What would happen to Catalonia after gaining independence?

October 04, 2017 12:19
Thousands of protesters march under the Estelada, the Catalan separatist flag, in Barcelona on Monday, a day after the banned independence referendum was held. Photo: Reuters

The independence referendum held by Catalonia on Sunday had a 42.3 percent turnout, with 90 percent of the voters saying “yes” to independence.

Madrid has declared the referendum unconstitutional, but its results mark a new chapter in Catalonia's independence movement. Barcelona's bid for statehood is now no longer just an assumption, but rather, a very real and imminent issue.

So if Catalonia gains its independence, what will be the implications for both Spain and Europe?

First, as far as the daily lives of the average Catalans are concerned, I believe the first change they are going to see after independence is that the status of Spanish as their official language is likely to be relegated.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world may witness a growing presence of the Catalan language and culture, which had been repeatedly banned and suppressed by Madrid since the 15th century, but which have staged a major comeback since the late 1970s when Spain started to undergo democratization.

In time it is possible that the Catalan culture may gain an equal footing with the Portuguese and Spanish (Castilian) cultures on the world stage.

Broadly speaking, Catalonia's independence not only suggests that it is going to secede from Spain, but also means it would be seeking its fair share in the Spanish-speaking cultural sphere, which has remained a key segment in international relations.

From the perspective of international diplomacy, Catalonia's independence would also have profound geopolitical implications for Europe. For one thing, Catalonia controls the strategically important Pyrenees mountain passes that connect Spain and France, two of the major continental powers of Europe.

For centuries right up to the conclusion of the Treaty of Pyrenees in 1659, under which Spain agreed to cede the northern parts of Catalonia to France, both Madrid and Paris had regarded the region as strategic frontiers against each other.

Unfortunately, Catalonia had failed to navigate between the two major European powers without committing itself to either. As a result, it fell victim to Spanish-French rivalry, and eventually lost its statehood.

But once Catalonia gains its independence, Spain and France will no longer be neighbors, thereby upsetting the geopolitical balance of power on the European continent that has already lasted centuries, and both Madrid and Paris will have to accept the reality that they are once again kept apart by a buffer state.

The problem is, Catalonia may aspire to more than just “buffer state” status as both Spain and France would expect after it has gained independence.

In order to gain its European Union membership as soon as possible, Barcelona might try to play Madrid and Paris against each other so as to expedite the negotiation process.

Moreover, as some radical Catalan separatists have proposed, Catalonia might seek to unify with other places such as Aragon, Valencia and Roussillon, and build a new and powerful nation state on the Iberian Peninsula.

If that happens, the Pyrenean region is unlikely to remain stable, and the instability may spill over to France.

On the other hand, Catalonia's independence may also trigger a chain reaction of separatist movements across Europe such as in the Basque autonomous region in northern Spain, Scotland in the United Kingdom, the Dutch-speaking Flanders in Belgium, Bavaria in Germany as well as Venice in Italy, thereby threatening the unity and stability of the entire EU.

After Catalonia gains independence, Barcelona, its state capital, may strive to become the next European financial hub, or even compete with Brussels for the new EU capital.

After all, Barcelona, given its proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, its booming tourism and its pleasant climate conditions, is more livable than quite a number of other major European cities, and therefore has a lot of potential for becoming a highly competitive financial and commercial center in continental Europe.

However, it would be wrong to think that the economic outlook of an independent Catalonia is entirely bright and promising. It will have to face a lot of uncertainties and challenges posed by external factors such as its worsening relations with Spain and the fact that it may lose the convenience of trading different goods in the EU's free market for a certain period of time.

The new-born state may have to renegotiate its EU membership with Brussels before it can have free access to the European single market again.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct. 3

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal