Non-Binding Vote in Catalonia: Will it lead to Independence?

On 9 November 2014 Catalonia, an autonomous community in north-eastern Spain, held a non-binding vote on whether they wanted to become independent. The Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, announced the vote would have no actual effect and that it was illegal. Despite that, 81 per cent of voters were in favour of independence, but only 37 per cent of the population actually turned out.[1] Catalonia’s yearning for sovereignty has increased over the past four years because of the problems with Spain’s economy, high unemployment, and austerity measures. While many Spanish cities are experiencing unbelievable unemployment and hardship, Catalonia is a prosperous area and contributes more to the economy than it receives in benefits from the government.

Gerhidt, ©2014, some rights reserved.
Gerhidt, ©2014, some rights reserved.

The vote in Catalonia is not the only recent separatist attempt. The referendum in Scotland back in September and more historically, the Québec Referendum in 1995 are other examples when secession was an issue. However, the issue of Catalonia’s independence is very different. Scotland lacks Catalonia’s wealth and Prime Minister David Cameron and MP Gordon Brown at least tried to persuade and appeal to the Scottish voters. With Québec, the ‘No’ campaign won the vote, but the Canadian government made an effort to acknowledge some of the province’s concerns, like promising that Québec would be allowed to reject any constitutional changes.

The situation with Catalonia is very different. Since Catalonia’s economy makes up such a large part of the national market, secession would seriously harm the already struggling Spanish economy. Also, in the Basque Country and Galicia, other regions in Spain, there are cries for independence. If Catalonia were to become sovereign, those other regions might hold their own votes or try to separate from Spain, too. Also, the Popular Party government, led by Mariano Rajoy, is ignoring the concerns of Catalonians. He is giving no validity to the 2.3 million Catalans who turned out to vote 9 November, he disregarded Artur Mas’ (the President of the Catalan Government) ideas and suggestions on dealing with Catalonia’s issues like unemployment and healthcare, and Rajoy has completely ignored the request for a formal referendum.

While it is understandable that Prime Minister Rajoy wants to preserve Spain’s unity and strength as a united country, he needs to respond to his citizens’ concerns and complaints. Also, because Catalonians are clearly a unique ethnic group, separate from Spaniards, they should be given the opportunity to vote for independence. Many feel that by refusing to grant a formal referendum, Rajoy is strengthening the hand of the secessionists as well as their resolve to leave Spain. Polls have shown that while a majority of Catalonians would not vote for independence, a majority does want the right to decide for themselves. By refusing a referendum, Rajoy could be encouraging more Catalonians to push for independence.

Another discussion point concerning Catalan independence is whether or not the European Union (EU) would side with the region. In the lead-up to the Scottish referendum, there was debate about how quickly Scotland would be able to join the EU or whether it would be allowed to join at all. Prime Minister Rajoy obviously spoke out against the prospect of an independent Scotland in the EU because of the effect that could have had on Catalonia’s independence movement. Rajoy said Spain would have blocked Scotland’s attempt to join the EU. Other leaders in the EU, while not as outspoken, held similarly negative views towards admitting an independent Scotland. Leaders in the European parliament highlighted the amount of time it would haven taken for Scotland’s bid to join the EU to be accepted, that all the states would have had to accept Scotland, and that by becoming independent, Scotland would have forced those who voted ‘No’ in the referendum to leave the EU against their will, which was incomprehensible to them.

While Scottish independence did not come to fruition, it brings up the question of whether a vote on Catalan independence would meet the same obstacles and hurdles. The EU would probably react the same way to a potentially independent Catalonia and it would take years of patience and campaigning to join the EU as an independent state. Another important concern would be currency. Just like Alex Salmond, Artur Mas is assuring his people that an independent Catalonia would be able to use the Euro. However, that is not guaranteed. The Eurozone has just escaped a recession and is still trying to regain strength and a new state would just be another issue to deal with. Chances are, Catalonia would not be allowed to continue using the Euro, at least for some time. The independent state would be forced to have its own currency and there would be a high possibility of bank runs, so people do not lose value with a newer, weaker currency. Also, any new Catalan currency would probably be weak compared to the Euro, which would increase cost of living in the region.

Like any debate, there are a number of arguments for and against Catalonian independence. However, whatever your opinion on the matter, it is important to recognize that Catalonia and its people deserve an opportunity to decide their future for themselves. Whether an independent Catalonia would be good or bad is irrelevant, everyone ought to have the opportunity to have his or her voice heard. The non-binding vote is probably only the beginning of this issue and hopefully Prime Minister Rajoy will allow and work with Catalonia to hold a formal referendum in the future.


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