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'Stakes are high': Experts discuss contentious Catalonian independence movement in Spain

All the parties involved in the Catalonian independence movement should aim for a peaceful settlement, said several experts in European politics at a panel Wednesday.

The event—co-sponsored by the Center for International and Global Studies and the Forum for Scholars and Publics—centered on the Catalonian independence referendum held Oct. 1. Panelists discussed the implications and impacts of Catalonia's move toward independence.

“The stakes are high for all the parties if Catalonia makes a unilateral declaration of independence,” said Pablo Beramendi, an associate professor of political science and one of the panelists. “Catalan leaders know they will lose both international and domestic support if they take this step."

Beramendi explained that Spain is highly decentralized, granting regions "much self-governance." For instance, there is no share of rule in the Spanish parliament. Spain's Senate members are not regional representatives, as they might be in the United States, he said. 

Catalonia is one of these autonomous communities and is also home to the second most populated city in Spain—Barcelona. This autonomy, he said, is counterbalanced with central government intervention.

Economic concern is one important driving force for people in Catalonia to call for independence, Beramendi noted.

Spain operates under fiscal federalism, which is composed of two systems. The “foral” regime only applies to the Basque Country and Navarre in Spain, which allows almost full fiscal autonomy except for a constant transfer to the central government at the end of the year. The “common” regime applies to all other autonomous communities, which finances them proportional to the size of their economy.

Beramendi said that Catalonia has long demanded the equal rights that the Basque Country enjoys.

“Under the ‘common’ regime, basically rich regions pay more than the poor ones,” he said. “Catalonians have constantly argued that this policy is a discrimination against them [considering Catalonia’s relatively large economic size].”

The Spanish central government is adamantly against any effort of secession, Beramendi added. Their attitude was evident in the Spanish police’s violent repression of the referendum in Catalonia early this month. 

“The government states any challenge of the Constitution is illegal and will meet with nothing but law and order,” Beramendi said. “This is their constant position, until today.”

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has threatened to invoke Article 155 of the Constitution if Catalonia declares independence unilaterally. The article will allow the central government to suspend the Catalan parliament and control most of the Catalan administrations. 

Beramendi said that opposition against independence has also emerged within Catalonia itself. The parties in the pro-independence parliamentary alliance disagree over the concrete practices to carry out independence. Catalans who are against secession have also initiated massive demonstrations recently in Barcelona. Some major companies have also moved their offices out of Catalonia to signal their objection of this move.

There are both class and generational divides in the region's attitude against the independence referendum, he added. In general, the urban, well-educated population is more pro-independence than the rural population, and young people are more pro-independence than the elderly.

If Catalonia secedes from Spain and tries to join the European Union as an independent country, it will need to negotiate with the EU to make sure it fulfills all the criteria as an EU member, said Antoine Ripoll, head of the European Parliament Liaison Office within the U.S. Congress and panelist at the event.

Beramendi added that the Catalonian independence movement was not a sudden outburst. A series of incidents spanning the last ten years have foreshadowed the recent disputes. 

With the approval of the Spanish Congress, the Catalan Parliament drafted a new Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia in 2005, making a series of demands of the central Spanish government. These demands included recognizing Catalonia as a nationality, as well as allowing the Supreme Court of Catalonia to have the final ruling power over certain regional issues. 

The draft was approved by both houses of the Spanish Parliament and also in a referendum in Catalonia in 2006. But in 2010, the Constitutional Court of Spain—the ultimate decision maker of constitution-related issues in Spain—vetoed 14 of the total 223 articles raised in the new statute. 

Beramendi noted that even though the Court only declined a small portion of Catalonia’s demands, the consequence was significant because it jeopardized the existing compromise between the central and regional government. 

“Based on the previous progress they have achieved, Catalonian politicians have updated their beliefs about what is possible to achieve within the system,” he said. “The common ground that Madrid and Barcelona reached [had] vanished.”

Nationalist sentiments emerged in Catalonia as a response to this ruling of the Constitutional Court. In the 2015 Catalan parliamentary election, an alliance of nationalist politicians called Junts pel Sí arose and formally put the independence referendum on their agenda.

Beramendi said he expects the EU to play an important role in determining how the Catalan independence movement will evolve. 

Since the referendum is a domestic issue for Spain, it is not legally justified for the EU to intervene, Ripoll added. However, he noted that the EU is politically responsible to help facilitate dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona. 

“The foundation of the EU is a belief in reconciliation and cooperation,” Ripoll said. “The best way to solve dispute is a way that avoids confrontation.”

The panelists noted that the independence movement in Catalonia will most likely set a precedent for similar requests toward regional autonomy in Europe. The EU needs to be cautious such that this particular incident will not trigger large-scale turmoil.

Ripoll added the Catalonian independence movement is a global issue that should concern the entire international audience.

“We all hold multiple identities in today’s world and we often find them in conflict,” she said. “By studying [the Catalan referendum], we should learn how these identities can be compatible with each other.”


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