Brexit may be taking the headlines when it comes to European independence movements, but further south a different secession movement is stirring again: the Catalan regional parliament has voted in favour of a bill which gives a legal basis for a referendum on independence from Spain, to be held on October 1. The Spanish central government in Madrid is – predictably – strongly opposed to the vote, which has already been ruled illegal by the constitutional courts, and the EU has – equally predictably – attempted to shoot it down as well, insisting that an independent Catalonia would have to “start from scratch” and reapply for membership (assuming it wished to be a member, something the EU takes for granted).
This is of course not the first time Catalonia has sought independence. The movement to break away from Spain was started in 1922 and resulted in Catalan autonomy within Spain in 1931. This lasted only seven years before Franco abolished it again in 1938, and after the dictator’s death in 1975 it was autonomy, rather than independence, which was the immediate aim of Catalan nationalists. But after a vote on autonomy was challenged by the Spanish High Courts of Justice in 2006, a modern independence movement was born, culminating in a (ultimately non-binding) 2014 vote which saw 81% of voters back an independent Catalan state. This time, however, it is a binding vote which the Catalan parliament is seeking, and a similar result would send shockwaves through Spain.
The background for the independence movement is rooted in culture as well as economics. Catalan culture is distinctly different from the rest of Spain; the region has its own food, traditions and language. Catalans have also traditionally been viewed as hard working and focussed on success, whereas the Spanish tend to be more interested in the lighter side of life, and there is a higher emphasis on private business in Catalonia than elsewhere in Spain. This has led to important economic differences: Catalonia provides about 20% of Spanish GDP, despite accounting for only 16% of the population, and the region pays almost 25% of Spain’s taxes. Catalonia’s so-called “fiscal deficit” – the difference between the taxes paid by the region to the central government and what they get back in public spending – is estimated to be between 7.5% and 10% of Catalan GDP.
Should the Catalans succeed in breaking away from Spain, it would mark the first successful secession in Europe since the maps were redrawn in the wake of the fall of the Iron Curtain. And it would be a welcome development. Reducing the size and reach of any centralised state is commendable, because it moves power closer to the individual level. On the path to the ultimate goal, individual self-determination, decentralisation and secession are concrete, realistic aims which those who believe in liberty should wholeheartedly support.
It may aid liberty in other ways too: smaller, more homogeneous states tend to be more liberal (in the classical, European sense of the word) and more open to free trade, partly because small states have to be open to survive. As Murray Rothbard notes in Secession, State and Liberty:
“… it would be far more difficult to sow the illusion of self-sufficiency if the slogan were “Buy North Dakotan” or even “Buy 56th Street” than it now is to convince the public to “Buy American.” Similarly, “Down with South Dakota,” or a fortiori, “Down with 55th Street,” would be a more difficult sell than spreading fear or hatred of the Japanese.”
But this is really of secondary importance, because principled support for self-determination should means support for secession even when it may give power to states that would make decisions with which we disagree. There are significant extreme-left factions in Catalan politics, and there are no guarantees that independence would mean a more liberty-friendly regime. But we supported Brexit because the EU is a centralised behemoth, not because we believe an independent Britain is set to become a beacon of liberty. Whether it be Scotland breaking away from the UK, South Tirol or Veneto seeking independence from Italy or Belgium splitting into Flemish and Walloon states, decentralisation, secession and independence should be encouraged and supported. Political leaders in Brussels may be aiming for ever tighter integration into an eventual European super-state, but many of their peoples are increasingly seeking self-determination. The next big test will be October 1st in Catalonia.