The political environment in Catalonia is still very tense and the path the region will follow remains unclear. A unilateral proclamation of independence is still on the table for many Catalan politicians, including the regional President. This article discusses some of the consequences such a one-way independence declaration may bring, short-term and long-term.

An unhappy marriage

Catalonia is stuck in an unhappy marriage to Spain, says Montse Morales, who was born in the north-eastern region and has lived there for twenty-four years. “Imagine being married to a man. You have been married to him for a very long time. But your husband does not love you. He uses you. He needs you to care for him, to do the laundry, to have and raise his children, to clean the house and to work and bring in money for the household. He does not listen to you, nor does he care about your wellbeing. He does not bother to understand how you are feeling, because he is doing well and does not have to go through any of the problems you are experiencing, himself.”

She continues with her analogy, referring to what has been happening between Catalonia and Spain in recent years, since around 2008. “You want to divorce your husband. You are tired of doing everything for him and receiving nothing in return. You want to have more freedom and live a happier life. But every time you try to bring up the subject of divorce, he does not listen to you, because he thinks it is nonsense. He tells you that there is nothing to talk about. He is willing to talk with you, but not about the things you want to discuss, which are the divorce, your rights and your freedoms. Over and over, the Catalan people are told: you are not going anywhere, you will keep on paying your taxes, there will be no divorce and you will stay by my side forever.”

But what if the unhappy wife in Morales’ metaphor decides to break free on her own? Well, there will certainly be serious consequences, because she is tied to her husband by paperwork and all the numerous things they have shared and built together over the years. It is difficult to foresee the exact consequences of such a one-sided breakup, but one thing is clear: if the Catalan government decides to proclaim independence without Spain’s permission, the conflict will be aggravated tenfold. A unilateral declaration of independence is still on the table for the governors of Catalonia. For Morales, that sparks uncertainty and fear. “Every time something starts to move, whenever there is some new development on the news, there is that fear again. I feel scared for my family in Catalonia, for the Catalan people, for everybody,” she says.

Military confrontation

Some people fear that the conflict will flow over into a military confrontation. “Our politicians have to pave a way for a solution, because without a solution, there will be war,” says Belen Jimenez, who is from Madrid. She is in favour of Spanish unity, but not through force.

“I am scared, because if independence is proclaimed now, the Spanish government may send the army to Catalonia,” says Morales. Morales resides in The Netherlands, but her whole family still lives in the Catalan region, and most of her relatives are pro-independence. “I am very concerned for the wellbeing my sisters, their children, my uncles and everyone else. If anything happens to them, that would be very difficult.” She fears that a military conflict with Catalonia is not an inconceivable next step for the Spanish government, especially after seeing that some politicians in Madrid are indeed considering calling in the armed forces. “The other day, I told my husband: we may have to open ours doors to our family and friends, if it comes to that.”

Economic decay

Whether or not an independent Catalonia would be able to sustain itself economically, depends on at least a million factors. For instance, with which countries will the new-born state trade? Will there be a brain drain? Will there be companies leaving Catalonia? Some companies that operate from the region have already taken precautions and decided to move some of their offices elsewhere. The same goes for banks. Indeed, Catalonia generates billions of revenue each year, but that could, of course, change if the economic environment and opportunities to earn money decline. “Still, we have to give it a chance. If given the chance, Catalonia will survive easily,” thinks Morales. 

Loss of EU-membership

If Catalonia breaks free from Spain, it will automatically be left out of the European Union. Moreover, Spain has repeatedly warned that they will veto any decision to grant Catalonia EU-membership and welcome it back into the Union. That would be a shame, admits Marta Torrente. Torrente was born in Barcelona and has lived in Catalonia for twenty-six years. She was brought up during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. “I think Spain and Catalonia have to be very grateful to the European Union. Spain has been able to transform itself into a modern country thanks to the EU. That is why I wholeheartedly hope that independence will not be declared today or tomorrow.” At the same time, she is also highly disappointed with the EU’s reaction to the crisis, or lack thereof. Morales feels the same way. “Catalonia needs the EU. The EU has to oblige the Spanish government to sit down and talk, but, so far, they have refused to do that. They do not want to get involved, I think. The European government has let us down.”

Of course, one of the main motives to stay more or less neutral in the Catalonia conflict and, especially, to not support Catalan independence in any shape or form, is the fear for a domino effect. If Catalonia becomes independent, the Basque Country may follow. And then Scotland. And then Flanders. And then all the other separatist regions of Europe. The map below shows how Europe may end up looking after such a domino effect.

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What Europe will look like if the domino effect happens (Source: TD Architects)

In the Catalonia referendum of 2014, EU-membership was much more of a central theme than in the poll of October 1st, according to Jorik van der Wal. Van der Wal has lived, worked and studied in Spain, off and on, for years. He has visited Catalonia in the week before the 2017 referendum and has spoken to numerous Catalan citizens to hear their opinion on the subject. He notes that the debate around Catalan independence has become more polarized over the years. “Back in 2014, the idea was ‘we want independence, but only on condition that we can stay in the EU and within the eurozone. Now, three years later, I do not hear that at all anymore. There is no middle ground left anymore.”

More division in society

Yesterday, on the 8th of October, around a million people gathered in the streets of Barcelona to protest in favour of Spanish unity and against Catalan independence. Morales can empathize with those protesters, even though most of her own family members belong to the opposite camp. “I agree with the Catalan citizens who do not want to leave Spain and want to keep things calm.” She draws a comparison with living in Frisia, a region in The Netherlands that also has its own language and culture: “Sometimes I imagine how I would feel if, from one day to the next, they would tell me: from now on, you are not Dutch anymore, from now on, you are Frisian. What would I do? Well, I think that I would pack my things and move a little bit more toward the south again,” she laughs.

The societal division in Spain is already severe and could increase even further. “Many people in Catalonia feel hurt, now more than ever. The wound that has been caused by Franco era, by the oppression, has been reopened,” says Morales. She continues, “I know that there are friends and families in Spain who argue and have problems because they do not agree politically.” Working in Catalonia, Jimenez observes the same. “The people are angry. There is an atmosphere of tension, rage and helplessness  in Catalonia. And that will only get worse and worse and worse.” 

Dialogue as the only viable option

“The other day, I heard a phrase that I liked very much: we ended up in this situation by not talking, not listening and not respecting one another. I wholeheartedly agree with that, and I hope that the situation will be resolved peacefully,” says Jimenez. “I would like Catalonia to remain a part of my country, but this is not the way to achieve that. We cannot go on like this.”

In terms of solutions, she and Torrente and Morales are all in favour of a legal referendum, organized and mutually agreed upon by Madrid and Barcelona. “This is a very sad time for democracy,” says Torrente. “I hope that, in the end, the people will be able to decide what they want and that their decision will be respected.”

But before all, they hope for a mutual dialogue between the Spanish and Catalan governments. “I hope that [Mariano] Rajoy and [Carles] Puigdemont will sit down and talk through the issues, says Torrente. “A real and honest conversation has to be set in motion soon, because without that, this conflict will end, very, very badly,” says Morales.