic and security crisis has largely contributed to this new awakening of national and nationalist sentiments. As the Financial Times has put out, there is a sense of fragmentation both within and between countries: Scotland has tried to leave Britain, Britain is leaving the EU, and now Catalonia is trying to leave Spain. The seams that stitched together a broken continent are starting to unravel.

Some are concerned that a strong, highly publicised Catalan movement could ignite similar bids for secession in regions of Italy, Belgium, and Germany.

For example in Italy, there is a long tradition of independence claims from the wealthiest regions of the Northeast. In April this year, Lombardy and Veneto have announced plans for referendums aimed at obtaining greater independence. The polls should take place on October 22nd, the regions announced on Friday, and although the results of the vote will not be legally binding, they could have significant implications for Italy’s general election next year. There are many similarities between the Spanish region and Lombardy and Veneto. They all are responsible for producing a significant percentage of their countries GDP, and they both pay several times more money in taxes to Rome than they receive in investment and services.

Such movements threaten the stability of the European Union, which has already been weakened in recent years by the economic crisis, fiscal problems in Greece, and disagreements over the mass migration of refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Moreover, Brexit, Trump and populist electoral insurgencies in the Netherlands, France and Germany have fueled secessionist movements, making the future of the European Union even lesser certain.

In the face of a possible spreading of European secessionist actions, the EU has not given any support to the Catalan government, even if the separatist movement is pro-European and line with the European centrist view of further strengthening the EU institutions. Moreover, the European Commission has not changed its position that an independent Catalonia would have to apply for EU membership as a new country.

Some argue that the secession is not likely to happen. The government has no coherent programme for independence. Moreover, it involves too many incognitos, like the response of the Spanish state and reaction of the EU. Moreover, An opinion poll carried out in June by the Generalitat’s centre CEO found that 39% of Catalans would vote for independence on 1 October and 23.5% against with 18.1% abstaining. But in answer to the question ‘Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state?’ 41.1% said yes, and 49.4% said no. On the other hand, a far higher proportion of supporters of independence is likely to vote than opponents.

However, despite the opinion polls, the events of the last year have demonstrated that nothing is more predictable than the mass in a state of discontent, and a democratic tool like referendum can turn into a dangerous driver of instability.