Opinion |

Why an Independent Catalonia Would Be a Huge Mistake

The independence referendum has only exacerbated the rifts within Catalonia and in Spanish society overall

Victor Harel
Victor Harel
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A man holds a Catalan pro-independence 'Estelada' flag during a demonstration in support of the referendum in Catalonia on October 1, 2017 in Granada, Spain.
A man holds a Catalan pro-independence 'Estelada' flag during a demonstration in support of the referendum in Catalonia on October 1, 2017 in Granada, Spain.Credit: JORGE GUERRERO/AFP
Victor Harel
Victor Harel

This article was originally published on October 2, 2017 and republished after Catalonia's regional parliament declared independence from Spain.

Nothing is stopping Catalonia’s government and its separatist movement from racing headlong toward their ambition of full independence. The fatal terror attacks in Barcelona just six weeks ago seem to have been forgotten, together with the momentary unity between the region and the rest of Spain.

Catalonia’s leaders were not deterred by the rulings of Spain’s Supreme Court, were not eager to obey the law and were not suitably impressed by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s determination to prevent Catalonia’s exit at “almost” any price. Rajoy simply can’t do otherwise, because on the sidelines of this battle, others watch and wait: the Basques, some Galicians and who knows what other part of the country might yet demand independence and separation.

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Sunday’s referendum vote merely deepened the rift within Catalonia and Spanish society as a whole. The confrontations — some of them violent, between citizens and police officers who were brought in from outside the region (a move necessitated by what the central government’s chief representative Catalonia called the passivity shown by the Catalan regional Mossos d’Esquadra force) — were greeted with horror by Spaniards, for whom they evoked long-buried nightmares of the Franco regime. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and his government bear most of the responsibility for this.

People react as they listen a speech at a courtyard outside a polling station for the banned independence referendum in Barcelona, Spain, October 1, 2017.Credit: Yves Herman/REUTERS

The heads of the European Union vehemently oppose letting a “Catalan State” join the union. Such a move not only contradicts the essence and purpose of the EU; it would also open the door to a flood of demands for independence across the continent.

Russia, of course, is enjoying what it sees as the weakening of Europe, together with a new perspective on Crimea’s struggle for independence from Ukraine.

The vast majority of the arguments put forth by the referendum’s organizers are baseless. Catalonia’s autonomy is obvious: Catalan is the dominant language of the region, the local culture is flourishing and Catalonia receives relatively large budget allocations from the central government.

It’s true that Catalonia is wealthy, contributing a quarter of Spain’s exports and a fifth of its gross domestic product. But let’s recall the global financial crisis of 2012: Who, if not the central government, rescued the banks in Barcelona? And just this week, the Spanish government gave Catalonia one third of all the regional funding it allocated, 7 billion euros. The Catalan government’s economic plan may blow up in its face when international corporations, which will operate only in a stable economic environment, begin preparing to leave.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, Spain will wake up to a new morning on Monday. The damage has been done, the wound has gotten worse.

Will Catalonia declare independence? Will its parliament try to pass the independence law? Will Catalan nationalism continue its blind, unrealistic journey? Probably, but there’s still a glimmer of hope for dialogue. Only talks, characterized by mutual respect, in which Catalonia relinquishes its dream of complete independence from Spain, can restore one of Europe’s most important states to the stability and prosperity the vast majority of Spaniards want.

Victor Harel is a former Israeli ambassador to Spain.

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