Catalonia’s Dangerous Illusions

BARCELONA – Catalonia’s upcoming parliamentary election could turn Spain’s wealthy northeastern region into the European Union’s first secessionist state. But, as the possibility that separatists will win a majority of seats becomes more likely, opponents of secession are becoming more vocal. Ordinary Catalans have begun to realize that it is they who would foot the bill for independence, while any benefits would accrue to an increasingly powerful intellectual elite.

Catalonia’s radicalization seems puzzling. In 1978, an overwhelming 90.5% of Catalans (three points higher than the national average) voted in favor of the Spanish constitution, which grants individual regions self-rule over major areas such as police, education, health, and broadcasting. Over the last 37 years, Catalonia has enjoyed unprecedented economic prosperity. Why are the Catalans now willing to break with Spain and risk it all?

Most analysts believe that separatism stems from economic factors. Wealthy Catalans, who are reluctant to subsidize poorer Spanish regions, have allied themselves with left-wing radicals espousing the nationalistic populism that economic crisis and malaise have fueled on the EU’s periphery.

Catalonia’s separatists claim that a small, open state within the EU and NATO is not only viable, but also optimal in terms of economic performance and social cohesion. But transition costs would be immense, and there are serious doubts about whether such a country could remain in the EU, or even re-enter it in the short term, if it had just seceded unilaterally from another EU member state.