Op-Ed: Can Spain and Catalonia’s marriage be saved? Let the Catalans vote

People demonstrate at town hall square against the Spanish Tribunal Constitutional prohibition of the November Catalonian independence referendum, in Gerona, Catalonia.
(Robin Townsend / EPA)

Catalonia’s drive to break away from Spain hit a roadblock this week. Spain’s Constitutional Court on Monday agreed to hear Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s appeal contesting Catalonia’s plan for a Nov. 9 referendum on independence and suspended the regional vote. The court has five months to issue its final ruling. The Catalan government on Tuesday temporarily halted its campaign but said it would appeal the suspension and continue to push to let the people decide.

Until now, outsiders might have been tempted to compare Catalonia’s move with Scotland’s recent secession movement, in which voters rejected independence from Britain. But the two situations are strikingly different.

Scotland is small (8.4% of Britain’s population) and contributes just 9.5% of Britain’s gross domestic product. Catalonia is much bigger (16% of Spaniards live here), highly industrialized and disproportionately productive, contributing 19% of Spain’s GDP. Furthermore, only about 1% of Scots speak Gaelic, while about 85% of the people here speak Catalan. Also, the British political system fully embraces the Scots, as demonstrated by the fact that Britain has had a few Scottish prime ministers in recent history. The last Catalan prime minister of Spain served for five weeks in 1873.


But the main difference between the two situations is that the binding vote in Scotland had the blessing of the British government, but Madrid is vigorously fighting the proposed nonbinding referendum, calling it illegal. As a New Yorker who has lived in Catalonia for 20 years, I have seen the situation evolve. Although many Catalans have long nurtured dreams of independence, until recently only a few marginal cranks made a big deal of it. Even committed nationalists went about their prosperous lives more or less contentedly, regarding the rest of Spain as something between a nuisance and a joke.

But the landscape has changed dramatically since the financial crisis began several years ago. Rampant unemployment, government corruption and incompetence, and a huge fiscal deficit (the difference between what Catalans pay in taxes and what they get back in government funding) have radicalized many Catalans. Even the traditionally center-right party of Catalan leader Artur Mas, who is spearheading the independence movement, did not openly support independence until a few years ago.

Add to that a general sense that most Spaniards, far from appreciating the Catalans for contributing more than their fair share, actually despise and ridicule them. Catalans feel humiliated and are furious, and show up in enormous numbers at demonstrations for independence.

Both sides have their kooks. In the unionist camp, a few die-hard conservatives — who apparently haven’t heard that Franco no longer runs things — have called for sending in the tanks. I doubt that’s going to happen. The prime minister would not want to be remembered for starting the second Spanish Civil War in living memory.

On the separatist side, there’s a group of amateur (and entirely unaccredited) “researchers” who have published online articles “proving” that Cervantes, Leonardo da Vinci, Erasmus, Albrecht Durer, Amerigo Vespucci, Marco Polo, Hernán Cortés, and a host of others were, contrary to what history books teach us, actually Catalans whose identities have been manipulated for centuries by wicked minions of the Spanish government.

Still, the vast majority of Catalans and Spaniards are reasonable people who want a peaceful solution. I have yet to hear anyone say that he would fight — let alone die — for either cause. And yet passions run high. Friendships break up over the issue and families are divided.


History has taught us that conflicts over nationalism can spin out of control. Successive Spanish governments have been unable to defuse the tension, having been in a bind for decades, if not centuries. Most Spaniards see concessions to Catalonia as a sign of capitulation, while most Catalans, not surprisingly, see the lack of concessions as a refusal to compromise.

Ultimately, if the Catalans want independence, there should be a path. The centuries-long marriage with Spain, never a happy one, has been on the rocks for some time. Still, we must recognize that if the separatists succeed, the historically restive Basques probably would emulate them. And Catalonia and the Basque country are transnational regions extending into France. Should French Catalans and French Basques begin clamoring for their rights, some Bretons, Corsicans and perhaps even Alsatians will take notice. And so forth.

I have many friends and acquaintances on each side of this issue, and most seem extremely confident that their cause will prevail. Inevitably, many will be sorely disappointed.

However the court battle is resolved, Madrid’s intransigence, in the eyes of many Catalans, offers conclusive evidence that Spain is not a fully functioning democracy. We are headed toward an impasse, and neither Rajoy’s government nor Mas’ is nearly popular enough to survive abandoning such a central tenet of its platform.

The referendum in Scotland will be remembered as a great moment in European history. Not because the Scots decided against independence, but because the Scots decided for themselves, in democratic and transparent fashion. The Catalans — and the Western liberal democratic tradition — deserve no less.

William Cole is a university professor of humanities in Barcelona and an art and rare book dealer.Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion