A pro-secession protest in Catalonia on September 11th brought out 8% of the region’s entire population, The Economist reports. Opinion polls have support for independence at about half of the electorate, possibly more. The moderate nationalists in power in Catalonia have even radicalized their platform. In the past, Convergence and Unity was a moderate nationalist, center-right party coalition dedicated to greater autonomy for Catalonia and a recognized right to self-determination. While refusing to rule out independence in the long run, they rejected secession as attainable or desirable in the near term. Now, they explicitly advocate eventual sovereignty (effectively, independence within the European Union).
In addition to Convergence and Unity, there has been, since the mid-1980s, a significant independentist strain within Catalan nationalism. The Catalan Republican Left (ERC) has been the main exponent of this current. In the early 2000’s, ERC actually formed the regional administration along with the regional Socialists. They helped put together Catalonia’s new autonomy statute that, among other things, defines Catalonia as a “nation” rather than a “nationality” for the first time. (Yes, this sort of symbolism seems to matter to nationalist voters.) Over time, ERC support has been growing, and so has broader support for independence. Thus, this most recent outbreak is nothing new, rather the last expression of an upwelling of “fed-up nationalism” that has been going on for at least a decade.
In one sense, Catalan nationalism is easily explicable as the consequence of its economic and fiscal situation. It is richer than the rest of Spain and therefore experiences net outflows of tax dollars. According to The Economist, net transfers to the rest of Spain may account for 8% of Catalan GDP. Yet net transfers alone cannot generate nationalism. In the United States, New Jersey is just as much a milk cow for the rest of the country as Catalonia is in Spain, yet that state is hardly boiling over in anti-federal sentiment. What creates nationalism is the conjuncture of a distinctive regional-national identity with perceived fiscal or political unfairness, which thus makes the unfairness seem like a threat to “the people,” defined in terms of the region not the state. (For cross-country evidence on this point, see two of my papers, my book, and Henry Hale’s book.)
Yet the fiscal situation cannot explain why Catalan nationalism has radicalized in recent years. A constant cannot alone explain change. One hypothesis is that regional nationalisms, especially in Europe, are becoming stronger and more radical because globalization and European integration reduce the costs of independence for small territories. There may be something to this, although I remain unpersuaded, but I would look more to Spain’s current political situation for the answer. Spain’s fiscal troubles, in part due to the profligacy of regional governments, pose both threat and opportunity to regional nationalist movements within Spain — threat because the centralist-by-instinct Popular Party government in Spain is seeking to control future fiscal problems by limiting the fiscal autonomy of regional governments, and opportunity because the Spanish government is facing fiscal and economic weakness and might be open to making deals that strengthen its hand with the rest of the country.
In addition, there may be some demonstration effects from the Basque regional government’s unsuccessful push for “free association” a few years ago. But the fact that the effort was unsuccessful shows the limits of the Catalan government’s bargaining power. The Spanish constitution forbids secession, and the Popular Party has in the past interpreted Spanish law as forbidding even consultative referendums in the regions. They threatened to jail the Basque Premier if he held one. While these features of Spanish law are regrettable, it will be difficult to get around them. The other Spanish regions, with exceptions of Galicia and the Basque Country, are unlikely to ratify a constitutional amendment permitting regions to leave. An unfortunate consequence of stalemate on the question might be further radicalization of Catalan nationalists’ strategies. While a full-scale, ETA-style, terrorist campaign is very unlikely, protests, strikes, and occasional attacks on property can still be disruptive and may look like the only way forward to Catalan nationalist youth facing intransigent opposition from the central state.