A Conversation with Joan Ramon Resina

On Oct. 1 of this year, an independence referendum was held in the Spanish territory of Catalonia. This region, which includes the city of Barcelona, has historically had many conflicts with the Spanish central state over political, economic, and cultural disputes. The vote was declared a violation of the Spanish Constitution of 1978, and Spain employed many tactics to suppress the vote, including the detention of Catalan leaders and forceful deterrence at ballot stations by the National Police and Civil Guard. On Oct. 27, Catalan lawmakers approved a motion to declare the territory an independent republic. On that same day, Spanish President Mariano Rajoy announced that he had dissolved the Catalan parliament and removed the Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont from office.

Professor Joan Ramon Resina is a professor of Iberian and Latin American Cultures and Comparative Literature at Stanford University. He also serves as director of the university’s Iberian Studies Program. His work explores the intersection of Iberian cultural identity, literature, and modernity. Born to Catalan parents in Barcelona under the Spanish military dictator Francisco Franco, Professor Resina specializes in Catalan issues.


Gracie Newman: To what extent is the Catalan independence movement similar to and/or different from other recent separatist movements, such as Brexit and Calexit?

Joan Ramon Resina: It’s interesting to hear Brexit referred to as a separatist movement, since it’s a decision to exit the European Union, which is not a nation-state. Separatism is mostly a negative term usually applied to the breaking away of portions of a nation state. The Catalan movement for independence has a long history. It’s easy to make a superficial interpretation, to say it’s a response to globalization, that it has to do with the recent economic crisis, and so on. The Catalan struggle for self-government goes way back to the early eighteenth century and even beyond.

GN: The recent referendum showed 90 percent in support of secession, but voter turnout was low. Do you think the results of the referendum accurately represent the wishes of the Catalan people?

JRR: You would need to count as ‘no’ all those who didn’t vote and a hypothetical 70 percent participation instead of the actual 43 percent to neutralize the triumph of the ‘yes’ vote. You also have to factor in all the people that were prevented from voting, including the vote of the Catalan diaspora, which was deterred. There’s a lot of debate in terms of the numbers, but looking at the people signed up to vote at the 140 polling stations that were closed by the police, 700,000 votes were prevented from being cast. This is not to say all of them would have voted, and no one can appropriate their ballots, but they would certainly have added to the participation.

GN: Some people have expressed concerns regarding possible Russian interference with the vote. Do you think these concerns are valid?

JRR: No! The people who launched the coup d’état in 1936 were worried about Catalonia becoming an independent communist nation in the 1930s. Now there is a contradiction, because on the one hand there are these Russian rumors, but on the other hand I’ve seen rumors saying the CIA is supporting the separatist movement in Catalonia. The only basis for these tales is that Putin accused the European Union of hypocrisy, because they recognized Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, which is an ally of Russia.

Putin clearly disapproves of Catalan secession. However, what he wants is for Kosovo to revert to Serbia. He has said these events are internal matters. Putin agrees that Spain should treat Catalonia’s independence movement as an internal affair, the way he thinks Kosovo is an internal affair of Serbia. That’s all there is to it. Most Catalans don’t sympathize with Russian positions. All the mainstream parties in Catalonia are extraordinarily pro-Europe. You could say that it is in Russia’s interest to weaken the European Union, but Europe’s response to any such risk should be precisely to support Catalan independence. Or at least to work to give Catalonia, which is strongly supportive of the EU, something to impede a kind of Brexit in Spain. Unfortunately, Merkel and Macron don’t see it that way. They want to protect the existing state.

GN: What would the consequences for Spain be?

JRR: Clearly Spain doesn’t believe it’s going to happen. The Spanish government will use everything they have, including the army if need be. That very desperation indicates that Catalan independence would be a severe loss for Spain. The economic consequence is clear; Catalonia is at least 20 percent of the nation’s GDP. It is one of the most vibrant areas. Its geopolitical location in the Mediterranean, between Europe and the rest of the Iberian Peninsula, is important. It would be a great blow. Spain’s debt is enormous. It is almost unpayable and Europe counts on the Catalans to shoulder much of that debt.

Another problem between Catalonia and the central state is that Catalonia’s contribution to Spain is not only large, but unbalanced. I mean this in the sense that Spain does not significantly reinvest the taxes it siphons from Catalonia into its infrastructure, social services, hospitals, etc. Catalonia is constantly shortchanged by an unsustainable amount. Each European country contributes to the EU; Germany contributes 4.1 percent of their GDP, France 4 percent, Italy even less. If you imagine Catalonia as a separate country and look at its contribution, it’s 6.9 percent, the highest of any European economy, whereas Spain is a net receiver of funds.

