The elites of Catalonia, the economically wealthy region that co-founded Spain, want to leave Spain and become their own country where they don’t have to pay taxes to help their less fortunate neighbors.
They are so determined to do this that they are blowing past every objection raised by the European Union and the Spanish central government and are forging ahead with a “non-binding” and “consultative” referendum, since their original plan for a unilateral referendum on secession was ruled wholly unconstitutional.
In a powerful op-ed in The New York Times — presumably aimed at rallying Americans against the Catalan separatist cause (before someone else makes up their minds for them) — Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo (journalist and MP from Madrid), Núria Amat (novelist from Barcelona), and Mario Vargas Llosa (Spanish-Peruvian novelist and 2010 Nobel Literature Laureate) lay out a multifaceted case for why Catalonia should not only not be granted independence but should not even be voting on it right now.
For one thing, it’s not very consistent with the values of democratic constitutionalism and rule of law, which the Catalan elite claims to be upholding, to stick it to the central government and the Spanish constitution — unlike, say, Scotland, which negotiated with the central UK government to hold a legal referendum on national status. For another, it just makes no justifiable sense historically or today, because they are an integral part of the formation of Spain and are not currently being legally or forcibly oppressed by the central state:
In their attempt to undermine the workings of the constitutional government, Catalan separatists have displayed a remarkable indifference to historical truth. Catalonia was never an independent state. It was never subjected to conquest. And it is not the victim of an authoritarian regime. As a part of the crown of Aragon and later in its own right, Catalonia contributed decisively to making Spain what it has been for over three centuries: an impressive attempt to reconcile unity and diversity — a pioneering effort to integrate different cultures, languages and traditions into a single viable political community.
It’s true that Catalonia was a particularly fierce battleground during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), with brutal atrocities committed on both sides, and that the region faced some of the most severe reprisals under Franco’s regime. For many, the wounds still have not healed, and they fuel the fires of the separatist movement.
But the advent of democracy brought official recognition to Spain’s distinctive cultures, and set the foundations for the autonomy the Catalans enjoy today. Catalonia has its own official language, its own government, its own police force. Catalans endorsed the Constitution overwhelmingly: 90 percent of them voted yes in the referendum of Dec. 6, 1978. The millions of tourists who flock to Barcelona every year, drawn by the beguiling blend of Gothic and Gaudí, attest to the vigor of Catalonia’s culture. The claim that Catalonia’s personality is being stifled and its freedoms oppressed is simply untrue.
It’s also a disturbing step backward, away from the progress Western Europe has made toward transcending petty differences and the destructive powers of extreme nationalism:
Exiled from the European Union, economically impoverished and socially divided, the 7.6 million Catalans would be subjected to an extreme form of nationalism we Europeans remember all too well. Millions of lives were lost in the nationalist frenzy that tore Europe apart during the 20th century.
Are we to sit back and watch the European Union relapse, fall prey to ethnic prejudices and become a fragile cluster of chauvinistic nations rather than a vigorous union of democratic states? Are we to relinquish individual rights and the rule of law to the new nationalists and populists?
Nationalism effaces the individual, fuels imaginary grievances and rejects solidarity. It divides and discriminates. And it defies the essence of democracy: respect for diversity. Complex identities are a key feature of modern society. Spain is no exception.
That divisiveness is particularly troubling when one realizes how many dual-identity or Spanish-identifying people live in Catalonia despite the flag-waving, drum-banging of the elites who are trying to distill out a pure nationalism where one doesn’t exist. They will not just rip themselves out of Spain’s culture and economy if they declare independence, but they will also be taking with them a lot of unwilling Spanish Catalan citizens, many of whom don’t speak Catalan as a first language. By some accounts I’ve seen, that might even be half or more of the regional population.
This is a dangerous and disturbing project by wealthy elites and perennial axe-grinders that is fueling a lot of nasty, hyper-nationalist behavior, which Europe and Spain should be leaving behind and not returning to.