Last September, a massive pro-independence demonstration in Barcelona, followed by a rather explicit statement by the Catalan president in support of independence, surprised the world. Two months later, pro-referendum parties gained almost two-thirds of the seats in an early election for the regional parliament. These are just the last, and most visible, signs of a longer process that has deeply shifted Catalans’ constitutional preferences. In 2006, surveys indicated that, when given four options (secession, federalism, the current level of autonomy, or less autonomy), only about thirteen percent of respondents chose secession. However, in January 2013 the same survey showed forty-four percent support for independence, a figure that grows to fifty-seven percent given a yes/no choice. What has changed, then, in recent years in Catalonia? Why has a traditionally moderate and compromise-seeking movement turned so clearly toward a pro-independence stance?
One prevalent narrative links these growing pro-independence claims to the current economic crisis. Catalonia is a relatively affluent region within Spain and transfers a certain proportion of its tax revenue to poorer regions in southern Spain, estimated by economists commissioned by the Catalan government at about eight percent of the gross domestic product. In the current context of crisis and harsh austerity measures, the argument goes, many Catalan citizens and leaders now regard the transfers as burdensome and harmful to their welfare. Along these lines, it is often even suggested that the bid for independence is part of a more complex strategy whose goal is not secession but a mere renegotiation of the current inter-regional fiscal transfer scheme.
This is an appealing explanation—parsimonious, and based on an idea that can be easily understood without much reference to the specifics of the case. But is it accurate? While it certainly explains part of the story, economics alone do not explain the current intensity of pro-independence demands in Catalonia. A key proof is the time sequence: polls show that support for independence began to increase rapidly in Catalonia a few years before the onset of crisis, and the growth rate has accelerated since then. Unless this is a case of retro-causality, we must consider alternative causes.
Indeed, the purely economic explanation ignores some key political events that can hardly be regarded as inconsequential. The most relevant of these is the process of reforming the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia (2003–2010). In 2003, the newly elected left-wing government coalition announced it would promote a new statute of autonomy aimed at obtaining more powers within Spain. An agreement with the main center-right party in the Catalan Parliament (CiU) led in 2005 to the approval of an ambitious proposal that redefined the status of Catalonia within Spain, expanding political and fiscal powers and clearly recognizing the status of Catalonia as a “nation” within Spain. This proposal was brought to the Spanish parliament to be negotiated, as required by the Constitution. As a result of this negotiation, a much less ambitious text was put to vote in a referendum in 2006, gathering the support of 73.9 percent of the voters, although with a low turnout (49.4 percent).
After the vote, the Spanish Popular Party, which had opposed the reform, appealed the newly approved statute to the Spanish Constitutional Court. The court issued a ruling in 2010 abolishing several key passages of the statute, including the highly symbolic definition of Catalonia as a “nation.” The ruling advanced a fairly specific interpretation of the 1978 Spanish Constitution, setting clear limits on the decentralization process. This ruling has arguably had a deep impact, as it made promises for greater autonomy within Spain less credible in the eyes of Catalans, fostering support for the “exit” option.
Beyond the debate on its causes, the current situation is challenging both for Catalan and Spanish leaders and must be addressed. It might be reasonable, at this point, to hold a referendum on the issue, without assuming any outcome as given. An ample majority of citizens (about seventy-five percent) and parties in Catalonia support the idea of holding a referendum as the best solution to the current stalemate—majorities that well exceed the number who would support independence at the polls. This discrepancy shows how in Catalonia, the procedural question (a referendum) is now distinguished from the substantive goals of the different groups (secession, federalism, or status quo). So far, however, the Spanish government has refused to negotiate a solution similar to those for Scotland or Quebec, so the stalemate continues.