The world has been watching the play-by-play of Catalonia’s bid for independence from Spain, but one group is tuning in more closely than most: California secessionists.
The California Freedom Coalition, the campaign that has taken the lead in the effort to break California off from the United States, sees similarities with Catalonia’s secessionist movement. But there’s an important caveat: they believe California has more legal tools at its disposal, creating an easier path to secession – if that’s what Californians decide they want.
“There are definitely similarities in the fiscal situation – we both give more than we get back,” said Dave Marin, director of research and policy for the California Freedom Coalition. “But there’s more flexibility in the U.S. Constitution for secession than there is in the Spanish one. California has more tools available to it.”
The Catalan Parliament, together with President of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont, approved in September a binding referendum to make Catalonia an “independent and sovereign state.” Spain’s constitutional court suspended the process, but Catalan authorities continued with the vote on Oct. 1, prompting violence between voters and Spanish security forces tasked with shutting it down.
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After a majority who voted in the referendum cast ballots for independence, Puigdemont issued a symbolic declaration of independence from Spain on Tuesday, but immediately suspended it to ease negotiations with the Madrid government. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said Wednesday that the Catalan government had eight days to drop the bid or he would suspend Catalonia’s political autonomy and rule the region directly.
Catalonia has approached secession in the best way it could, Marin said. If secession is what Californians want, he says their path to independence will be easier thanks to the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says any powers not explicitly given to the federal government are retained by the states. The states cannot unilaterally declare independence, but Marin argues that the Constitution provides the federal government and the states a sanctioned path toward that negotiation.
The California Freedom Coalition is collecting signatures to get its ballot initiative in front of voters in 2018. It does not definitively say California will declare independence from the United States; it would repeal a provision in the state constitution that says California is “an inseparable part of the United States.” It also directs the governor to negotiate for greater autonomy from the federal government and establishes an advisory commission on California autonomy and independence.
Marin said he knows California secession would still be incredibly difficult without the cooperation of the federal government, but believes California could “annoy” Congress into allowing California to go its own way.
“Our state government is very experienced at doing things that undermine the federal government without being unconstitutional,” Marin said, citing California’s sanctuary cities as an example.
Besides that, Marin sees a lot of similarities between the motivations of the secession movements. Both California and Catalonia have large economies that can compete on a global scale that secessionists feel could operate better if untethered from the national economy. Differences in ideology, disputes over spending of tax dollars by the federal government and a desire for more localized government control are also common threads, Marin said.
The County of Barcelona was officially called Catalonia in the 12th century, when it became part of the Kingdom of Aragon. Despite being part of that Kingdom, Catalonia retained its own traditional laws, rights and parliament until it incorporated into Spain officially in 1714 after the War of Spanish Succession. The region has retained a degree of autonomy on and off for decades, and calls for complete independence have gradually grown over the years. California declared its independence from Mexico in 1846 and was considered an independent nation for less than a year before being declared a U.S. territory after the Mexican-American War. Calls for California’s independence pre-date Donald Trump’s presidency, but his election magnified the movement considerably.
Californians were asked about their thoughts on secession in 2014, with 20 percent seeing it favorably. After Trump’s election, a Reuters poll found 32 percent now saw it favorably.
“We’re not strictly saying secession right now,” Marin said. “But if that number gets into the high 40s or 50s, it makes sense to consider. And then we have a few more tools to pursue it than Catalonia.”