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Is Spain Falling Apart?

Separatist or secessionist tendencies have been present in Spanish history for centuries. In recent years it has been the provinces of Galicia, the Basque Country, Navarre, and Catalonia with their demands for a breakaway from, and independence of, Spain that have drawn much international attention.mapa hiszpanii2

Historical background

Modern Spain is a country made up of 17 autonomous regions. This structure dates back to the days gone by when the Iberian Peninsula was being reconquered from the Muslims by Christian nations, descendants of Roman colonists and pre-Roman inhabitants, speaking corrupt Latin, which later evolved into modern Spanish. The first principalities and kingdoms came into existence in the northern part in the Middle Ages, soon to be followed by politically organized central and southern regions, slowly regained from the Moors, thus gradually giving rise roughly to present-day provinces of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, the Basque Country, La Rioja, Navarre, Aragon, Catalonia, Valencia, Castile and Leon, Castile-La Mancha, Extremadura, Murcia and Andalusia. It was already at the time of the medieval Reconquista that two opposing forces came into play: those of separatism driven by the rivalries between particular political entities and those of centralism cemented by the common Arab threat. The former is evidenced by present-day Portugal, which after a long period of a union with Spain, has become a separate political entity; the latter by the union of Castile and Aragon, which over time has laid foundations for today’s Spain.

Let it be noticed here that Spain is no exception to the phenomenon of two opposing forces acting on the political stage of historic dynamics. Areas inhabited by different peoples tend to politically break up; conversely, areas inhabited by the same ethnicity tend to politically unite. For centuries Italy and Germany, territories inhabited by the same nation, used to be merely geographical rather than political notions: the ethnic driven centripetal forces brought about their unity. On the other hand there is a Yugoslavia or a Czechoslovakia no more due to centrifugal forces of their various ethnic constituents.

Causes behind secessionist tendencies

In Spain, as almost everywhere else, different regions or provinces are peculiar for their varieties, or dialects, of the national language, in this case Spanish (with the exception of the Basque Country where an entirely different language is spoken) as well as differences in culture. This is commonly regarded as a driving force behind separatism. The extent of the area covered by a given dialect, and what follows, the extent of the corresponding culture and ethnicity, though, does not necessarily overlap with that of the province. Furthermore, especially northern, more developed regions have had an influx of people from the poor southern parts of the country, which has to a greater or lesser degree changed their ethnic composition. Catalonia, the breakaway region in question, can only claim somewhere about a half of its inhabitants as indigenous.

Separatism has also economic grounds. Generally, the citizens of affluent provinces are supposed to constantly contribute by means of the redistribution system to the welfare of the poorer ones. This is the case of California providing for Alaska and Hawaii. This, if prolonged, is likely to generate discontent and may become a breeding ground for breakaway tendencies, especially in the period of economic crises, like the one that hit the Western World a couple of years back. One might say that the cost of living together is inversely proportional to the will to live together.

There is also another factor behind separatism and centralism, namely that of the overriding political thought characteristic for a historical period. The 19th century saw a rise of nationalist political ideas: German and Italian states tended to unite; multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire was falling apart at the seams.

In the recent years Europe has witnessed two contradictory tendencies: multinational states disintegrate only to have their constituent parts join the supranational European Union. Local patriotism seems to be preferred over national loyalties by the European Commission.

Separatism of Catalonia

Of the four provinces that have the strongest separatist tendencies – the Basque country, Navarre, Galicia and Catalonia – it is the last mentioned that has attracted a lot of attention recently. Its inhabitants claim to have had their identity denied, language suppressed and their resources exploited by the central government. The 27 September local elections that were billed by the separatists as a vote over the independence of the province were won by the secessionist Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes), headed among others by Artur Mas, a strong activist of Catalonia’s independence. Still, the separatists garnered 47% of the votes1 , with the turnout standing at 77%, which is to say they failed to gain the overwhelming majority. The other contenders to power are either in favour of only increasing Catalonia’s autonomy or, conversely, of strengthening its ties to the central government. Artur Mas, who had already been on a collision course with the central government, announced his willingness to take steps towards the independence process that would not hang on the Spanish authorities, particularly the Constitutional Court2: Catalonia is supposed to be a republic. The reaction of Madrid left no room for doubt: the independence declaration will be regarded as unconstitutional because the Constitution of 1978 in Articles 1.2 and 2 guarantees the integrity of the country3.

Expected reaction from the European Union

Also the European Union is not likely to support Catalan secession. It would mean more trouble and no gain. Pursuant to Article 4.2 of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty ‘the Union shall respect (…) the territorial integrity of the [Member] State[s]’. The same Treaty states that borders can only be changed by common consent. Proclaiming independence, Catalonia would be automatically, as it were, expelled from the European Union, the Central Bank, the Schengen Area Treaty, the euro zone system and the like. Simply, Catalonia is no party to the said agreements and no member of the mentioned organisations4. In order to join the Unon, Catalonia will have to enjoy the status of being a state. This can only be gained by a unanimous vote of all the 28 Member States, which is highly unlikely: the independence of Kosovo was vetoed by Cyprus, Greece, Romania and Slovakia, nations that feared that recognition of Kosovo as a state might provide a dangerous precedent to later disrupt their own countries. Also, a state that applies for membership in the Union has to abide by the rules of the law. This, again, will not be the case if Catalonia unilaterally leaves Spain, because in doing so it will violate the Spanish constitution whose provisions are binding on the province5.

The prospects for Catalonia becoming a separate and independent nations are dim. Slightly more than half of the province’s population is not in favour of such a step; the European Union is hardly likely to be willing to even ponder the possibility of having Spain disintegrate, being afraid of creating a dangerous precedent and of having more political and economic trouble to cope with. There do not appear to exist the forces that might be interested in supporting Catalan separatism as there were in the case of the former Yugoslavia, either internally or externally.

1. What Does the Catalonia Vote Mean for Spain? Source: History News Network 10-07-2015
There were “songs all day and far into the night,” and “down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town…crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro.” George Orwell’s portrait of the revolution that shaped the city of Barcelona in the first stages of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 might have also served aptly as a description of Catalans celebrating what has been billed as a referendum on independence on Sunday, Sept. 27.

2. Catalan secessionist parties declare beginning of independence process Source: El Pais 27-10-2015
The two separatist groups in the Catalan parliament have agreed on a document declaring “the beginning of the process to create an independent Catalan state.”

3. An independent Catalonia would not be able to rejoin EU, says report Source: El Pais 17-09-2015
If Catalonia were to declare unilateral independence, not only would it be immediately expelled from the European Union, it would also be banned from rejoining, according to a new report.

4. An independent Catalonia would not be able to rejoin EU, says report, Source: El Pais 17-09-2015
If Catalonia were to declare unilateral independence, not only would it be immediately expelled from the European Union, it would also be banned from rejoining, according to a new report.

5. Catalonia and the European Union Source: El Pais 31-08-2015
It is false to think that a unilateral declaration of independence would attract support from other EU countries. Such a step contravenes European treaties as well as the interests and stability of many European members

2 comments on “Is Spain Falling Apart?

  • “The former is evidenced by present-day Portugal, which after a long period of a union with Spain, has become a separate political entity;”.

    This is laughable. Portugal is the very first nation and state of the Iberian Peninsula, appearing in 1128. Before,there has never been any political entity on the Iberian Peninsula. There were Christian kingdoms trying to recover land from Arabs. Spain only emerges in 1812. Until then, there were separate kingdoms (Castile, Aragon) that entered unions but did not form any unified political entity. Portugal is almost 700 years older than Spain. So get your facts straight!

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