It may have gone unnoticed by the majority of the international media, but a decision taken by a regional Parliament in north-eastern Spain in the last week could have a profound effect on the future of both Europe, and the world. The Catalan government have set out their long awaited roadmap to a unilateral declaration of independence for Catalonia; despite all of the various and extensive attempts by the Spanish establishment to keep Catalonia in Spain at all costs. Since 2009, a series of referenda across the separatist region have shown overwhelming support for an independent Catalan state – most noticeably a 2014 referendum, which put support for independence at 80%.
With a weakened Spanish government and a strong mandate for independence, Catalonia has never been in a better position to wrest its future from Spain. However, both Catalan independence and the nature of it could have far-reaching consequences for Europe, the European Union and the world at large.
Most notably, it will have vast and destabilising effects on the Spanish state as a whole. Catalonia represents around 20% of the country’s economy, and considering the current state of the Spanish economy the resultant uncertainty and loss of business and industry would cause a severe, deep, and long-lasting recession. 16% of Spain’s populace reside in Catalonia, and so Catalan independence would further reduce Spain’s attractiveness as a marketplace and decrease the likelihood of businesses relocating to Spain. With a huge national debt and the inevitable uncertainty that would follow Catalan independence for Spain, the cost of borrowing for Spain’s government will increase, pushing up interest rates and crowding out private investment – increasing the risk of further bailouts.
Further political uncertainty in Spain would be highly likely as a direct result. Separatist movements in the Basque Country (including the states of Basque Country and Navarre) and Galicia will be emboldened at the prospect of the planned Catalan secession, and its unilateral nature will provide other separatist movements in Spain with a roadmap to independence. Additional concern for the government will be the future of the Valencia region – with a significant Catalan and pro-Catalan populace potentially demanding future unification with a pan-Catalan state. Considering the federal nature of the Spanish state, potential destabilisation is a serious threat to the integrity of the country as a whole – particularly considering their present political and economic uncertainty.
Catalan independence will have a serious impact on the map of Western Europe, in ways that we haven’t seen since the stabilisation of European borders following World War II. As well as the massive impacts on Spain, Western Europe will feel Catalan independence most acutely. French Catalans would be enticed by the prospects of a pan-Catalan state; while they have not previously been as politically active as their Spanish compatriots, a unilaterally declared independent Catalan state on the borders of French Catalonia would undoubtedly lead to demands in Southern France for unification between the Catalan regions.
Additionally, in the same way that Spanish separatist movements will be emboldened by a unilateral independence declaration, independence movements across Europe will receive a boost. Scottish independence was tipped to spark separatism in Flanders, Brittany and Bavaria, but the consequences of a unilateral declaration in Catalonia against the will of a hostile state will be far more far-reaching. The independence movements in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, Flanders and Bavaria – as well as many others across Western Europe – will be boosted, and more established separatist areas like Northern Cyprus, Kosovo and Abkhazia will have a renewed legitimacy for their own unilaterally declared independent states.
The diplomatic consequences will also be far-reaching. Recognition of the Catalan state will be vitally important for it to be able to succeed and for it to gain access to organisations like the United Nations. However, this recognition would be in direct contravention of the wishes of the Spanish government, and as such the likelihood of an unrecognised de facto independent state in Western Europe would become a genuine prospect. The Catalan state could end up in the same sort of diplomatic quagmire that surrounds Palestine, Kosovo and Taiwan. Economic turmoil in Spain would raise further questions about Spanish membership of the Euro and the EU as a whole, and we could see the same sort of debates about ‘Spexit’ as we did over Grexit.
Internationally, the prospect of Catalan independence would likely lead to the continuation of the independence movements suppressed over the last twenty years, and may spark a run of newly unilaterally declared independent states not seen since the collapse of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. In addition, if Catalonia is successful in its pursuit of unilateral independence and in securing recognition thereafter, then we may well see the return of unilateral declarations of independence in the long run as a legitimised method of secession.
Catalan independence is likely to send ripples through the international community that will have a profound impact on Western Europe, the European Union and the world. Indeed, separatists in Scotland would undoubtedly take heart from the prospect of Catalan independence. On the other hand, the risk of international reverberations is not a reason to oppose an independent Catalan state.
Catalonia has an economy the size of Ireland’s and an independent Catalonia would come in at the 40th largest economy in the world. Their economy (unlike Scotland’s which is of a similar size) is based on a diverse mix of tourism, financial services, and manufacturing. Catalonia has its own stock market, and significant pre-existing infrastructure. It is also relatively populated and contains one of the world’s largest and most prosperous cities in Barcelona. Culturally, Catalonia is very different to Spain – Catalan people identify as Catalan and they have their own language. All of this together, means that there is a compelling case for an independent Catalonia; regardless of the international effects.
It may not be in the international media, but Catalan independence could spark the largest change in the international landscape in recent times – either way, the state of Catalonia seems to be marching inexorably towards independence, and if it does go down this path of unilateral independence that its Parliament has laid out, then Europe, the EU and the world will feel the effects reverberate out from North-Eastern Spain.