Chants of uprising had spread across Catalonia: hordes of civilians peacefully (or not) walking down the streets to support their dreams of a secession that seemed more reachable than ever. The referendum held on the 1st of October looked like one of the final steps in order to implement this venture once for all.
However, now everything has changed: ministers fled to other countries with the province back under the control of Madrid.
At this point a question easily emerges: are we sure that a secession is that feasible in Europe? The history of the “Old World” teaches us that the answer is no, even hope is the last to die.
Internal conflicts (and, therefore, secessions) are highly different from interstate ones. The main reason behind such a thing is that ideology and religion matter a lot.
Indeed, if in interstates wars they are often just an excuse, in internal conflicts they are usually felt for real.
The European secessionist case that most underlines this, is without doubts the so-called "Velvet Divorce" in 1993, when Czechoslovakia was split into Slovakia and Czech Republic. The former state had been created through the union of two regions of the pre-existing Austro-Hungarian empire, which, however, were inhabited by quite different ethnic groups. Indeed, although their languages are very close, their culture and habits are not: if Czech typical dishes are based on meat and Czech people are usually agnostic, Slovaks prefer milk and potato-based food and are usually ardent Catholics.
Going back to Catalonia, being it part of the Spanish so-called “comunidades autonomias”, it has its own language and culture. Again, they have their own typical food, as Fideuà, the Catalan version of Spanish paella where, instead of rice, short noodles are used. However, Cuisine is just “the top of the ice-berg”, since Catalans celebrate “fiestas” not even known in the rest of the country, like “La Merce” (a week in September where parties hit Barcelona). Many other features, like symbols and typical dances, could be added.
Nonetheless, secessions are not just a matter of culture and religion. As it often happens in the cynical political world, the major issues at stake are always the economic ones.
Let’s think, for instance, about one of the most meaningful attempts of secession of the last decade: Scotland.
Scotland is one of the 4 countries that form the United Kingdom. Despite the rising influence of the Scottish independence party in the last elections, the national referendum for the independence held in September 2014 has been rejected. It can be argued that the main reason for such a political defeat was the fear, insinuated by UK government, that Scots were going to be worse-off if they seceded from UK, since the union was willing to share its wealth among the countries. This happened in spite of the Scottish government’s reassurance that the vast oil reserves in the North Sea would have sustained Scottish economy.
On the other hand, if in the UK wealth was an incentive to preserve the union, in many other European regions the higher average income with respect to the rest of the country is an issue fomenting separatist movements.
This is the case, for example, of Bavaria in Germany and Lombardy in Italy.
In the region of the Oktoberfest, indeed, it has been estimated that in 2015 GDP/per capita was around 43,092 € on average, the highest in Germany, where the national average was about 37,099 €. We have a similar situation in Lombardy, where the most recent statistics tell us that as of today in 2017 the GDP per capita is 35,421€, significantly higher than the national average (around 28,000€).
This data helps us understand the incentives behind the referenda held in Lombardy and Veneto on the 22nd of October 2017, which may represent a first step toward a greater autonomy of these regions.
Data at hand, Catalonia falls in this last category (just think that its contribution to the Spanish economy is twice that of Scotland to the UK’s).
In fact, this region is not just the industrial heartland of Spain, but it also has a remarkable maritime power and famous touristic destinations.
These are some of the reasons for which Catalonia has the 4th highest GDP per capita in Spain (27,248€ against the national average of 22,772€ in 2012), and accounts for the 19% of Spanish GDP. Catalans, therefore, feel that they are giving to Madrid more than what they are receiving.
One last determinant for secession is connected to historical episodes and, in particular, to repressions. Empirical evidence tells us that this important tool of the central government has an ambivalent effect, as Marvin Suesse underlines in his paper “Causes and Consequences of Secessionist Movements: Lessons from the Soviet Breakup”. Indeed, in those regions where historically authorities arrested participants of protests, secessions demonstrated to be less likely to occur and to succeed.
On the other hand, when the use of violence by the police was exploited merely to break protests with violent actions culminating in mass killings, the effect of government intervention is inverted.
Bringing the issue of repression to Spain, the most known episode is the so called “white terror”, or the “Francoist repression”, a series of mass-killings occurred during the Spanish Civil War and during the first decade of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, hitting, among the others also the Catalans.
The peak of this crisis was reached when Francisco Franco executed the leader of a self-declared Catalan State and tried to suppress its language and culture.
This tells us that the likelihood of a secession to occur (and succeed) in Catalonia is, therefore, increased by the rage of these episodes, inflaming the hearts of the rioters who do not want to forget.
In conclusion, European history has rarely witnessed successful secessions, with the exception of cases in which both sides agreed that this was the most convenient pattern, which is not the case for Catalonia.
One thing is sure, when it comes to internal conflicts, incentives change and bargaining breaks down more easily, which makes the final outcome even more unpredictable. Therefore, in spite of the historical European trend, a hope of secession may exist, even if the last developments of Catalan situation suggest a different scenario.