Analysis Olivier Stevens, January 4, 2022
Correspondent in Spain
Image : ©AP
Catalan nationalism at an impasse.
“An era is ending, the unionist demonstrations are there to prove it”
The Catalan region is facing relative economic decline. The independence movement is accused of sinking into fanatic rhetoric, an approach that ostracizes many Catalans.
In Spain, recent developments in the Catalan separatist problem have surprised many foreign commentators. Often, in explaining the importance of Catalonia in the Iberian economy, it has been argued that the autonomous community is Spain’s economic engine, if not its only real source of wealth. A biased way of writing history.
Admittedly, the Catalane region represents around 18 to 19% of the Spanish gross domestic product. Admittedly, this is its first exporting region and the second most populous autonomous community in Spain, with almost 7.5 million inhabitants.
However, being satisfied with the received idea that Catalonia is the only rich and industrialized region in Spain, commentators have been surprised by the flight of company headquarters to other Spanish regions and by the economic turmoil that happens in the autonomous community. They, of course, spoke of the legal and political uncertainty that reigns today in Barcelona. If Catalonia did indeed become independent tomorrow, it would ipso facto leave the European Union and the euro zone. It would therefore be faced with a monetary crisis and the reappearance of customs tariffs at its borders.
However, the exodus of company headquarters, the decline of tourist frequentation and the paralysis of foreign investment that we have been witnessing for several years are not a starting point. It is about the aggravation of an older process which, for a quarter of a century, has led the Catalan region down a path of stagnation, even decline.
Over the past four years, just over 3,200 Catalan companies have moved their headquarters to another region of Spain; a thousand of them have also moved their fiscal headquarters; tourist bookings fell by 7% compared to the same period in 2016; the turnover of hoteliers fell by 13% and some areas were even affected by 40%; large foreign investments have been postponed and some projects have escaped Barcelona.
The port of Valencia, for example, was preferred to that of the Catalan capital by Citroen to export vehicles assembled in the factory in Figueruelas, near Zaragoza.
For years, separatist officials have argued that the region’s independence will not scare anyone away. Instead, they claimed that banks and large corporations would fight to establish themselves in an independent Catalan republic. Any economists who had the misfortune to claim the opposite were immediately cast into the evil camp of Madrid agents.
It would be wrong, however, to infer from this that only the increase in tensions linked to independence has harmed Catalonia’s economic interests. The stagnation affecting the Autonomous Community has been palpable since the 2000s. To understand this, it is necessary to look at the recent economic history of Spain.
In 1980, the region emerged strengthened from the dictatorship thanks to the investment policy of Francoism, whose links with the Catalan bourgeoisie are well known, and which had decided to bet on the industrialization of this border area with France. The Catalan gross domestic product was then close to 550 billion pesetas (35% more than the Community of Madrid) and its per capita wealth reached 938,000 pesetas (6% more than each Madrilenian). The Catalan region alone accounted for 19.1% of the Spanish GDP, against 14.1% for the Community of Madrid.
In 1990, the difference between the total wealth of the two regions increased from 35 to 12.5%; in 2007, it was down to 5%; by the end of 2014, this gap fell to 0.5%. The result is all the more extraordinary as the Community of Madrid is now populated by around 6.5 million inhabitants, 1 million less than Catalonia. If, in 1930, Catalonia was at the top of the ranking of the richest regions (both in total GDP and in GDP per housing), it is now only fourth, behind the region of the capital, the Pays Basque and Navarre. According to the Foundation of Applied Economic Studies (Fedea), the Community of Madrid is the Spanish region which has increased its share of the Spanish national wealth the most (+ 25.5%) since 1980, where Catalonia has lost in importance (-2.9%).
This turnaround occurred at a time when decentralization has never been so strong across the Pyrenees. Catalonia currently has nearly 200 specific skills, particularly in economic matters. For its part, the Madrid region has not been particularly privileged by the central government in terms of investments.
In fact, the economic policy pursued by Catalan authorities is largely at issue, after Barcelona received a decisive boost with the 1992 Olympic Games, largely funded by the central Spanish state. Catalan leaders, both on the right (Jordi Pujol, Artur Mas, Carles Puigdemont) and on the left (Pasqual Maragall, José Montilla), have pursued an erratic industrial and infrastructural policy which has led to this relative decline in the region.
In addition, the systematic imposition of Catalan in all sectors of Catalan public life has repelled some foreign investors, such as Bayer. In addition, there is no common measure between Spanish and Catalan at the international level.
“But rather than take their responsibilities, the former authorities of the Generalitat de Catalunya preferred to blame Madrid for all the functioning of the regional economy. Listening to them, everything is always the fault of the central state, which is paradoxical in a country where the regions have such room for maneuver and for an economy which depends on emergency funding from the government of Madrid ”, explains Bernardo Sunyer, a Barcelona based economist.
“Separatism is perverse in its way of being able, without necessarily resorting to brute force, through insidious social pressure, of suppressing any opposition, in the street, or in other environments (school, college, high school, etc. university, world of work, associations, businesses, etc.). The Catalans opposed to independence thus had to endure without flinching more or less veiled threats, the glass ceiling imposed on them in the administration, and many businesses, the vengeful graffiti on the walls of their homes, marginalization of their children in classrooms, etc. For years, these second-class citizens patiently endured this treatment largely because they saw themselves as lonely, in the minority and abandoned. But that time is over and the last Unionist demonstrations in Barcelona (preceded by other marches or gatherings in Madrid, Tarragona, Lleida, etc.) are there to prove it, “explains historian Nicolas Klein.
With his backers, Puigdemont also seeks to disseminate an image of Spain as a neo-Franco dictatorship which imprisons its political opponents solely on the basis of their ideas.
He knows that the most fanatical separatists will relay this story since, for them, Madrid is the home of an absolute and capricious monarch but also of a picky and aggressive power.
For Puigdemont and the Catalan nationalists, it is a question of entertaining this fantasy and possibly making use of it politically for a few more years.