Catalonia’s Parliament declared its independence although being fully aware of the illegitimacy of this act. It directly violates the Spanish constitution, which was of course also signed by Catalonia. What is at the core of this new separatism and flag-waving, pseudo-revolutionary actionism? It comes down to short-sighted, fainthearted and poor leadership.
Catalonian memory seems to be selective
The official marketing-spin of the separatists sure enough reads as follows: “300 years of exploitation is enough”. Really? Catalonia is economically strong and has one of the highest growth rates in the EU. In 2016, the region ranked 16 in terms of GDP in the EU, even before countries like Finland and Portugal. The autonomy rights are extensive, the language taught in school is Catalan. On the other hand, the region records the highest debt levels of the 17 Spanish regions, amounting to over €70bn. Catalonian memory also seems to just selectively reach centuries back. As recently as 2008 the central government in Madrid had to – very much like the EU rescued Greece, Ireland and Portugal – back Catalonia; even before they had to help out Valencia and Andalusia.
In her reaction to the independence declaration, the opposition leader in the Catalonian Parliament expressed it outright: “This is a coup”, said Inés Arrimadas, “a coup against democracy and common sense.”
Neo-seperatism leads to dire consequences
It is indisputable that the benefits of growth, progress and prosperity are unevenly distributed. The resulting socio-economic imbalances are at the core of the upset felt by large parts of the population. This phenomenon however is a global one and not specific to Catalonia. Neo-separatism is misused by short-sighted political leaders around the world and the dire consequences are all too apparent. With this in mind, we may rightfully expect the Spanish and Catalonian leaders to resist the temptation of further escalation, of heated independence-rhetoric and instead do what they were elected to do. Namely representing the interest of their people and actively shaping the successful development of their region. Blaming the central government in Madrid for all the problems might be an easy and convenient message. Leadership however is not about convenience; it is about transparency, honesty and a strong sense of responsibility.
Denouncing the €16bn transferred annually to Madrid without mentioning all the benefits the region enjoys is not transparent. Fooling the population into believing that Catalonia can become an independent country over night – although it lacks many of the necessary infrastructure and institutions – is far from honest. Let a conflict escalate without thinking further than the tip of one’s nose might prove an oversized Ego but most certainly doesn’t indicate a strong sense of responsibility.
The cost of establishing a new government for Catalonia would be astronomic, access to financial markets is uncertain to say the least, GDP could drop by as much as 20% and unemployment, which already stands at over 15%, might double in the short term. The EU accounted for 65% of exports and 70% of foreign investment in Catalonia over the last three years. Accedence to the EU however has to be unanimous, i.e. including Spain’s vote. You don’t have to be a clairvoyant to predict what Spain’s position in such a vote would be.
More than one loser
Catalonia wouldn’t be the only loser in this process though. The escalation would also substantially threaten Spain’s brisk expansion that has now run for 16 quarters with a growth rate currently expected at 3.1% and the last thing the EU needs is more fissures in the Union, a certain outcome though of a Catalexit on top of Brexit. All signs point towards further escalation while it is so painfully obvious that everybody tends to lose.
Europe of Regions
In a first reaction the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk urged to “favor force of argument, not argument of force”. Indeed, the only responsible way forward is an immediate de-escalation and an honest and transparent negotiated agreement after that. The concept of a ‘Europe of Regions’ might be a promising recipe for success but it can only work with responsible, thoughtful and earnest leaders. This type of leader knows that in a war of Ego, the loser always wins.