Increasing Independence Claims in Catalonia: Not Only the Economy

by Jordi Muñoz on March 29, 2013

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.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alçament de Catalunya March 30, 2013

Please see this video for understand our history:

“The History of the catalans from Catalonia”



2 Botifler :) April 3, 2013

Catalonian naZionalism uncovered:


3 Candide April 7, 2013

Why the lies? There is no 2/3 majority for independence in the Catalan parliament. CiU (50), ERC (21) and CUP (3) sum 74 out of 135 seats. That’s 55%. Let’s also keep in mind that CiU is a bloc of two parties, that its election program does not speak of independence*, and that the smaller smaller partner in this bloc, UDC, would rather see Catalonia stay in Spain. Much of CiU’s newly found thrust for independence depends on the decisions made by Catalan president Artur Mas, whose sudden maneuvers have been successful in the short run, but are already showing signs of alienating him from both a significant part of his own CiU bloc and a great part of his voters.

[*CiU’s election program does speak of a “state of our own”. This expression lacks the necessary clarity. It allows for the interpretation of “state associated with Spain”.]

The second lie is that the separatists movement has traditionally been “compromise-seeking”. CiU, as a rather regionalist than nationalist party, has traditionally been for an understanding with Madrid. But if you speak of a movement, then its not one party, but the separatists movement, which has traditionally been very clear about its aims. It includes ERC and CUP, plus other minor parties, and a plethora of dedicated NGOs. All are both clearly separatist and pancatalan, meaning that their framework of reference is not Catalonia alone, but all Catalan speaking territories, the so-called Països Catalans. This has not changed, except that parts of CiU have joined this bandwagon.

I would also debate a significant rise in separatist attitude before the onset of the economic crisis. Indeed, separatists explicitly exploit the economic crisis in their favour. One of the most recent showings of this attitude being ERC’s insistence that Madrid be solely blamed for all shortcomings of the Catalan budget.

Certainly, having said that I do not favour any monocausal explanation.

The Constitutional Court’s ruling on the Statute of Autonomy did indeed have an effect on the movement, yet numbers from an unofficial referendum on independence between 2009 and 2011 suggest that this effect was not great: the CC’s verdict did not lead to a spike in participation in this unofficial referendum, which in average was lower than 20%.

Opinion polls may serve as an argument, yet only if keeping in mind what opinion polls are: the snapshot of a moment, not necessarily a longer-standing political conviction.

Therefore a referendum on independence is all the more necessary. However, it has to be conducted in a free and fair environment. Alas, this is not given in Catalonia. Many municipalities have already prejudged the outcome of such a referendum, having joined the Association of Municipalities for Independence (AMI) without any popular vote -and thus contradicting their very own credo that the people should decide- and actively promoting independence on the municipal level, something that grossly interferes with the decision making process of the citizens. An Advisory Council for the National Transition has been set up by the Catalan president Artur Mas -and not by the Catalan parliament, as would befit- which also prejudges the outcome of any referendum on the matter.

While politicians take advantage of a situation and use their institutional powers to push through an agenda, citizens are being left behind. I would not call this “scrupulously democratic”, as Artur Mas’s claim goes. I would simply call this social engineering, much closer to the dealings of a totalitarian regime as opposed to a democracy.

Indeed, the existing and very broad wish to exert one’s “right to decide” on the matter of independence is being tarnished by this “right” having been turned into an absolute -i.e. the only right that does not entail any obligations, such as following the politically due process of being negotiated within the legal framework first of all- and in result it is being used to abolish democracy, rather than enhance it.

We should make no mistake about it: here an apparent majority is using all the means at its disposal -a subsidised press, the promotion of academic opinions, political power at every level- to conform the citizens to the desired outcome and create a real majority. The essential freedom of the individual to make up their minds has been drastically reduced.

Even though Madrid has to be criticised for its lack of flexibility, it is the Catalan separatist side that has done the greater disservice to (grassroots) democracy. In this process not only those in favour of staying in Spain are the losers. It is especially those who who would like to form an independent state, because if nothing changes their decision will forever be tainted by the undemocratic nature of this “national transition”.

This will come back to haunt them if Catalonia indeed becomes independent and applies to, for instance, membership in the European Union. If not already much before.

Let me end with a personal note: someone like doctor Muñoz who uses his academic cachet as a propagandist rather than as a researcher loses all this cachet. This is not new to me in the present Catalan/Spanish context. It is nevertheless disgusting each and every time it appears. There is always room for personal interpretations, but misrepresentations of the facts and outright lies serve no-one.


