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And in this corner of Europe…


The Catalans are upset and, depending on whom you speak with, have been upset since being defeated by the Spanish monarchy in 1714. Now, almost three hundred years later, they are doing what many other ethnic groups throughout Europe aspire – holding a vote to become independent. Or at least show support to be independent because next month’s planned referendum is non-binding. It is not clear it is legal under Spanish law. Yet forward we go.

As violence rocks other parts of the world, the issue of independence for many ethnic groups in Europe is once again on resurgence and in most cases is peaceful. The new wave of efforts is fueled in part by a globalized economy, which breaks down national barriers and helps some regions like Catalonia that are economically strong. The world comes and goes much more easily, especially when the shackles of dictatorship are gone and a country is freer than in the past.

Most reasons for the current breakaway fever center on ethnic identify. Having reported and written about Quebec’s unsuccessful votes for independence from the rest of Canada has been a good starting point. Add to that the war in Corsica, the breakup of Yugoslavia, the velvet divorce between the Czechs and Slovaks and a whole examination of groups in Europe yearning to be free and, indeed, it is clear the idea of “independence” has appeal. The list is endless, given the wonderful cultural richness of Europe.

The immediate cause of Catalonia’s bout of secessionist fever is the charge of “fiscal looting.” The region accounts for about one-fourth of Spain’s exports. But for every euro Catalans pay in taxes, only 57 cents is spent in the region. Before taxes, Catalonia is the fourth richest of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions. After taxes, it drops to ninth — a form of forced redistribution unparalleled in contemporary Europe.

Pro-independence advocates also say the autonomy Catalonia enjoys is in danger from the larger Spanish government. At the core is the Catalan language, distinct from Spanish. Since the re-establishment of Spain’s democracy in 1977 and Catalonia’s autonomy in 1979, Catalan has been revived in the region’s schools. However, a recent ruling by Spain’s Constitutional Court threatens this policy. To many Catalans, the language is a red line. If the current system of autonomy can’t guarantee protection of it, independence is the only solution.

Catalonia, as well as other secessionist or independence efforts across Europe, has received a boost by a planned referendum on Scottish independence set for 2014.  That referendum has been constructed with negotiation between Scottish nationalist leaders and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron.

Many groups point to that as a path for them. Amongst the saltires flying at the independence march in Edinburgh were flags from Flemish Belgium, Catalonia, Sardinia and Venice.

Feeding this frenzy for secession and independence in Europe is the premise that all these new states will somehow find a safe haven as member states of the European Union. (Catalonia has a population of just over 7.5 million; twelve current EU members have smaller populations.)

When advised that EU membership is not guaranteed, appetite for independence is significantly muted according to opinion polls.

Alas the EU rub. An independent Catalonia would find itself out of the EU. Many have argued that the EU would have a strong interest in letting Spain’s economic powerhouse back in as quickly as possible. Catalonia’s accession would need to be endorsed by all member states – including Spain. This is arguably the biggest stumbling block for Catalonia leader Artur Mas’s hope of making Catalonia “a normal nation in Europe.”

Since Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government refuses to countenance a break-up of Spain, and has vowed to block a referendum on self-rule, it suggests that route is challenging. It is also unprecedented for an EU member state to divide into two countries

Out of the EU, economic suffering may actually increase in an independent Catalonia. When the Czechs and Slovaks split into two nations, trade between the two countries fell by roughly 75 percent in a few years’ time, despite serious measures taken to mitigate the separation’s effect. Catalonia’s most important trading partner is the rest of Spain – and there are talks of a possible Spanish boycott on Catalan products if the region becomes independent.

Earlier stories on ethnic unrest in Spain focused on the Basques causing headaches for Spain – as they were more violently seeking independence. Concerns of Catalonia were at best spoken of in the second of third sentence.

Today, the calls for independence among Basques have been quieter, thanks to a preferential tax system and an unemployment level much lower than in Catalonia and the national average. The Basque tax agreement with Spain keeps more funds within the community for local use; they also have more autonomy.

Spanish and Catalan leaders held secret talks this year to discuss restructuring Catalonia’s fiscal pact with Madrid in exchange for dropping plans to pursue a referendum on Catalonian independence. The talks went nowhere.

So go figure. The Spaniards worked out something with the folks who were planting bombs and killing people. Hard to believe it is not possible to work things out with the folks wearing yellow tee-shirts protesting by creating human chains across their beautiful landscape.

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Tom Squitieri

Tom Squitieri has spent more than three decades as a journalist, reporting overseas for the Lowell (Mass.) Sun, the Boston Herald and USA TODAY. He won three Overseas Press Club awards and three White House Correspondents' Association awards for his reporting from Haiti, Bosnia, and Burundi. He is a newly-elected board member of the Overseas Press Club.

In academics, Squitieri was invited to create and then teach a unique college course that combines journalism, public affairs, ethics, philosophy, current affairs and war zone survival skills into a practical application to broaden thinking and day-to-day success. The class "Your 15 Minutes: Navigating the Checkpoints in Life" has a waiting list each year.

Born in Pittsburgh and raised in western Pennsylvania, Squitieri has been on all seven continents and in dozens of places he intends to keep secret.