People wave Esteladas (Catalan separatist flags) as they attend a closing rally in favor of the banned October 1 independence referendum in Barcelona, Spain, on September 29, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Susana Vera
People wave Esteladas (Catalan separatist flags) as they attend a closing rally in favor of the banned October 1 independence referendum in Barcelona, Spain, on September 29, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Susana Vera

On Oct. 1 the citizens of Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia will vote in a referendum for national independence, despite arm-twisting by the Spanish government and stern warnings by world leaders – including Donald Trump, who last week stood next to Spain’s Prime Minister at the White House and told the Catalans that they would be “foolish” to secede.

On the contrary: the Catalans would be foolish to stay. Spain faces an insurmountable economic crisis over the next generation, and the German-led bailout that got Spain out of free-fall in 2013-2014 will not happen again. “Sálvese quien pueda” – every man for himself – is the rational course of action under present circumstances. The relatively rich and productive Catalonians are better off on their own.

Spain will implode during the next 20 years, simply because its population is aging so fast that the cost of supporting its elderly will break the national budget. That is less an economic failure than a cultural one. Spain once was Europe’s most Catholic country, with a correspondingly high birth rate. Its Civil War of 1936-1939 brought to power a Catholic caudillo, Francisco Franco.

Spain fertility

After his death in 1975 Spain became a constitutional monarchy, but the Spanish people eschewed the national-religious regime that Franco had enforced. Spain abandoned the altar as well as the cradle, and the economic consequences of its cultural revolution will become woefully manifest over the next two decades. As the chart makes clear, the collapse in Spanish fertility has nothing to do with Spain’s economic woes of the past several years: It occurred during the late 1990s when Spain’s economy was strong. It is purely a cultural phenomenon. As I argued in my 2011 book How Civilizations Die, the same thing happened in once-Catholic Quebec. Only 10% of Spanish Catholics attended mass in 2014 compared to 50% in 1970.

Spain elderly

Catalonia produces 20% of Spain’s economic output with just 14% of the population. Per capita income is a quarter higher than the national average and almost double that of the Spanish south. Catalonia contributes far more to the national budget in tax revenues than it receives in spending. Its position is the inverse of Scotland’s in the 2014 independence referendum: Scotland depended on subsidies from England, while Catalonia subsidizes the rest of Spain.

The civilized English gave the Scots the opportunity to secede, while the Spanish government has threatened to keep the Catalans in Spain by force. If anything, Catalonia has a much stronger case for independence than Scotland. The Catalans speak a distinct Romance language and look north to France more than south to Spain. They offered the most embittered resistance to Franco’s Nationalists during the Civil War, and suffered more casualties than any other region of Spain, including mass executions after Franco’s 1939 victory.

Catalonia’s independence movement is fighting for the land’s cultural identity. The Catalan regional government ls led by the former journalist and small-town mayor Jorgel Puigdemont, a lifelong advocate of Catalan language and culture. Remarkably, 400 Catalan priests and bishops last week signed a manifesto supporting Catalan independence, which prompted the Spanish government to lodge an official protest with the Vatican against the alleged misbehavior of the Catalan Church.  A monk at Catalonia’s ancient Montserrat monastery, Father Sergi d’Assís Gelpí, has become a figure of national notoriety for preaching independence from his pulpit.

The passion of a small and endangered people for its culture is entirely understandable. Catalonia’s fertility rate has fared no better than Spain’s national average, and the Catalans have reason to fear for the viability of their language at a horizon of one or two generations. National emotions drive the independence movement, not budgetary calculations. But that does not obviate the fact that secession is a rational response to the economic consequences of Spain’s cultural sea-change.

Countries with declining populations can defer their problem through immigration. Spain has been a source of immigrants for Northern Europe, especially Germany, while attracting lower-skilled immigrants from Latin America. According to one study, net emigration from Spain since 2011 totals 168,000. Anecdotal evidence suggests that an alarming proportion of Spanish engineers, physicians, and other highly-qualified professionals has left the country.

Hollywood could not have invented a more detestable villain from the Catalan point of view than Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. A conservative Catholic from Spain’s northwestern region of Galicia, Rajoy hails from Francisco Franco’s home region, where no gun was fired in anger during the course of Spain’s Civil War. Rajoy sent the national paramilitary police, the Civil Guard, as well as national police agents to the Catalan capital of Barcelona to seize voting materials and arrest provincial officials in order to prevent the referendum from taking place. He has threatened Catalan officials with jail time for “embezzlement” (appropriating government funds for the referendum) and seized control of the provincial budget.

Rancor against Catalonia in the conservative Catholic press is extreme. The Catholic-Monarchist newspaper ABC warned of “Catalan Nazism” in a Sept. 28 editorial, claiming that the Catalans were compiling a “blacklist” of individuals who might vote against independence in the Oct. 1 referendum. That has dark resonances with the Civil War, when the Nationalists and Republicans both executed hundreds of thousands of civilians.

It is hard to predict the outcome of Sunday’s disputed election. Catalonia’s regional police have refused to subject themselves to the orders of the national police sent from Madrid, and appear ready to keep improvised polling stations open. It will be difficult for many Catalans to vote, and turnout will be uncertain. Opinion polls taken last June showed that just 42% of Spanish citizens living in Catalonia wanted an independent country, but that nearly two-thirds of prospective voters in a referendum would choose independence. Opposition to independence is passive and indifferent, while support for independence is impassioned.

The Catalans are keenly aware of the context for their independence struggle. Spain stayed afloat because of a €100 billion bailout for its banks in 2012. That Europe no longer exists. Germany’s election on Sept. 24 had many impulses, but all of them are anti-European. The Western part of Germany shifted its votes away from the two main parties (the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats) to the pro-market Free Democratic Party, which had opposed the bailouts of southern Europe. The Eastern part of Germany voted for the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland, which began as an anti-bailout party but morphed into an anti-immigration party.

When the next Spanish economic crisis hits, the Germans won’t be there with a checkbook. The supposed standard-bearer for the new Europe, French president Emmanuel Macron, already is flailing; as the Barcelona daily La Vanguardia observed Sept. 29, he faces a stalemate in budget negotiations with French provinces and demonstrations against budget cuts by French pensioners.

Spain would be wise to emulate the British model, and allow Catalonia to decide its own national status on the model of the Scots referendum of 2014. Wisdom and Spain, sadly, have had little to do with each other for the past several hundred years. Sunday’s vote is likely to begin a prolonged period of constitutional crisis that will eat away at the credibility of Spain, and call into doubt the European project as a whole.