West Will Have Sympathy For Catalan Anger

Written by:
8 November 2017
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Catalonia. For most Australians, the name of its capital, Barcelona, will resonate more. The city conjures up images of the grand boulevard Las Ramblas, the architecture of Antoni Gaudí, epitomised in his Sagrada Familia basilica, the Summer Olympics in 1992 and Catalan tenor Jose Carreras crooning Amigos para siempre to Sarah Brightman.

Unlike the Basque Country, we don’t associate Catalonia with a violent separatist movement like ETA, which killed 850 people in an almost 50-year campaign for independence from Spain.

But things turned violent in Catalonia on October 1 when the Catalan government held an independence referendum in defiance of Spain’s central government. The Spanish government sent in riot police to stop people voting. Despite this heavy-handed response, 90 per cent of those who voted were in favour of independence from Spain. That would seem an overwhelming result. But those opposing independence boycotted the referendum, which meant turnout was only 43 per cent.

Catalonia’s sense of independence and separateness from the rest of Spain is, like that of the Basque Country, nothing new. For 1000 years, Catalonia has had a distinct history. It has its own language, customs and culture.

Before the brutal dictatorship of General Franco from 1939-75, Catalonia operated as an autonomous region. Under Franco, however, disunity meant death. All regions were subsumed into greater Spain, and Franco banned regional languages and persecuted separatist politicians.

After Franco’s death, there was a resurgence in Catalan nationalism. Modern Catalonia, like an Australian state, has its own government and police force, and the Catalan language is taught in schools. But what’s behind the latest grievance with Madrid? In Spain, Catalonia is an economic powerhouse. While the Spanish economy has struggled through the Eurozone crisis, Catalonia feels aggrieved that its economy carries the weight of the rest of poorly performing Spain. Its tax payments to the central government far exceed the level of government spending in the region.

The problem with Madrid’s crackdown on Catalonia’s push for independence is not that it is wrong to oppose independence from Spain. For a start, the Spanish Constitution prohibits the breakup of Spain but also recognises the autonomy of the different regions.

Madrid’s error has been that, rather than putting paid to the Catalan independence movement through compromise and persuasion of the merits of unity, its Franco-esque shutting down of dissent has given the independence movement considerable momentum. The Catalonian separatist movement was arguably on the wane in the lead-up to the referendum. But images of riot police dragging women by the hair from polling booths and the jailing of eight Catalan leaders will galvanise support for independence, making a quick negotiated solution unlikely. Spain has created a problem it didn’t need to have.

But where has the human rights-loving European Union been throughout this? One might have expected the EU to have a few things to say about the Spanish government’s violent crackdown.

But the EU has been mute, and that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

The EU model is based on breaking down borders and national identities, pooling state sovereignty and centralising governance in Brussels. So rising nationalism and a resurgence in support for state sovereignty is an existential threat. The EU answer, so far, has been to condemn or ignore these sentiments, rather than reflect on its failings.

Catalonia is, for Australia, a cautionary tale for the health of our federation. Our Constitution, like Spain’s, provides for an “indissoluble union”. Regardless, from time to time, disgruntled West Australians call for WA to secede. That sense of separateness stems from the pre-Federation era, when WA refused until the last minute to join the five other British colonies in forming the Commonwealth of Australia.

Things came to a head in 1933 with a referendum to secede from the Commonwealth. Secession was supported by 66 per cent of the WA population. But the British government rejected WA’s request to secede and the independence movement fizzled.

More recently, WA’s sense of unfairness at the distribution of GST revenue has fed calls for a WAxit. The current arrangements for the carve-up of GST revenue do not work. WA receives only 37c for every dollar of GST it generates and that engenders a sense of unfairness. One solution would be to return tax-raising powers to the states to give them more autonomy over what they raise and accountability over spending and service delivery.

Another option could be the states retaining the GST revenue they raise. If an acceptable solution isn’t found, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the grievances out west could escalate.

(Image: The Herald Sun 2017, AP)

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