Tension Mounts as Spain and Catalonia Face Off Over the Catalan Independence Referendum
One of the main reasons why I think I’m qualified to report on the situation in Catalonia is because I’ve lived here for 30 years. This means that I understand the people and culture and more importantly the language. If you really want to understand the Catalan point of view on independence, you have to read websites like Vilaweb, ElNacional or ElMon as well as personal blogs and websites, which almost exclusively in Catalan.
I make no bones about my pro-Catalan bias but given that until the recent upsurge in interest in the Catalan question, most of the foreign press were based in Madrid and only spoke Spanish, getting at least some of your information from me will actually provide you with a more balanced view of things. If you’re not here or even if you are and don’t understand the language it’s very difficult to understand the nuances of what’s happening.
The second video in the lead up to the referendum discusses the predictable reaction from the Spanish government to the Catalan Referendum Law passed by the Parliament of Catalonia.
The Spanish government’s Council of State met in the morning and sent the Law of the Referendum on to the Spanish Constitutional Court, which duly declared it unconstitutional. They also announced that they would be bringing criminal charges against the main instigators of the bill, probably the speaker of the parliament, Carme Forcadell, and the President of the Generalitat, Carles Puigdemont among others. The rationale being that the politicians knew that they were acting unconstitutionally but went ahead anyway.
The Spanish government was maintaining its stance that the referendum would not go ahead. As the Spanish government and judiciary was against it, it was clear that at some point the Spanish police and military would get involved.
The reaction in Catalonia to this perceived clampdown was also predictable as various town and city mayors and councillors came out saying they were willing to help organise the referendum in their area. At that point, around 560 out of 700 or so town councils had already expressed their willingness to get involved. This showed that the majority of Catalonia was prepared to act illegally, an obvious problem for the Spanish government.
The other thing that happened in the Catalan Parliament was that the Law of juridical transition and foundation of the Republic was passed, which is the second law required to set up the Catalan Republic after the referendum. This law avoids there being a legal vacuum after independence is declared because it states that all Spanish laws will remain in force until they are replaced by new ones passed by the Parliament of Catalonia.
Given that the two sides were adopting diametrically opposed positions, tensions were only going to mount between then and the referendum. The more aggressive the Spanish approach became the more the Catalans were going to stick to their guns. In fact the attitude of the Spanish government has pushed more and more people to support independence since the process kicked off.
In the second half of the video, I answer a couple of questions posed in the comments section the previous day.
What economic reasons do the Catalans have for wanting to leave Spain?
Despite the fact that there are political, historical and cultural scores to settle with Spain, Catalonia does have strong economic reasons for wanting independence.
Spain consists of 17 Autonomous Communities, all of which apart from the Basque Country, are in reality little more than another administrative layer of government because although they administer services, such as health and education in their region, they don’t collect a significant amount of taxes themselves.
The Spanish central government collects the majority of the taxes and then returns a certain amount of money to the autonomous governments to spend on education, health, transport and other infrastructures. At the same time, the central Spanish government is directly responsible for infrastructures, such as ports, airports and the national railway network.
As a result of this system, Catalonia has become a cash cow for the Spanish government. Every year since the return of democracy, the Spanish central government has collected more in taxes from Catalonia than it has returned to the Generalitat either as a direct payment or as investment. This difference or tax deficit has generally amounted to between 7-8% of Catalonia’s GDP, which the last figures I saw was €16 billion a year.
If Catalonia all this money would stay in the country and it is estimated that the costs of being independent, such as setting up a diplomatic service or a small standing army would amount to around €7 billion a year.
So independence would obviously be financially beneficial to Catalonia. One of the criticisms of the Catalans has often been that they are lacking in solidarity with the poorer regions of Spain. However, in the past 7 years, the Generalitat has continually expressed its willingness to return more than its fair share of taxes to central government out of solidarity to poorer regions as long it is allowed to collect the taxes itself.
A main complain of the Catalans is that a great deal of tax money is squandered on vanity projects such as the high speed AVE rail network, which aims to link Madrid with all the provincial capitals. The Catalan argument is that the only connections that are really necessary are those that improve business, which would be Madrid-Barcelona, Madrid,-Seville, Madrid-Valencia, Barcelona-Valencia, Madrid-Bilbao and Barcelona-Bilbao. However, central government prefers to invest in a radial network with all lines starting in Madrid and some of this to destinations suvh as Albacete, Caceres or Santiago de Compostela run at a severe loss.
As a result of money being squandered on the AVE, very little is spent on the freight rail network, which also affects Catalan interests. The Mediterranean Corridor, which aims to link the ports of Algeciras, Cartagena, Valencia, Tarragona and Barcelona with France and the rest of Europe. The project would by highly beneficial to the whole of the Spanish economy and has the backing of the EU because it would make the ports of Barcelona and Valencia two of the most important ports in Europe, because container ships in the Mediterranean would no longer have to go through the Straits of Gibraltar and up to Rotterdam to access northern European freight rail networks.
However, Spanish central government has continually blocked it because it doesn’t go through Madrid. If it did, it would mean it wasn’t a Mediterranean Corridor anymore obviously. Catalans suspect that another reason for this is that despite benefiting Spain as a whole, Madrid doesn’t want too much prosperity coming directly to Barcelona.
Other examples of Spain cutting off its nose to spite its face would be investment in motorways, which generally have tolls in Catalonia but are usually free in the rest of Spain, other investments in the ports of Tarragona and Barcelona and a lack of investment in Barcelona-El Prat Airport in comparison with Madrid-Barajas.
2. What do I think about the issue of Scottish Independence?