Catalonia has lived a terrible week. After a controversial and illegal referendum which took place on October 1st, the region has plunged into uncertainty. A wave of demonstrations unfolded across Catalonia and the rest of Spain.
The regional president, Carles Puigdemont, said that Catalonia has “won the right to statehood” and that he and his followers intend to continue with the process. This is not a proper way to deal with a political problem. An attempt to unilaterally declare independence would not be recognised. As strategy, it is misguided and potentially dangerous for a variety of reasons, not just for Catalonia but for Spain and the European Union too.
The ‘process’ has brought unprecedented instability to Catalonia. With such turn of events there are inevitable economic consequences. The biggest bank in the region, CaixaBank has moved its legal bases outside Catalonia, to Valencia. Many big companies have followed since, but this may be only the tip of an iceberg. It is more than likely that there will be many more smaller enterprises doing the same, or going out of business altogether if there is an actual declaration of independence which would cut off Catalonia from its markets. This would be a disaster for the Catalan economy.
If any such declaration once became reality, Catalonia would find itself outside the EU and would have to apply to join the club like any other state. This is a very important point, on which the pro-independence leaders have shown a remarkable deal of ignorance or worse.
What would happen to Catalonia outside the EU? If a country like Britain is experiencing a frightening variety of problems because of Brexit, how could Catalonia possibly expect an easy ride? Let us imagine it outside the EU and with no obvious way back in. Would being in such a position make Catalonia better off in any manner imaginable?
If one is cynical one could say well played to the nationalists. Apart from the appalling scenes of police brutality (for which the Spanish government has eventually apologised), they have been successful in the sense that they have managed to internationalise their cause and attract some bandwagon-jumping, fickle supporters abroad. However, unilaterally declaring independence would be a step too far. They would almost certainly find themselves isolated and rejected, certainly by the neighbours and the EU.
Most importantly, declaring independence would have a dreadful impact on the Catalan society and create deep divisions. Many Catalans are unhappy with the status quo and the central government should carefully consider their grievances. However, to a great deal of anti-independence Catalans the idea of not being part of Spain is unthinkable and offensive. They may have found a voice on October 8th as they came to Barcelona to protest in large numbers. It is therefore obvious to anyone who wants to know that Catalonia is not speaking with one voice. If there is an agreed and legally binding referendum one day, it should be up to the nationalists to convince and win over their fellow citizens, which seems highly unlikely after recent events, and more so if they continue in the same vein.
What is the solution then? Catalans need to talk to each other and to the rest of Spain. There should be meaningful political negotiations which would respectfully consider the views of both sides. The talks would need to be within law and feature participants with an open mind, ready to compromise. Everything else would be a gamble with Catalonia’s future.