If Spain loses the money from Catalonia, it would not just be in danger of bankruptcy but it would send political shock waves that would change its way of life to an extent hard to imagine. Madrid has always relied on this imbalance to finance itself and its culturally-germane regions, and this goes back to the nineteenth century and even earlier. This is one reason why Catalans want to leave.

GN: What is the next step for Catalonia?

JRR: Everyone is asking that. I believe even the Catalan government are asking themselves this. If the Spanish government activates Article 155, there is no doubt the Catalan Parliament will formally declare independence. Once that happens, the Spanish government will deploy the thousands of police it stationed in Catalonia to prevent the referendum of October 1. It is now sending even more police forces. Spain does not explain the reason for such reinforcements, but most likely it’s to arrest the Catalan president and his government. If things go that far, the Catalan government and civil organizations are likely to call for peaceful resistance. It’s going to be a sort of Gandhi or Martin Luther King type of politics. Everybody on the Catalan side is saying they don’t want violence. If there is any violence in the streets, it’s going to be a one-sided violence.

GN: The UN’s Human Rights Council has been in contact with the government in Madrid about the projected potential unrest and governmental violence in the coming weeks. Do you predict the tense political atmosphere will escalate into further chaos or violence?

JRR: I don’t like making these predictions. I think Rajoy has enough warnings, not only from the UN Human Rights Watch but also from the European partners. Although EU officials and influential heads of state like the German Chancellor and the French President have come out in support of Rajoy, I find it hard to believe that they are not warning him to go easy. Although he is willing to use force and many radicals in his party are asking him to crack down hard, more images of police brutality will not be welcome in Europe.

I think Rajoy will try to do things with the least necessary use of violence, but we already saw how easily it escalates. Rajoy is caught in his own spider web, because he needs to satisfy to some extent the ultra-right asking him to proceed violently. At recent counter-independence demonstrations in Barcelona, people were chanting, “shoot the Catalan president.” That is the demand he is hearing on the streets.

GN: Why do you think France and Germany are supporting the central state?

JRR: The EU is a clump of nation states, and Spain is a core member. That is why Putin, among others, is asking Europe why it encourages self-determination in other places but does not in Spain. Europe responds that the difference in this case is that it’s happening in one of their core member states. But then, they do have a double standard!

European states fear that the Catalan independence movement could set off other movements within the European Union, like Flanders in Belgium. Also, dignitaries of the EU will not say it, but they know that Catalonia is contributing more in terms of its GDP to the EU than their countries are. If Catalonia were to become independent, its contribution would have to be scaled down. So, in the event of Spain requiring financial rescue, the other [EU countries] would have to provide more. The EU talks about human rights and all that, but by its demeanor, it proves that’s all rhetoric. They are concerned about the Spanish debt, and they want to be sure that the debt will be repaid. The rights of citizens take a backseat.

GN: What are the global implications of the Catalan independence movement?

If Spain proceeds with the repression, what can Catalans do? They can organize general strikes and hurt the economy. It would mean shooting themselves in the foot, but they must weigh what’s worse for them in the long run.

Spain constantly needs to borrow money, but because its debt is perceived as riskier than that of other countries, Spain’s lenders require more interest to cover the risk of buying Spanish bonds. The higher the interest that Spain must pay, the closer it comes to default. If there is conflict, this risk interest will go up fast. And if it does, the European economic system will be under pressure. The euro will immediately suffer. In an interconnected economy, local problems quickly become global problems.

GN: Do you think this would be enough pressure for Spain to concede to some of Catalonia’s demands?

JRR: It’s not that Spain would but that Europe might. If it becomes an affair of the entire European economy, EU leaders might consider cutting their losses and pressuring Spain to behave democratically. Europe has leverage on Spain.

GN: If Catalonia were to become an independent nation, do you think the EU will put pressure on Spain to allow Catalonia to join its ranks?

JRR: I think so. It wouldn’t happen immediately — there would be theatricals — but the EU needs Catalonia. There is all this talk about Russia, and Russia might be happy to see the EU weakened, but a more likely ally of Catalans could be the United Kingdom, precisely because of Brexit. The UK might be interested in linking up economically with a territory within continental Europe and having a foothold on the European continent that is not just Gibraltar, which Spain can easily isolate.

The geopolitical consequences are multiple, and I think if we ever got to the point of Catalonia becoming an independent state, the EU would do whatever it takes to make sure that Catalonia remains within the EU.

Gracie Newman is a freshman staff writer for Stanford Politics.

This interview appears in the November 2017 issue of Stanford Politics Magazine.