The pain in Spain

We are once again witnessing the disintegration of a European country as Catalonia, a semi-autonomous region of Spain flirts with secession. The disaffection has seethed for some time in the northeastern section of the country as Catalans have viewed the central government in Madrid with increasing anger. Catalonia is a prosperous region of Spain and provides the country with about 20 percent of its GDP.  Residents in cities like Barcelona don’t like the idea that they must pay taxes to support less prosperous sections of Spain. They have always felt that the central government does not appreciate or respect Catalan culture.  Part of this stems from the history of the region which was once an independent kingdom. There is a long history here and memories keep it alive. During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, the forces of General Franco devastated Catalonia which had been a republican enclave against fascism. For a long time under Franco, Catalan culture was repressed and people were not allowed to speak their unique language. While things have improved in the last several decades a large percentage (but not a majority) of Catalans want independence.

I visited Barcelona a couple of years ago and saw a vibrant economy and a population of prosperous and healthy people. Beautiful parks were everywhere. The pedestrian walkway called Las Ramblas allows one to walk from the busy harbor along a shaded mid-way with shops and restaurants. The magnficant cathedral created by architect Antoni Gaudi — the Sagrada Familia dominates the skyline. The city is a place of great beauty.

Now all that would seem to be at risk as a group of radicals have pushed the idea of independence to almost the point of no return. After a vote that was declared illegal by the Spanish central government and the European Union, Catalans seem poised to take the final step toward dissolving their connection to the rest of the country.

Should Catalonia try and secede, they will face a central government determined not to let that happen. There have already been street demonstrations met by force with some injuries. Violence will only grow if reasonable people do not put the brakes on this movement.  Even if Catalonia could pull off an exit from Spain, where would it leave them? They would be out of the European Union and could not even apply to get in as a sovereign nation because Spain would veto their entry.  All of their trade agreements would have to be renegotiated. The economy would enter a downward spiral as jobs would be lost caused by international businesses relocating out of Catalonia. It would be a disaster.

There are historical precedents to predict just how badly a secession of this type will affect Catalonia. When Quebec made noises of leaving Canada in the 1970’s many businesses left their headquarters in Montreal moving to other Canadian cities. Jobs were lost. That province has not yet fully recovered from it. When Yugoslavia imploded as various cultural groups in that federation in the 1980s decided to go it alone, to pursue their own independence, it led to economic stagnation and eventually a bloody civil war. There’s been little recovery there. The Slovak region of the former Czechoslovakia has not done as well as its former partner since the break-up of the country into two separate nations 20 years ago.

I could add more examples. But the long and short of it is that if Catalonia doesn’t compromise on its demands for independence, there will not be a good ending to this problem. And it should not have come to this.

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