No Escaping Uncertainty For Catalan Youths

2012 Catalan independence protest on September 11th

True to the proverb, uncertainty has been the only certainty for the people of Catalonia since passing the referendum to leave Spain on October 1st, 2017. An ambiguous speech by Catalan President Carles Puigdemont muddled the situation last week, simultaneously declaring independence and asking for reconciliation with Spain. “I am disappointed. I hoped for a declaration of independence and it didn’t happen,” 18-year-old Julia Lluch told Reuters Tuesday, expressing a frustration many young Catalans share following Puigdemont’s speech. Spanish President Mariano Rajoy has promised to impose direct rule on the region if Catalan officials do not declare with certainty by tomorrow. Today, the young people of Catalonia await the defining decision of their generation.

Catalonia’s youngest generation of voters, many of them staunch independistes, boast a Catalan adolescence like none before. Policies promoting Catalan language and culture took root 30 years ago, right around the birth of this new generation. Years of oppression under the Franco regime gave-way to a tidal wave of policy reversals, many focused on revitalizing the oppressed Catalan identity. Having grown up in a more autonomous Catalonia, these young voters identify much more with their region than with Spain as a whole, which pro-secessionists view as increasingly foreign and burdensome.

Today’s separatist movement took root when the intensification of Catalan identity coincided with the financial crisis of 2008. While the whole country suffered in Spain’s worst economy of modern history, young people bore a disproportionate share of the burden. Unemployment skyrocketed while savings dropped, creating the perfect storm of regional pride and national dissatisfaction, especially among Catalonia’s youth.

Because Catalonia generates one fifth of Spain’s GDP, the main argument of the independistes is that Spain takes more in taxes than they give back to the wealthy region. Anxious about sacrificing economic security to a country they barely recognize as their own, many voters born into the upsurge of Catalan pride cling to independence. "Our parents' lives are settled, they don't need change, but we know what we can expect," said 20-year-old Anna Comellas to The Local. Secessionists view this expectation—that Catalonia’s independence means prosperity for Catalans—as a certainty. Young voters, as the October 1 referendum showed, are willing to stake their future on it.

However, in the aftermath of the referendum, Catalonia has witnessed nothing but uncertainty; an official declaration of independence will only bring more of the same. Jobs, currency, income, trade agreements, and financial institutions—the very things young Catalans hope to secure for their futures—now hang in the balance. In the pursuit of economic and political certainty, Catalonia has ensured only months or years of uncertainty, regardless of how the push for independence turns out. The young voters of Catalonia, caught in the wave of regional pride and national skepticism that has defined their generation, fail to realize how harmful this uncertainty will be to their futures.

Major businesses such as Caixabank, the region’s largest bank, and telecom firm Cellnex are weighing the costs and benefits of staying in Catalonia, threatening the security of numerous Catalan jobs. Spain has even passed a law making it easier for businesses to relocate to avoid the region’s instability. This exodus of employers obviously harms Catalans, particularly those just entering the job market. The new border with Spain also poses a barrier to Catalan employment, making it difficult or impossible for people living in border regions to continue commuting to jobs outside of Catalonia. Diminished trade will cripple any businesses that choose to stay in the new country, given the likelihood that Spain will refuse to deal with Catalonia as an independent nation. As trade with Spain currently comprises over 30% of Catalonia’s revenue, breaking away will mean a huge blow to the region’s economy. Catalonia cannot predict with absolute certainty the severity of these consequences. Previous boycotts of Catalan goods, like Spain’s boycott of cava wine in 2006, experienced clear, lasting success. Now, with far more tension between the governments, Catalonia can expect an even harsher cutback on trade.

Catalonia’s relationship with other international bodies is equally as tenuous, especially regarding their status within the European Union. The EU has not issued any definitive statement about their future relationship with Catalonia, choosing instead to remain silent. Considering that Spain is the fourth largest economy in the EU and has a number of allies within the union, most EU countries will hesitate to jeopardize their existing relationship with Spain for Catalonia, whose economy is closer to the size of Denmark’s. The nature of EU accession negotiations, which require all member states to accept new countries, makes Catalonia’s path to membership all the more difficult.

With all of these setbacks plaguing the region’s future, Catalans face enormous uncertainty in terms of their employment and the stability of their nation. The loss of trade and businesses to Spain alone signals an uncertain future for the young people of Catalonia. Even in the best case for pro-secession Catalans, uncertainty is unavoidable in the months and years immediately following secession. Judging from the effects of the 2008 financial crisis, this uncertainty is likely to hit young people the hardest, leaving them to shoulder the economic instability they pushed so hard to escape.

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