99 years ago, Czechs gained independence from Habsbourg Austro-Hungarian Empire. Almost 15 years ago, Slovaks gained independence from Czechs and dissolved Czechoslovakia.
Within one century, my country and nation happened to be on both sides of the separatist story: we broke away from Austrians and Slovaks broken away from us. Therefore, I believe that our experience is extremely relevant for the current Catalan independence crisis.
Obviously all parallels are imperfect. However, there are some interesting similarities.
Spain became a democracy around 1978, just a decade before Czechoslovakia, and both our countries continue to play economic and social catch-up with the rest of Europe. Size of Catalan population is almost exactly between Czechia’s and Slovakia’s. Catalan language and culture are as intermingled with Spanish as Czech and Slovak (and also Austrian, Bavarian and Polish). Barcelona is, in my opinion, the only city in Europe that can really challenge Prague in beauty.
1) It won't solve most problems
Creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918 made Czechs really excited and Austrians really pissed off.
Creation of Slovakia in 1993 made some Slovaks really excited and most Czechs really sad.
But in the end of the day, the step was really much more about feelings than practical improvements. Czechoslovak independence did not shield the country from the Great Depression, atrocities of the 20th century, Nazism, and Communism. It also didn’t shield it from internal divisions, corruption and fighting. Slovak independence also didn’t solve any practical problems of a post-Communist country in transition. Neither living standards nor governance quality changed much - for better or worse.
If Catalan separatists picture the time after independence rosy, they are likely to be disappointed.
2) In united Europe, there is little need for big states
Integration in the European Union reduced need for big central states. Ttwo important trends are present across all Europe: more responsibilities transfer up and down.
In the globalised world with rapidly growing non-Western countries, key state tasks such as trade, defense and foreign policy need to move to the European level. Only by pooling their strength, European countries can remain relevant. Arguably, Czechia’s voice in the world is weaker than Czechoslovakia’s and Spain’s voice will also diminish without Catalonia. But the voice was/is already very weak and best used at the European level.
Conversely, the subsidiarity principle rightly transfers much of practical governance to regional and local levels. In Spain, Catalan autonomy already covers majority of tasks that are typically performed by the central government. And it’s probably correct - there is as little need for distant Madrid to be involved in the nitty-gritty details of Catalonia’s daily administration as for distant Prague to be involved in Slovakia’s.
If we had the chance to technocratically design EU countries from the scratch, we would probably not end up with 40M+ states again - they are simply impractically too big. There is no strong argument why Czechs, Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians or Austrians would benefit from merging in one country again. Correspondingly, there are very few arguments why Catalans and Spanish should suffer terribly from a break-up. In united Europe, it’s ok to be small.
One particular argument used with regards to Catalonia (by both sides) is redistribution. Catalans feel that too much of their taxes ends up in Andalusia and other poorer Spanish regions. Rest of Spain feels that Catalans are greedy and their separatism would devastate Spain’s economy.
I don’t think that redistribution is a good argument on either side. In 1918, Czechia was industrial powerhouse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, Austria is much wealthier and Austrian corporations own large parts of Czech economy. In 1993, Slovakia was much poorer than Czechia. Now it’s almost equal and may even overtake Czechia within the next decade.
Similarly, Catalonia was not always richer that the rest of Spain and it may not be again. Relative wealth can change and certainly shouldn’t be the basis for independence. On the other hand, redistribution is not a sustainable path to prosperity. Under sound policy and governance, Spain’s economy can thrive even without Catalonia’s contribution.
3) It's not really worth that much agitation
To sum up the previous points, whether Catalonia becomes independent or remains part of Spain is just not really all that important in practical terms. Czech and Slovak societies and economies are still closely intertwined - so closely that the observable change from 1993 is not very big.
Thanks to the terms of our peaceful dissolution and subsequent integration in the EU, there are no borders for people, goods or capital. Thousands of Slovaks continue to study at Czech universities and Prague remains the second largest “Slovak city” by population. Intermarriages are extremely common. Many businesses operate in both countries leveraging cultural and linguistic closeness. We even watch some same TV with cross-border reality shows such as Czecho-Slovakia Got Talent.
Split of Czechoslovakia was predominantly an administrative change then. Some responsibilities moved from the Prague-based bureaucracy to the Bratislava-based bureaucracy and that’s about it. Nothing really worth the high-flying emotions one can observe in the Catalan debate. If done peacefully and rationally, Catalan independence should change close to nothing in the practical lives of Catalans and Spanish.
Catalan separatists talk about their “historical rights’, Spanish anti-separatists talk about the “indivisibility of the Spanish nation”. If they recognised the issue as a boring administrative change rather than fateful and emotionally-charged move, they could be more open to accepting the other side. Czechoslovakia’s experience (as opposed to Yugoslavia’s) demonstrates very clearly that the only real harm can come from the violence and chaos of two sides making mutually exclusive claims without ability to concede.
4) Independence can mitigate rather than elevate nationalism
Many on the Spanish side fear that Catalans’ drive for independence is a revival of 19th century-style ultranationalism and chauvinism. They fear that Catalonia would become a hostile identitarian country.
Czechoslovak experience doesn’t really confirm it. Independent Czechoslovakia was the longest-lasting regional democracy between the world wars. Similarly, Slovakia didn’t become aggressively nationalist after independence. If anything, its new sovereignty helped moderate nationalist tendencies as Slovak politicians could no longer blame others for their failures. In a short initial period, Slovakia’s prime minister Mečiar tried to move the country towards a Lukashenko-style Belarus autocracy. However, he was quickly defeated and Slovakia built a solid if imperfect democracy.
There is little reason to believe that Catalonia wouldn’t go through the same process. If anything, the elimination of mutual accusations and constant bickering should improve governance of both Catalonia and Spain. Their politicians would need to focus on solving real problems instead of exploiting national emotions.
5) Strong friendship can be better than bad marriage
When asked about the Spanish intervention in Catalonia, Czech foreign minister said: “If you want to live with someone you should also give them option to leave. Violence doesn’t help.”
This summarises our divorce experience with Slovakia. 15 years later, many of my best friends, classmates, and colleagues (including 50% of managers in the Prague office of my company) are Slovaks by origin. On political level, Czechia and Slovakia remain the closest possible allies. Relations between the two countries really couldn’t be better. Most people even cheer for each other’s national sport teams (btw, something unheard of in the UK).
Sometimes, amicable divorce can really be the best for everyone involved.
6) It’s important to win the other side over
Independence pushed by marginal majority or exploiting historical weakness of the other side is not good. Czechoslovak independence was not agreed with Austria but a result of Austria’s humiliating defeat in the WWI. As a consequence, large German-speaking minority never fully accepted the new state and fell easy pray to Hitler-backed nationalism.
Slovak independence was not approved in a referendum but simply agreed by Slovak and Czech politicians pursuing their particular interests. What the referendum’s result would have been is unclear - Slovak public opinion was supposedly split very similarly to Catalan public opinion today with a slight tilt against independence. However, absence of the referendum certainly left a bitter taste.
If Catalonia becomes independent, it will host a large Spanish minority. It better makes sure they don’t feel like having their country stolen by a tiny majority (or possibly even minority) against their and Spanish government’s will. Even if it took a little longer, Catalan separatists would help their cause by more patience and wider consensus.
(These are obviously just my personal views. I wish good luck to all Spain, my very favourite tourist destination.)