Catalonia is vying to become Europe’s newest nation-state, but this is a battle Catalonia ultimately can’t win. On Oct. 27, Catalan lawmakers voted to declare independence—barely. Only 51.8% of members in the Catalan parliament supported the declaration. That means even Catalans themselves are divided over whether Catalonia should secede from Spain.
Spain has threatened to do whatever is necessary to maintain the rule of law in Catalonia, and it has both the will and the means to follow through on that threat. Catalonia also has very little international support it can depend on. Even so, the Catalan revolt of 2017 will have ramifications in Spain and in Europe that will be felt for generations to come.
For many observers outside of Europe, the Catalan issue came out of left field. Sure, the Catalan government said it would hold an independence referendum, but it held a similar referendum in 2014 and nothing came of that. Surely, all the Catalan government wanted was a bargaining chip it could use in its negotiations with the Spanish government over taxes and other issues related to the region’s political autonomy. Catalonia has more to gain economically by remaining a part of Spain, so why would it want to embark on the arduous and violent process that usually accompanies declarations of independence?
But no one should be surprised that Catalan independence has become a major issue—it has been for many centuries now. It is a product of Spain’s geography and Catalonia’s unique history. The geography of Spain is immensely diverse. The northwest is rainy and faces the Atlantic. The center has historically been dry and poor. The northeast—where Catalonia is located—is fertile and faces the Mediterranean. The south has its own unique climate and spent many centuries under Muslim rule. These realities helped create unique cultures and political economies that have proven remarkably resilient over centuries, despite best efforts to subsume them under Spanish nationhood.