Catalan secessionism: is it really about the money?

Catalan flag and figures from the research.

Was the increase in support for independence in Catalonia since 2010 a by-product of the Great Recession? In their Barcelona GSE Working Paper (No. 968) The dog that didn’t bark: on the effect of the Great Recession on the surge of secessionism” Xavier Cuadras Morató and Toni Rodon provide evidence that the logic of a deteriorated economy leading to greater secessionist attitudes does not hold much water in Catalonia.

Economics and secession

Throughout its entire history Europe has endured many changes in the number and size of its nations. Given the rich diversity in the continent, new nation states have been appearing from time to time in Europe since WWII. Several secession movements have been active on the continent at all times. Recently, a few of these have taken the center stage, primarily in Catalonia, Scotland and Flanders. Curiously, these movements have gain considerable strength since the Great Recession. Many commentators and electoral pundits have been quick to conclude that the crushing economic consequences of the recession have caused great discontent among the most affected regions in Europe, fueling secessionism.

The authors note that while this line of reasoning is quite ubiquitous, there is little empirical evidence supporting it. Importantly, theoretical arguments can also be made in the other way round, stressing the fact that economic crises may force citizens to accept the status quo, as secession could be considered too risky and costly.

Catalonia: facts and trends

At least since 2010 there has been a remarkable upsurge in the support to the creation of new Catalan independent state. The support jumped from around 15% to 50% between 2006 and 2014. This period also coincided with the start of the Great Recession in 2008 and the consequent austerity policies implemented in the region afterwards. As shown in Figure 1, the trends of unemployment and support for secession are quite in sync, something that has been interpreted by many as a causal relationship. However, Cuadras Morató and Rodon point out that there are reasons that indicate that this causality might be spurious, since it also coincides with the moment (2010) in which the Spanish Constitutional Court published a judgement on the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, declaring unconstitutional important parts of it.

Importantly, they highlight that the recession had very heterogeneous effects in different municipalities. Cuadras Morató and Rodon use this variability in the economic performance of municipalities in Catalonia to test their hypothesis, i.e., whether economic factors contributed to support for independence.

Figure 1. Evolution of unemployment in Catalonia and support for independence (2006-2015)


The authors use a combination of electoral results and information extracted from surveys to test their hypothesis. The main source of survey data is the Center of Opinion Studies (CEO). They measure support for independence in different ways. First, they estimate it by combining surveys and official electoral results. Figure 2 below shows the distribution of increase in support for independence in all municipalities. The mode of the distribution is 255% when only voters are considered and 180% when abstainers are included. Second, they capture it using georeferenced surveys at the municipality level. Finally, they also turn to the same surveys to observe individuals’ support for secession. Table 1 below provides the summary of variables used in the analysis.

Figure 2. Distribution of the growth rate of estimated support for independence 2006-2015
Table 1. Summary of Variables

Is it all about money?

Using a regression technique Cuadras Morató and Rodon find that the economic hardship faced by Catalonia during the Great Recession was unrelated with the increase in support for independence seen from 2010-2016 at the municipality level. The finding holds ground using different measures of economic prosperity. They find that growth rate of unemployed workers during 2006-2015, the growth rate of workers registered with Social security between 2008 and 2015 (a measure of change in employment), and even the growth rate of registered workers in the construction industry, which was the most severely affected economic sector, were not significantly related to increase in support for independence at the municipality level. On the other hand, gross disposal income was negatively related to the growth in support for secession and marginally significant, indicating that municipalities that saw faster income increases during the period 2008 to 2013 had more moderate increases in support for secession. The findings are consistent and robust, even using data from different sources. Table 2 below shows the main results.

Table 2: The effect of the crisis on the growth rate of preferences for secession

What is the take away?

Cuadras Morató and Rodon find that the percentage of the population born outside Catalonia in a municipality is negatively related to the growth in secessionist support. When the population born outside the region increases one point, the growth rate of secessionist support between 2006 and 2015 decreases about 6 points. Further, in areas where the percentage of senior population is higher, the support for secession grew faster. The authors also find that municipalities with greater density had lower growth in support for secession.

All in all, their research sheds some light on the debate between those who think that the pro-secession tide in Catalonia is a by-product of the Great Recession and might recede as the economy gets better and those who argue that it is a symptom of a deeper political conflict and, as such, will probably stay the same unless there are political big changes in Spain.