Over the course of the last few months, news of the Catalonian Independence movement has been elevated onto the international arena. Yet, the European Union has repeatedly dismissed it as an exclusively internal affair to be dealt with by the Spanish government. In today’s globalized world, however, the situation does not exist in a vacuum.
In his article titled, “Catalonia: Past and Future,” Luke Stobart says, “In all, throughout Catalonia’s modern history a general pattern can be identified: rather than Catalan national consciousness being a constant — ever-seeking to create or develop a national polity — it is a more variable reaction to the political and social limitations of the Spanish national project.” One of the most significant external forces to have a hand in the latest wave of Catalonian independent struggle is that of neoliberal economic policy, which has taken hold in Europe and beyond over the past fifty years.
The European Union
To understand how these forces are at play in the situation, it is necessary to zoom out and examine the trajectory of the EU in the 21st century. This will help to contextualize some of its responses, which are primarily negative, to the declaration of Catalonian independence. For instance, Ramón Luis Valcárcel, VP of the European Commission, released a statement saying that, “Today we have witnessed a nationalistic propaganda act, undemocratic; a coup attempt against Spanish democracy, and so a coup against Europe. We are witnessing the first coup against democracy in the history of the European Union. A regional government is angling, in a unilateral, illegal and democratically deplorable manner, to secede from a member state. And [sic] in so doing, it is violating the fundamental rights of millions of citizens. Spain is an integral part of the EU, which respects and safeguards the national identities and constitutional structure of its member states. An attack on the constitution of one member state is therefore also an attack on the Union as a whole.” While this is one of the most poignant in its level of disapproval, there have been many others like it made on behalf of the European Commission and several MEPs in recent times.
The EU’s stance on the Catalonian independence movement is telling. Namely, its heavy-handed bias against the Catalonian separatists demonstrates its own motivations and insecurities. An acknowledgement of the possibility of an independent Catalonia would be an admission that the EU itself is failing as it is an institution predicated on keeping Europe’s nation states — largely defined by their economies — unified through neoliberal policy. The fact that internal conflict and fragmentation within nation states exists at all undermines the EU’s effectiveness in maintaining the integrity of this vision. This is especially the case when we examine the economic dynamics of Spain and Catalonia within a broader European context.
Specifically, the economic policies of the EU have had lopsided effects whereas certain countries have benefitted more from involvement than others. Spain is not exactly one of these. It is still suffering from the impacts of the 2008 recession and as a result of which, became dependent on aid from the EU to stay afloat economically. In 2012, after failing to recover, Spain filed for a €1 billion bailout package in attempts to do so. Spain’s debt is just one way that its membership within the EU has effectively destabilized its economy in the 21st century. This in mind, it is not so surprising that the EU would be opposed to the secession of the country’s most prosperous region because it would diminish Spain’s ability to pay back its debt. Such is further evident in the fact that in 2012, in response to the Spanish debt crisis, the president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, stated that the bank was, “ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro.” All things considered, it is doubtful that he meant this simply out of concern for a unified continent and not because the bank profits from putting member states in debt.
What’s more is the fact that if Catalonia were to be successful in breaking from Spain, it could inspire other groups residing within EU nation states to follow its example, which for the EU would require substantive restructuring at best and its dissolution at worst. Either way, there is no doubting that existing on the global economic arena supplies many constraints to the movement and special motivations for the Spanish central government to maintain its grip on the region.
Examining Spain’s circumstances economically in more detail, it follows naturally that the central government itself would hold the convictions echoed by the EU more broadly. Prime Minister Rajoy has been likened time and again in Catalonia to Franco for his fascist tactics. Looking at the situation within the context of neoliberal economic policy that has impacted the country, the comparison is apt. Deploying the police to disrupt democracy and brutalize people for voting in the referendum in order to maintain its hold over the region’s economic output surely does seem akin to fascism.
Operating within a globalized economy as an indebted member of the EU has intensified the winner-loser sense of resource scarcity that exists within capitalist stratification. It is easy for the central government to stir economic anxieties in Spaniards who are looking onto the situation and thus intensify the culture of resistance to Catalonian independence. If Spain, a country that has already not fared well within the EU were to lose 20% of its economy, substantial restructuring would be necessary. In other words, it is easier for Rajoy to make a scapegoat out of Catalonia’s potential secession instead of inviting more difficult discussions about the structures at play in creating Spain’s debt, other regions’ relative lack of prosperity, and insufficient state sanctioned social welfare programs.
Of course, there are also more direct ways that the precariousness and high unemployment of Spain’s economy following the 2008 recession have impacted the independence movement. This is particularly the case with regard to the Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia, which was reformulated in Spanish courts to provide the area with substantially less autonomy as of 2010. The reformulated policies not only related to language and justice but also notably to the economy. One of the most contentious aspects of this ruling was that it eliminated the policies in place to mitigate the distortionary effects of Spanish taxation on the region, placing more of the national debt burden onto the region. This ruling is widely believed to have helped stimulate a resurgence of pro-independence sentiments there.
What is perhaps most striking in terms of how neoliberalism is intertwined with the situation in Catalonia is in how it has shaped this latest wave of independence struggle internally. While there are undoubtedly many, many different players in Catalonia’s independence movement, one of the emergent forces driving it is the center-right Catalan European Democratic Party of which current president and face of the movement, Carles Puidgdemont, is a member.
This more neoliberal push for independence has emerged as distinct from the staunch leftwing vision of Catalonia under Companys during the 1930s, even if the latter tradition still remains present. With proponents of the free marketlike Puidgdemont and his party affiliates standing at the center of existing independent efforts, a vision of a moneyed, autonomous Catalonian state is taking hold by extension. Thanks to numerous thriving industries from chemistry and pharmaceuticals to automobile manufacturing, many Catalonians feel these factors are what makes their call for independence something worth reckoning with on an international scale, specifically on the part of the European Union. After all, would Catalonia have any other viable means of being independent aside from leveraging a robust neoliberal economy? It is a fair question.
Leading up to the referendum, many Catalonians have even been sold on the notion that they will be wealthier as an entity independent from Spain. By the same token, one of the biggest deterrents that Catalonians face as they gravitate towards secession from Spain (perhaps even more than the threat of police brutality for voting) is the fact that many of companies that are based there have pledged to move elsewhere if Catalonia acts on the referendum to leave. Indeed, establishing any kind of leftwing syndicalism proposed in a world whose economies are defined by the existence of the multinational corporation appear dubious. Here, we see how deeply imbedded the movement has become in larger neoliberal geopolitics of the EU.
While the Catalonian independence movement is extraordinarily complex, it is worth examining the defining features and obstacles that have manifested in the 21st century edition of the struggle. While neoliberalism and the failings of our global capitalist economy are certainly relevant here, they are not exhaustive factors, but rather additional arenas on which tensions are playing out in contemporary times.
Returning to Stobart’s piece, “Precisely what makes Catalanism a possible route to a new emancipatory politics is that it contains within it an element of political and social critique that gives its struggle for expression an emancipatory potential. It is therefore necessarily seen as an affront by the powers that be, which respond by revealing their anti-democratic and violent nature.” Just as it is impossible to separate what international economics mean for a fragmented Spain, the Catalonian independence movement invites conversations on broader structural critique of our economic and political systems whose engagement in which we could all benefit.