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The historical basis for secession rests on a romantic interpretation of the period before the War of Succession of 1714 and the causes of that conflict. It is true that for two centuries prior to the war Catalans had enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy as part of the kingdom of Aragon, in which Catalonia enjoyed something resembling county status. It would be a great exaggeration to suggest that this amounted to independent statehood, and absurd to suggest that the conflict was a war of secession fought over patriotic ideals. The comparisons recently made by Catalan writers with the American colonies and their struggle for independence from Britain are therefore far wide of the mark: the 12-year war which followed the death of Charles II, the last Habsburg King of Spain, was a battle between Philip of Bourbon and the Archduke Charles of Austria to determine Charles’s successor. The Catalans backed the losing side, a mistake for which they paid a high price: the siege of Barcelona lasted more than a year and ended with the destruction of many of the symbols of Catalan identity. It was not to be the last time that Barcelona and Madrid found themselves on opposing sides and these events came to occupy a central position in Catalan mythology. It is telling that Catalonia’s national day — the Diada — should be September 11, the day on which Barcelona fell to the Bourbons, and should celebrate a crushing defeat, not a victory.

Catalonia’s sense of economic grievance is far from new. In The Spanish Labyrinth, Gerald Brenan’s outstanding analysis of the causes of the Spanish Civil War, the author describes the attitude of many Catalans towards what they have long regarded as unfair economic relations with the rest of Spain, and particular with Madrid: “We in Catalonia must sweat and toil so that tens of thousands of drones in Madrid government offices may live.” According to Brenan, such attitudes go back as far as the 17th century.

Today, even those Catalans critical of the separatist agenda tend to take for granted that Catalonia, in their view Spain’s most enterprising and successful region, keeps the rest of Spain afloat economically, and that the present arrangements act as a brake on the region’s development. Spain’s system of fiscal transfers is complex but it is true that Catalonia puts more into the national coffers than it takes out in services. It is also true that while its population accounts for 16 per cent of the population it is responsible for 25 per cent of the country’s exports and 19 per cent of its GDP. But while its contribution to the tax pot may be disproportionate, Madrid has recently been a bigger net contributor.

Moreover, the difference between tax receipts and those of most other regions is the consequence of progressive taxation rather than a regional bias in the Spanish tax system; as is the case elsewhere it is a system which ensures that the rich pay most. It is consequently difficult to accept uncritically the separatists’ contention that Catalonia is being held back by the rest of Spain, and would prosper if the dream of independence were realised. The likely economic impact of secession is hotly disputed; predictably, those in favour claim that it would boost employment and growth significantly, while a report from the Spanish Foreign Ministry, which lays stress on the possible loss of exports to Spanish markets, suggests separation would reduce Catalonia’s GDP by 19 per cent. A less obviously partisan report from the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce in 2014 suggests secession would result in a drop in GDP of up to 5.7 per cent. The fact that more than 1,000 companies have moved their headquarters out of Catalonia since last year’s independence referendum suggests that, at the very least, secession would result in a period of severe economic dislocation.
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