4 Jordi Muñoz April 7, 2013

Dear anonymous commenter,

While I have my opinion, explicitly stated in the piece, which of course you can agree or disagree, I want to make clear that there are no ‘outright lies’ in the text: first, nowhere in the piece it is stated that 2/3rds of the parliament favor independence. What I say (quote) is: ” pro-referendum parties gained almost two-thirds of the seats in an early election for the regional parliament” which is -as I explain in the last paragraph- different from saying that they are pro-independence.

The second assertion that you claim to be a ‘lie’ is that the majority of the catalan nationalism has traditionally been moderate and compromise seeking has turned into a more pro-independence movement. You might like it or not, but the fact that this process has occured is hardly debatable: otherwise why are we now discussing about a referendum?

I would like to continue this discussion, as the commenter has an informed point of view on the issue, but I’d rather not do it with an anonymous person.

Jordi M.


5 Candide April 7, 2013

You are quite right, and I have to apologise: you do speak of the pro-referendum faction as forming a 2/3 majority, and this is correct. Indeed, pro-referendum are 107 out of 135 Catalan MPs, that exceeds by far a 2/3 majority.

The second point you raise would raise objections, again, on my part, if you wished to debate. Which you don’t: shall I next time chose my alias more carefully, with a good fake name and surname?

Suit yourself, it’s your country. I think that staying anonymous is a valid option in a situation where dissenters are called “traitors” and “a cancer”, and I do no think that the condition of anonymity takes a iota away from the arguments one might present.

As a matter of fact. I am getting ever more tired of participating in the debate myself. It is not my country. And the unwillingness to debate on the side of the separatists is just too obvious, many of whom have taken to use “dialogue” as a bad word and concept; one of the reasons why there is no real dialogue with Madrid, either. Others -including parties, news outlets and several high-profile online sites- simply delete unwanted points of view.

This is your country.


6 David Blázquez June 15, 2013

Dear Mr. Muñoz:
Thanks for your article. It is quite informative. I profoundly disagree with many of the implicit assumptions that underlie the whole thesis. However, for the sake of brevity, I will only focus in your core argument.
If I am right, your intention is to show that economy is not the olny rationale for independence among catalans. The fact that polls were already indicating that “desire” already before 2008 is your main reason in favor of the thesis. Then, you move forward to explain the life and death of the Estatuto and you talk about the “fairly specific interpretation of the 1978 Spanish Constitution”. As a reader, I would have liked a strongest supporting evidence of that assessment from a juridical point of view. In its absence, I take it as a nice slogan. You then advance the Estatuto as the main reason -“political event”, as opposed to “economic”- for the raise of the pre-crisis nationalistic claims. If I understand correctly, however, the Estatuto was not a reason. It was, precisely, a consequence: the outcome of a nationalistic mood, the political blossoming of a nationalistic sentiment. As such it was presented by the political parties that behind its drafting. It seems therefore that you took a consequence as a reason, bypassing in that way the real problem, that is: taking for granted that catalans want a referendum of independence, what are their reasons? By saying that economy is not the main rationale and that the political class of Cataluña apresented proposal for a new Estatuto de autonomía that was stroke down by the Spanish Constitutional Court you dismantle one of the reason and point at a consequence, but fail to provide an alternative reason. However, perhaps you are right and the Estatuto is, at the end, a reason. In that case, what you would be saying is that the raise in the claims for independence in Cataluña don’t come from real problems (oppression from the Spanish government, for example) but from the ideological pressure introduced by the political leadership in Cataluña, a pressure that exacerbated some real problems to the point of creating monsters that are not real anymore. The Estatuto would be something that generated or at least increased hatred, and not a consequence of oppression. But I doubt that’s what you mean by saying that the Estatuto was a reason, precisely because that is what those who oppose both the Estatuto and the referendum say. An important question is, in my view, who would benefit from independence in Cataluña? The people or just the political élite in Cataluña? Responding to that is a must for a politician. I hope politicians in Cataluña have that in mind when they take their decisions.


7 Neus Nogué September 4, 2013

The explanation is clear but you forget a very important issue: Spanish language policy. In recent years, the Spanish Constitutional Court issued several rulings against Catalan, especially against its preferential use at schools. In different ways, the same policy has been applied in the Balearic Islands and in València.


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