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Helena Vilaseca did not feel very comfortable discussing her nationalist sentiments as she grew up in the Catalan region in northeastern Spain. Years ago, feelings of regional separatism seemed radical and not socially acceptable to discuss.
Now, says Vilaseca at age 29, people share open conversations about their desire for Catalonia to secede and become its own country, “I’m not afraid to say what I think.”
Vilaseca and her partner, Manel Huguet, run a business that provides English language instruction, and they both support the rising tide of Catalan independence. To them, the economic recession intensified the movement based in cultural differences.
“If you’re born here, [Catalan nationalism is] something you develop with,” says Huguet, “If on the one hand you put economical considerations and on the other hand linguistical [sic] considerations, you end up with the conclusion that getting out of Spain is the only way of surviving and being free to decide what we want to do.”
Catalonia is not the only home to a surging independence movement, as Scotland’s nationalist movement won a referendum for 2014 when they will vote to remain within the United Kingdom or leave it.
These independence movements reach back centuries and have simmered through the ages via cultural – and in the case of Catalonia, linguistic – differences. The 2008 economic downturn that has touched nearly every corner of the globe lit a fire underneath the independence movements in Catalonia and Scotland.
“People get unhappy in hard times,” says Harvey Feigenbaum, professor at The George Washington University and specialist in the political economy of West Europe. “In hard times you expect to see a lot of disgruntlement for a lot of people that are nationalist anyway.”
Feigenbaum is careful to point out the differences between movements in Scotland and Catalonia. He calls Scotland the “West Virginia of the British Isles,” historically poor with little in the way of resources.
Though the terms of the 2014 referendum may allow Scotland to maintain control of the North Sea oil should they choose to secede, Feigenbaum says the North Sea oil “is running out for them.”
“Most of the reserves are gone. Scotland doesn’t have a lot going for it economically.”
On the other hand, the disgruntlement in Catalonia arises from an abundance of resources and taxes. Catalonia provides 20 percent of the Spain’s GDP, and residents like Vilaseca feel they’re footing the bill for the nation and getting second class status.
“They don’t want to part with their money, and they see the rest of Spain sucking their resources,” says Feigenbaum.
Vilaseca and Huguet, who live in Girona, Spain, expressed concern about the state of education and transportation in their region. While a high-speed train continues to run from Madrid to Seville, there is no train from Barcelona into France, which Vilaseca says would be good for the business with their neighboring country.
Huguet says they’ve provided taxes to Madrid for 30 years, since the end of the Franco dictatorship, and the central government still does not have its fiscal house in order. Furthermore Catalans sense, “a permanent aggression about our language,” says Huguet, referencing a new bill to push more Spanish language study into school, therefore leaving less time for Catalan studies.
The Catalan literary tradition dates back to the middle ages and experienced a revival in 19th century romanticism, says Vilaseca’s cousin Toni Dorca, a professor of Hispanic studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN. It remains a part of Catalan identity.
Harris Mylonas, another professor at The George Washington University and author of a new book, The Politics of Nation Building, points out that the sense of nationalism is not wholly rooted in rational considerations, but “captures the imagination” and grows from historical difference and national pride.
While cultural differences and the recession stoked independence movements in Europe, the stability and security afforded by the European Union allowed for members of these movements to voice their opinions, says Mylonas.
But the movements themselves may provoke economic instability. The movements may remain peaceful, but Mylonas suspects the governmental changes would be judged as bad for business by international investors.
Vilaseca admits there will be problems during a governmental transition, “things don’t change immediately…changes are difficult for everybody,” she says. “We just want the right to decide.”
The central government, based in Madrid, remains opposed to the independence movement on grounds that it’s unconstitutional. But Catalans continue to push for sovereignty and a referendum on secession.
While Scotland already has a referendum in place, the UK has launched a unity campaign to discourage secession. Scottish independence, says Feigenbaum, could upset the governmental balance as it would mean a substantial decrease in membership for the UK’s Labor Party.
Even if Scotland and Catalonia hold referenda resulting in independence, Mylonas says, “it’s very uncertain that the EU will be benevolent, because of the precedent that would set.”
Much of the vote for independence hinges on the unknown future relationship between newly independent nations and the EU. Support for secession drops in polls if voters feel they will not remain in the EU.
Vilaseca thinks that Catalonia could become a strong anchor for the EU in Southern Europe, surrounded by the struggling nations of Spain, Portugal, and Italy.
But Spain remains steadfast in its opposition to Catalan and Scottish independence.
“It’s very likely that many heads of states in Europe will oppose such developments,” says Mylonas, “because they are afraid of their own states developing their own subnational movements.”
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