Making the Case for Separation: Nationalism in Cataluña Under Review

As catastrophes, corruption, and lack of consensus in government around the world have continually characterized the political narrative from past to present, I find myself being particularly drawn to one theme that seems to have re-entered the arena of intense debate: the case for separation. As increasing segments of given societies and nations around the world have initiated the process of formally withdrawing from membership of their respective political states in order to jumpstart their own nationalist independence movements ­­–– under the pretense of dramatic cultural, political, and economic distinctiveness and irreconcilable differences from the rest of the population ­­­­–– we can only wonder what the implications of secession will entail for the future.

In light of recent events in Cataluña, Spain, and their claims for secession and independence from the rest of the country, as well as Britain’s very recent exit from the European Union, people remain utterly perplexed in regards to the logistics and complexity of the process of “breaking away.” It is a process as legal and political as it is ideological and psychological, and what makes it such a touchy subject to address is that it revolves around the central and long-debated question of what constitutes the difference between state and nation –– and which should supersede the other in terms of importance. If state is to imply a purely political, legal, and geographical connotation while nation is to imply an ideological connotation with more of an emphasis on the importance of nationalist sentiment and moral conscience, which type of affiliation is to take precedence over the other? Do differing nationalist sentiments and different ideological views about what constitutes a “nation” justify a calculated, legal, and irreversible separation from the political state? Is there a “right” way to make the case for separation, a correct and legitimate way of going about initiating independence? I will look at the case study of Cataluña’s nationalist independence movement in an attempt to analyze some of the answers to these questions.

There is no doubt that the autonomy of Cataluña and its inhabitants has always had a deep historical grievance in regards to independence and the desire to distance themselves politically, culturally, and economically from the other 16 autonomous communities that make up Spain. In fact, Cataluña was originally granted special political and financial rights as an autonomous community before amendments were added to the Spanish constitution in 1979, which mandated that no one region should receive special treatment by the federal government. However, the region’s singularity and inherent differences continue to abound to this day. Catalans speak an entirely different language, el Catalán, are characterized by having a fast-paced lifestyle and arduous work ethic (very different from the stereotypical Spanish “go-with-the-flow” attitude of other regions), and their economic production just so happens to make up more than one-fifth of Spain’s national GDP, with the community’s exports representing more than one-fourth of the national total. In other words, the people of Cataluña are Spain’s breadwinners, and they know it. In addition, many Catalans feel that, despite all that they contribute economically to Spain’s welfare and national prosperity, they are not compensated nearly enough as they should be. They feel they do not receive a large enough fraction of what they give, and this is the most central driving factor of their claims for independence, along with their supposed “irreconcilable cultural differences”.

However, this claim brings into question the political theory of social contracts: does the State of Spain have any special obligation to Cataluña over the other 16 autonomous communities? Can an autonomous community, despite its cultural and economic differences in relation to the rest of the country, legitimately make the claim that the federal government OWES it anything? This can be a dangerous precedent to set, as it signals to other regions and communities with lingering and simmering nationalist/separatist sentiments that feel they are unfairly treated that it is completely justified to make the threatening case for separation. There are plenty of other autonomous and semi-autonomous communities, districts, municipalities, and states in countries around the world that have idiosyncratic nuances in regards to their cultures, economies, and politics. For example, here in the United States of America, we have seen the tide of separation movements in certain states rise and fall throughout time (some taken more seriously than others); however, the Texas Nationalist Movement seems to be gaining momentum, force, and credibility thanks to its ideologically similar Catalan and British neighbors across the pond. The difference in Texas’s claim for secession, however, is based purely off of sheer geographical size and a “rough and tough, don’t mess with Texas” individualistic sense of cultural pride. Supporters of the movement believe Texas should be considered its own self-governing nation-state and that the “interests of Texans supersede the interests of all other nations and states.” Diversity is a normal facet of life in this day and age, but it does not imply irreconcilable differences nor does it necessitate total secession from the motherland. To what degree does a societal segment’s culture, way of life, way of talking, and economy have to be distinct and different from the rest in order for a claim of separation to be justified or even to be taken seriously? Thus, the jury is out: is Cataluña even making a valid argument for separation, or is it just being greedy? Obviously, the Catalans themselves believe that their cultural differences alone are enough to call for separation, and the fact that they disproportionately contribute more to the economy just makes their case even stronger. However, the vast majority of people throughout the rest of Spain, as well as those in other countries, believe that Cataluña is asking for too much and causing unnecessary strife and divisiveness.

So, what does all this mean for other countries down the line? Should it be okay to separate any time there’s diversity or multiculturalism? I would say no, but if the answer is yes, we are in for a very interesting future, because the world of politics is not getting any less complex, and the economic and cultural makeup of nations near and far is not getting any more homogenous. We should not feel the need to constantly partition and categorize based on similarities and differences. In fact, there are many that believe the case for separation is more of a display of xenophobia than regional pride. Also, if a region or segment of society does somehow manage to separate or secede, what comes next? It is very possible that region may not actually have the means and capacity to self-govern, just the mere intention, and both are equally as imperative in order to make a sound case.

These are the questions we need answers to in the upcoming future –– and fast –– because, at the moment, no one knows how to deal with what is happening in Spain nor how to prepare for the consequences in the off chance that Cataluña does obtain its independence. The only thing that is certain is that many other countries in the European Union, such as France, have pledged their solidarity with the Spanish federal government and have vowed that they will not recognize an independent Cataluña unless Spain does: “The crisis needs to be resolved through dialogue at all levels of Spanish politics.” In other words, Cataluña’s burning ideological wants and desires and its differing national sentiments are not going to cut it. If the Catalans want their independence in order to construct their own nation, they need to proceed with the process the proper way: legally, constitutionally, and with the consent of the federal government.