The crisis kicked off by Catalonia’s contested October 1 secession vote has come to a head. Following police violence, imprisonments, and mass protests, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced last weekend that he would pursue Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution to replace Catalonia’s leaders and impose direct rule over what is the country’s most productive region. On Friday, the Spanish parliament approved the measure, just after its Catalan counterpart formally declared independence.
A major reason cited for the crisis? As Catalan protesters cried, “Madrid nos roba”—“Madrid is robbing us”—by which they mean the federal government is taking more than it gives in transfer payments. Catalonia, the northeastern region that includes Barcelona and holds 16 percent of the Spanish population, accounts for about a fifth of Spain’s $1.2 trillion economy and about a quarter of all Spanish exports and industry. Most crucially, it pays Madrid $12 billion more in taxes per year than it gets back.
As a relatively rich region with its own independence movement, Catalonia's not alone: A small set of secession movements in historically productive areas, most visibly in Europe, say they’d be better off on their own, and more are pointing to Catalonia's example to regain momentum. Belgium’s Flanders region, one of the birthplaces of modern commerce and the host to a separatist party that made gains after the global financial crisis, boasts a GDP per capita 120 percent higher than the EU average. If the German state of Bavaria were its own country, as the Bavarian Party wishes, its economic output would crack the top 10 of EU member states, according to its government. And last weekend, two deep-pocketed northern Italian regions that are home to each Milan and Venice passed nonbinding referenda for greater autonomy. In Europe, resentments of paying to cover less productive countrymen are longstanding, but recently they seem to have intensified as a swirl of nationalist sentiments has swept the continent.