22nd October 2021
Catalan Independence
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Opinion: the true cost of independence

To all those who celebrated the recent ‘La Diada’ in Catalonia, I extend my greetings and hope you had a peaceful and safe day.

For many years now, this day has ‘morphed’ from a day of commemorating the past, to one of demanding independence for the future, driven by a single-minded, sometimes seemingly fanatical – yet genuine – group.  They have ‘sold’ to many others the idea that independence from a ‘tyranical’ Spain, is the only viable option for Catalans. That may, or may not be true.

However, it’s very easy for people to become wrapped up in the fervour of nationalism, based on the rhetoric of the zealot; skilful in portraying the current wider state as the oppressor and themselves as the downtrodden oppressed. It happened in Hitler’s Germany, in Franco’s Spain, and yes more recently, in Boris Johnson’s Brexit campaign (and we all can see what happened there).

Amidst all the fervour, there are some questions to be asked, and some truths to be told. Questions that were never properly asked of the examples mentioned above; and truths that advocates omitted (conveniently) to disclose, because they diminished the case. Just like Brexit proponents failed to be truthful with voters about the implications of a ‘Yes’ vote, yet successful in whipping up a sufficient degree of nationalism to push their cause through; is the same not happening in Catalonia? The UK out of the EU (for all its ills) is now a mess. All the promised benefits of cutting themselves off have failed to materialise and there is little prospect of them doing so any time soon.

Just like the Scots, the Catalans in favour of independence seem ignorant, oblivious or ambivalent about just what separation would mean; and those against it are failing to make a sufficiently strong counter-argument.  Can Catalans question? Can they learn the lessons of Brexit?

Catalan Independence
People wave pro-independence Catalan ‘Estelada’ flags during a mass rally in Barcelona on 11 September 2018 to mark the National Day of Catalonia, the ‘Diada’. (Lluis Gene / AFP)

Of course people have a right to self-determination – usually obtained and exercised through the ballot box. If a substantial – not simple – majority of Catalans desire independence, logic and morality dictate it should happen.

Their vote however, must be cast in knowledge and judgement of truthful facts that I suspect – fear – will not happen, because either they are not being told, or are not for whatever reason listening to those facts.

Can the promoters of independence, therefore, highlight and be truthful about the consequences of a split, so that voters can make the necessary informed decision? For instance, are voters fully aware that an independent Catalonia will exit the EU?

They will have to apply to re-join; and wait their turn; and fully comply with membership conditions including those around financial requirements, which they would struggle to do.

The application process will take anything up to a decade, during which time the new nation will be starved of EU grants, loans and support; and central government support in times of crisis like – for instance – a pandemic? In the absence of trade deals, where would revenue come from?

Every existing EU member would have to agree to Catalonia becoming a member. Can they see Spain, Germany, France and others (all fearful of their own separatist movements) saying ‘Yes’?

The new nation would not automatically be recognised by the UN or any other established country; and it would have to establish foreign relationships. The same issues of EU application would extend worldwide. There are quite a few breakaway states remaining unrecognised who have difficulty achieving trade agreements or loans.

The new nation would not automatically – probably not – be permitted to use the Euro. So, it would need a new currency, or trade (for instance) in US dollars? (How would they get hold of those?)

Other world countries can decide NOT to recognise Catalan passports, and the implications for foreign travel could therefore be severe. (Forget about daily hops back and forward to/from Spain; and freedom of movement around Schengen; and remember there would have to be a physical border.)

Importers using Catalan ports as their entry to Spain and the wider EU would likely move elsewhere – depriving Catalonia of much needed revenue – that the promised recovery of the region’s contribution to Spanish GDP would not make up for.

Just like the UK, Catalonia would have to (re)negotiate a trade deal with the EU – accepting ALL the existing rules with no say in them, or operate on WTO rules? That could take years and look at the mess that’s caused for the UK.

Catalan students would not have the freedom to travel and/or study via Erasmus in any country, not just in the rest of the EU, and revenue from foreign students studying in Catalonia would disappear with serious implications for Catalan educational institutions.

There are lots of other questions that the population deserve and need the answers to. To ask them is NOT ‘project fear’ (a horrible expression used by Brexiteers) and it is not impudent, nor unrealistic to expect them to be properly answered. Independencias need to perhaps consider them more and leaders need to be much more open and honest about them allowing for an informed choice.

I am NOT saying that these issues would not, or could not be negotiated. If Catalans are ready, willing, and able to accept all of these consequences, then that is the basis for going ahead. 

I am very open to hear responses to those questions.

Rob Burlace is a UK national who has lived in Sitges (Catalonia) for almost nine years. Semi-retired, he lectures at business schools in Barcelona, mainly on human resource topics, as well as diplomacy and project management to undergraduate and postgraduate level. He has published a textbook, ‘The First Line, A Manager’s Handbook’.

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