BARCELONA – Catalonia’s middle class has emerged as the bedrock for separatist sentiment, fueled by accusations that the rest of Spain drains – and wastes – tax revenues from a region proud of its banks and industrial prowess.
The widespread belief among Catalans that Madrid saps money from the wealthy northeastern region is one of the main propellants of an independence movement that has brought Spain to the brink of a constitutional crisis.
That sense of grievance among the region’s middle class means the pressure for secession will remain high even as Carles Puigdemont, leader of the separatists, opened the door Tuesday to talks with Madrid.
“Catalan independence is a middle-class revolt,” said Andrew Dowling, a historian at Cardiff University in the UK.
“Middle-class Catalans think independence will bring them a better life, while working-class people tend to think their life won’t get any better with independence.”
While the revolt of the middle class has exploded to dramatic effect in Catalonia, that cohort has also voiced its dissatisfaction elsewhere in Europe, including Northern Italy and the prosperous German state of Bavaria.
According to a poll taken in July by Catalonia’s regional survey agency, around half of those who define themselves as middle class or upper middle class want Catalonia to become an independent state.
By contrast, only 28 percent of the working class supports secession.
“Many middle-class Catalans see the region’s independence as a solution to years of economic injustice where they had to pay for weaker parts of Spain,” especially during Spain’s deep economic crisis, said Narciso Michavila, a sociologist and the president of Madrid-based consulting firm GAD3.
Catalonia’s economy, bolstered by revenue generators such as petrochemical firms and a world-class port, makes up about a fifth of Spain’s gross domestic product.
Catalonia boasts a per capita GDP that is 19 percent higher than the Spanish average and is home to more companies than any other of the country’s 17 regions, including Madrid.
Under Spain’s tax redistribution system, the region sends the equivalent of 5 percent or 8 percent of its GDP, depending on different calculations, to the central government’s coffers.
According to the Spanish finance ministry, Catalonia was the third-largest contributor per capita, after Madrid and the Balearic Islands, to the national budget.
Many Catalans see those billions of euros as money that could be spent on the region’s own growth and development.
Many independence-minded Catalans argue that they have a much smaller, more efficient public sector than the rest of Spain and resent what they view as waste of their tax revenues by poorer regions of the country.
For instance, according to the national statistics agency, only 15 percent of workers in Catalonia are state employees, compared with 33 percent in Extremadura, a poor region in southwestern Spain.
In contrast, some pro-union Catalans say they accept that Spain’s wealthier regions have to carry more weight than poorer regions, seeing that as an example of solidarity.
Madrid says Catalonia and other regions benefit from the union and that an independent Catalonia would have major tariffs with its main trading partner, the rest of Spain.
Support for independence soared during Spain’s economic downturn, when many Catalans, particularly in the middle class, felt austerity measures hit them disproportionately hard.
This summer, 35 percent of Catalans supported independence, down from a peak of 49 percent in late 2013, according to the regional survey agency.
Between 2011-2016, overall capital investments by the Spanish state for the whole country dropped 55 percent.
In Catalonia, they dropped by more than two-thirds. Cuts to public-sector salaries and increases in university tuition particularly angered Catalans.
Meanwhile, many in the region point to large Spanish public projects elsewhere as evidence of waste tolerated by Madrid.
An oft-cited example are Spain’s little-used regional airports, such as one in Ciudad Real, 115 miles south from Madrid, which was closed within four years of opening in 2008 and is now in private hands.
The collapse of a 2010 agreement that would have rebalanced the redistribution of public funds among Spain’s regions – to the benefit of Catalonia in particular – left many middle-class Catalan especially bitter.
Spanish authorities “haven’t sunk much into our road networks since the Olympics in the early 1990s,” said Rafael Ulacia, a 41-year-old engineer from Barcelona who voted for independence on Oct. 1.
He argues that an independent Catalonia will be able to sink more of its own money into local projects.
“It would just be much better if we separated,” he said.
Economists for Independence, a group of pro-secession economists, say independence would boost Catalonia’s gross domestic product by 8 percent in the long term, even considering the additional costs the region would have to shoulder to supply public services now provided by the Spanish state.
They argue that an independent Catalonia would have the money to fix chronic problems, such as a local railway network plagued by breakdowns.
“(An independent) Catalonia would never sink economically,” said Berta Argelaguet, a 25-year-old lawyer from the industrial city of Sabadell. “I think it would be a very rich country.”
By contrast, Catalonia’s working class is far less supportive of secession.
Catalonia’s wealth has historically attracted migrants from the rest of the country.
During the last two decades of General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, 1.5 million Spaniards moved from the underdeveloped south to the industrial and port areas of Catalonia to seek work in textiles, car manufacturing and the railways.
Many of those people have retained ties to their original home regions and have continued to speak Spanish at home, diluting their enthusiasm for independence.
Indeed, language is a strong predictor of support for independence, pollsters say.
Three-quarters of those whose mother tongue is Catalan support independence, according to the Catalan regional survey agency.
And 55 percent of those who say Catalan is their first language are middle class.