Catalonia and the rising drumbeat of secession in Spain
The people of Catalonia region in northeastern Spain have voted to break away from Spain. The independence referendum which was meant to be a peaceful process was characterised by violence because Spain is reluctant to let go of its most resourceful region. AJIBOLA AMZAT (Features Editor) reports.
Spain is boiling, not on the account of paralysing economic crisis, such that compelled the fifth largest European economy to seek bailout in 2012.
Rather, the country is faced with a threat of secession by one of its 17 autonomous regions, Catalonia.
With its unique language and culture, Catalonia, a region on the northeast, has been an integral part of Spain since the 16th. It is Spain’s wealthiest and most productive region.
Catalonia, in fact, accounts for nearly one- fifth of Spain’s economy, and produces 25 percent of the country’s exports, the highest contribution by any constituent region, according to the country’s trade data.
On Sunday October 1, Catalans in deviance of Spanish central government’s warning, voted in a referendum to leave Spain.
The referendum on Sunday was not the first attempt by the region to break away from Spain.
Similar agitation lasted the entire regime of the Spanish dictator, General Francisco Franco who did everything possible to destroy Catalan separatism until 1977.
In 1979, when Spain became a democracy a statute approved by referendum granted Catalonian a degree of autonomy .
On June 18, 2006, another referendum was conducted which amended the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia of 1979. The statute further expand the authority of the Catalonia’s government.
Not long after, a renewed call for complete independence grew until July 2010, when the Constitutional Court in Madrid overruled part of the 2006 autonomy statute. The court accepted the specific provision that described Catalonia as a “nation”, but ruled that it was a historical and cultural term with no legal weight, and that Spain remained the only nation recognised by the constitution.
The October first referendum was therefore organised to overrule the court.
According to Catalan authorities, 90 percent of the 2.2 million people voted to leave Spain.
If the people succeed, Spain as we know it will cease to exist. First, Spain will lose 20 percent of its economy and probably bear the whole burden of the debt owed to the European Union, among other regrettable consequences. The debt is estimated 1.09 trillion euros ($1.23 trillion) as at 2016, which is worth more than the value of the economy of Spain.
The breakaway of Catalonia , which has been trending on Twitter in the last three days as Catalexit, may also affect the European Union. On Monday, the European currency dropped against the dollar by 0.3 percent in morning trading in Asia, according to local reports.
Madrid, of course, recognises the implication of secession, and has done all it could to stop the referendum from holding. Ahead of the election on Sunday, there was a police clampdown on the separatists, some of the Catalan government officials were detained and others were threatened with prosecution, including the President of Generalitat of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont.
Also, offices of the companies printing the ballot papers were raided, several polling stations were blocked and the internet was disabled. According to reports by the wire service, Catalonia’s High Court ordered Google to delete a Smartphone app that the Catalan government was using to spread information about the vote.
Despite the pressure, Catalans remained unmoved and went ahead to hold the election. The total vote count is less than 50 percent of the population, but, had the government allowed the process to go unhindered, opinion polls suggested that about half of Catalonia’s 7.5 million people would have voted in favour of exit.
The rising calls for secession cannot be understood outside the anger of Catalans who believe the Spanish government has been siphoning too much of the region’s wealth.
Simon Harris, who is currently writing a book on the history of the relations between Catalonia and Spain offers an insight about the tension. According to him, Catalonia is considered to be the most highly taxed in Europe, yet suffers infrastructural deficit compared to other regions of Spain.
For instance, Barcelona Airport located in Catalonia is Spain’s busiest airport, yet poorly maintained compared to Madrid Barajas International Airport with functional metro connection, train service and new roads. Also the Port of Barcelona is one of the busiest and more profitable in Europe which subsidizes other Spanish ports that run at a loss.
Harris writes that the Port of Barcelona would be even more successful if it had a freight railway line that could take goods to Europe because ships from Asia that currently dock in Rotterdam could access the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal.
“Both Catalonia and the EU have been lobbying for the so-called Mediterranean Corridor, which would also benefit Valencia, Cartagena, Malaga and Algeciras, but central government has blocked the Mediterranean Corridor for years because it doesn’t pass through Madrid.”
These are a few of the issues causing distrust in the land.
Observers of events in Spain also have long foreseen the widening schism, arguing that the Catalans and Spaniards are remarkably distinct in culture and language. In fact, Catalan as a language is closer to French and Italian than Spanish. Other differences cut across the cultural practices of the two people which make the citizens to view themselves differently.
Now, the rising drumbeat of secession is fragmenting the country further.
For instance, the Spanish team that played against F.C. Barcelona on Sunday reportedly came with special uniforms emblazoned with the Spanish flag, which was unusual.
The differences notwithstanding, the government in Madrid has declared that Spain stays united, and that the independence referendum is unconstitutional. According to the Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, no referendum took place on Sunday. He has also foreclosed the option of negotiation.
Earlier, Mr. Rajoy had told Parliament that he could not negotiate with a Catalan leader who flouts the Constitution.
Spain’s attorney general has reportedly threatened Catalonia’s political leaders with prison for misusing public money to finance an illegal referendum.
But Puigdemont appears unfazed in spite of threat to his freedom. He has instead vowed to make the vote binding, saying that the majority vote had earned Catalonia the right to go on separate way. Observers think his declaration is a recipe for bigger trouble, not only for Spain but other regions where the drumbeat of secession is rising . The list include Biafra, Scotland and northern Italy. In the age of globalisation, the possibility is not far-fetched. Already the Kurds had voted overwhelmingly to separate from Iraq, though Bagdad has also vowed to resist the division of the country.
Meanwhile, Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel has condemned violence characterizing the referendum in Catalonia and called on the parties to dialogue.
“Violence will never be the answer, “he said.
Apparently, Catalonia and Spain may not be the only feuding parties that need such advice. It is a wise counsel for all nations beyond Europe.
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