Catalonia and Why Secession Movements Fail

Catalonia’s attempt to break away from Spain has failed, and the independence project has been shelved for now. Madrid’s response to Barcelona was resolute and at times violent, but it achieved its goal. In the end, Catalonia’s leaders preferred not to fight for their principles, while the supporters of Spanish unity – in Catalonia as well as in other parts of the country – saw their opposition vindicated. The inability of the Catalan leaders to stick to their guns when the going got tough has revealed and possibly widened a few cracks within their own ranks.

The Catalan secession attempt has shed light on several issues, which can be helpful in predicting Europe’s future economic and political geography. This report examines three key questions and puts forward some thoughts about what could happen next.

Better off?

One issue regards the economics of independence. In general, pressure for independence is stronger in the affluent regions of a country, especially when the overall economic climate is not satisfactory. Not surprisingly, the advocates of secession believe that they would be better off once they stopped transferring large amounts of wealth to poorer regions. The savings would compensate for the cost of transition (which may be considerable) and for the cost of setting up and running a new governmental bureaucracy, including a regional welfare state.

By contrast, little attention is paid to the kind of economy one would have after secession has taken place. For example, there has not been much debate on the size and quality of government intervention an independent Catalonia would have had. The world press has often failed to draw attention to the ideological inclinations of the Catalan secessionist leaders, who were explicit about their willingness to expand government intervention. Yet, many supporters of independence are fans of a free market, and blame the central government for high taxation and the inefficiencies of the centralized welfare state.

It is not at all obvious that the regional government’s services would be better than the central government’s. So, although secession aims to improve the region’s economic performance, it is by no means obvious that a small, collectivist government is better than a large, moderately regulated government. The lack of clarification on this issue did not help, and helps explain why many large companies planned to leave the region if it had become independent.

Leadership and support

A second issue regards leadership. Charisma is important, but secession requires a clear road map, party discipline and uncommon organizational skills. Leaders who lack managerial abilities and/or have no time for operational duties must be able to select a competent team to take care of the less glamorous details. Amateurish planning is at the heart of the current Brexit mess, and it also characterized the Catalan episode.

Finally, a fight for secession needs the support of a solid majority of the population. One can blather on about independence in talk shows, enjoying the popularity and media exposure often associated with aggressive rhetoric. However, a vociferous minority is not enough to win a referendum, to claim legitimacy and to garner international support. When a new country is born, it must enter the maze of free trade agreements that characterize today’s half-baked globalization, a cobweb of international treaties and regulatory traps that ensure outsiders meet all sorts of protectionist barriers, and are threatened by serious economic trouble if they do not fall in line.

Back down to earth

Let us now look at the future. All in all, Catalonia’s flop has damaged the cause of independence and strengthened the (centralized) nation-state. On paper, the Catalan movement seemed to be the perfect case for secession (economic affluence and significant losses in terms of redistribution), and yet it failed to gather much support in other European countries, and even less among European political leaders (including at the European Union level). In fact, the future of secession remains dim.

One reason for this is how political careers are made and how electoral mechanisms select the political elites. An individual who aspires to a political career can aim for a national or local position. For obvious reasons of prestige and remuneration, positions at the national level are more attractive. This does not necessarily mean that the most intelligent and able candidates always go to Paris rather than Marseille, or to Rome rather than Bologna. But the candidates with greater appeal or those more skilled at pulling the electoral strings go for the center, rather than the periphery.

Consequently, local politicians who do not make it to the national stage tend to perform less well. Perhaps they lack leadership skills, do not dare to invest resources into rising further up the ladder, or are content with a quiet and relatively well-paid sinecure in their home constituencies.

At the same time, the front-runners move to the center. They are usually not inclined to adopt the cause of independence and abandon their privileged positions. This is currently what is going on with the Northern League in Italy, for example. The leader of that party has declared he intends to remove the word “Northern” from their banners.

By contrast, local politicians are unlikely to have the qualities required to start a mass movement, put together a credible program, and become serious rivals to the national and international authorities. Moreover, electoral laws in several countries ensure that candidates are chosen by the party’s top echelons, and do not rise from the bottom. It follows that the winning candidates – both for local and national offices – are grateful to the party’s bosses at the center, and do not feel accountable to their (regional) electorate. Once again, the system favors centralization, rather than secession.

Resistance to change

A second reason is people’s resistance to possible changes in the welfare state. There is no doubt that Europeans like the welfare state. They protest when tax pressure increases, but object even more vehemently when the odd legislator suggests cuts in government expenditure. When it comes to proposals for regional independence, the potential gains from more accountability and greater competition are hardly considered, while the potential overhaul of the system is seen as a threat, possibly a request to accept personal responsibility. Regrettably, too many people prefer to avoid such responsibility. Hence, drastic changes – including secession – are regarded with skepticism.

The prospects for independence and secession in Europe are not promising. After the recent Spanish experience, the glass has become half-empty: even the staunchest secessionists must acknowledge that people like strong, centralized governments, regardless of their qualities and of the costs involved in terms of redistribution. Yet, it has also remained half-full, in that the Catalan episode has shown what it takes to bring about change, and that decentralization is a safer and more acceptable course of action than secession.

While secession will not be an option for years to come, decentralization remains a realistic scenario. It will come to pass, however, only if a new class of political leaders emerges. Most of those occupying key governmental positions lack the personal and technical qualities to bring about radical change. Recalibrating electoral systems to favor bottom-up careers would be a good step in this direction.

Enrico Colombatto is Professor of Economics at the University of Turin and Director of Research at the Institut de Recherches Economiques et Fiscales (IREF).


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

Do you like the article?

We are glad you do! Please consider donating if you want to read more articles like this one.


Share this article!
Join our community and stay updated!