On November 25, Catalonia, the richest region of Spain, will hold regional elections. Artur Mas, the leader of the regional government, is campaigning on a platform demanding more autonomy for Catalonia. Mr. Mas's government in Barcelona called early elections in an effort to attain greater independence from Madrid.
Spain is divided into 17 autonomous entities, of which only 14 can be considered truly Spanish. Two states have their own language, Catalonia and the Basque Country, while in a third state, Galicia, a dialect of Portuguese is spoken. Like the Basques, many Catalans are striving for independence from Spain. The independence movement has been growing since the economic crisis hit Spain.
Catalonia encompasses less than 6.5 percent of Spain's territory. Its 7.5 million inhabitants comprise 16% of Spain's population. However, its GDP constitutes almost 20% of Spain's. Over the past years Catalonia's economy has been contracting, though at a less dramatic rate than the overall Spanish economy. The Catalans resent the fact that each year they are forced to transfer about 8% of their GDP to other Spanish regions because the central government in Madrid demands that Catalonia help support the poorer regions of Spain.
The Catalans claim that this enforced form of "solidarity" is harming their own region. Every year the Catalans pump some $20 billion more in tax revenue into the central government's coffers than they receive in return. Like the rest of Spain, the eurocrisis has cast Catalonia into heavy debt. When Madrid recently turned down Barcelona's request for a no-strings-attached bailout of $6.2 billion, angry Catalans began to clamor for secession from Spain.
Last September 11th, a staggering million and a half of the 7.5 million Catalans joined a pro-independence demonstration in the streets of Barcelona, shouting No Vull Pagar – I don't want to pay.
While in the past, the arguments in favor of Catalan independence were mostly cultural and had to do with the need to preserve Catalan national identity, today the arguments have become financial. They have to do with the need to safeguard Catalonia's economic prosperity. The mostly center-right Catalans do not want to subsidize regions over whose – often leftist – economic policies they have no influence.
A similar phenomenon can be observed in Flanders, the most prosperous region of Belgium. The Dutch speaking Flemish are increasingly averse to supporting the French speaking Socialist southern part of Belgium, which is in economic decline. A conservative Flemish-nationalist party, the ideology of which resembles that of Artur Mas's Convergence and Union party in Catalonia, won the recent local elections and has taken over the city council of Antwerp, Belgium's economic powerhouse.
In Italy, too, the economically stronger North – so-called Padania – is increasingly reluctant to subsidize the poorer South. The Lega Nord, the largest party in many parts of northern Italy, wants to lead Padania to independence.
The unwillingness of the richer northern parts of Belgium, Spain and Italy to pay for the southern parts is mirrored on the pan-European level by the unwillingness of the North to pay for the South. Indeed, as the Financial Times has noted, many Germans are wondering why they should support poorer Spanish regions if even the Catalans object to it.
It is a legitimate question: the point that the North is richer than the South cannot be attributed to natural phenomena beyond the people's control. On the contrary, politicians in the South have for decades been pursuing wrongheaded Socialist policies, showering their voters with subsidies, in the knowledge that if these policies led to bankruptcy the North would foot the bill.
Last October, the Catalan regional parliament decided to stage a "public consultation" on Catalonia's future. The word "referendum" was carefully avoided: under the Spanish Constitution of 1978, a referendum on regional independence is prohibited. Even a referendum probing the Catalan voters about their views on greater fiscal autonomy is illegal.
The Catalan initiative was immediately slammed down by Spain's central government and parliament. The Cortes, Spain's national parliament in Madrid, overwhelmingly voted down a proposal to allow the Catalonians to hold a referendum with 276 votes against, 42 votes for and no abstentions, while Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy pledged to halt any illegal referendums. Ironically, Rajoy is a Galician and happens to be the grandson of one of the drafters of the botched 1932 Galician Statute of Autonomy.
Despite the opposition from Madrid, Catalan Prime Minister Mas has announced that after this month's regional elections he will carry on preparing for the "public consultation," regardless of Madrid's position.
The Catalans feel encouraged by events in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party (SNP), which is governing the province, has announced that within two years it will be holding a referendum on Scottish independence. The Scottish situation is different from the one in Catalonia, Flanders or Padania. Scotland is poorer and more leftist than England. The Scots are even being subsidized by the English. They reckon, however, that with the proceeds from North Sea oil flowing directly into Scottish coffers, they would be better off than they are today.
The international implications of Spain, Belgium, Italy and the United Kingdom unraveling might be considerable. The Catalan, Flemish, Padanian and Scottish nationalists have all indicated that they want to remain members of the European Union. When Catalonia, Flanders, Padania and Scotland secede, they become new nations and will have to reapply for EU membership. Given that every EU member state can veto new members, the governments of what remains of Spain, Belgium, Italy and the United Kingdom would be able to block the accession of the seceded entities.
However, as Catalonia, Flanders and Padania will be rich countries and net contributors to the EU institutions in Brussels, it is unlikely that the EU would refuse the new applicants' membership. As far as Scotland is concerned, England is much more likely to leave the EU than Scotland. Viviane Reding, the EU Commissioner for Justice, has already indicated that Brussels would be ready to take a constructive attitude toward a Catalan membership application.
But there will be implications for the United States as well. Given that most Catalans, Flemish and Padanians are center-right, they are much more pro-American than the remainder of Spain, Belgium and Italy. Independent Catalonia, Flanders and Padania are likely to be trustworthy allies of Washington. Their secessionist parties have all indicated that they want to remain members of NATO. Here, too, the Scots differ from the others. The SNP used to oppose NATO. With independence becoming a serious possibility, however, the SNP has changed its position. At last October's SNP party conference, it voted to ditch its 30-year opposition to NATO. With 394 votes against 365 the SNP decided that following Scotland's eventual independence in 2014 it would apply for NATO membership.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last week that the crisis in the eurozone is likely to last for at least "five years or more" -- with the eurocrisis putting ever more pressure on richer center-right regions to pay for poorer leftist regions. As the former are increasingly unwilling to pay for the latter, the strain on multi-ethnic nations in Europe is growing. If the eurocrisis continues for another five years, we might very well see an entirely different Europe – with a handful of new nations – five years from now. Washington would be wise to take this possibility into serious consideration.