The people of Catalonia have voted 'yes' by a margin of 74% to the Statute of Autonomy. Catalonia is a region (or what some consider a "nation without a state") located in the northeastern part of Spain, which includes the vibrant city of Barcelona. The traditional "Catalan Countries" (Paisos Catalans) also includes Valencia, the Balearic Islands, and Northern Catalonia across the Pyrenees, which is now under French jurisdiction.
I had the honor of spending an academic year (2000-2001) studying at the University of Barcelona and have been following the progress of the Catalan people towards greater self-determination ever since.
The Catalans have their own language and culture that is quite distinct from the Castillian (AKA "Spanish") language and culture of central and southern Spain. The Catalonia have historical claims to an independent state dating back to the Middle Ages but eventually, there country was carved up and swallowed up by Spain and France. Also in more recent history, the Catalan language and culture were suppressed during the Franco dictatorship in Spain.
Despite the large margin voting in favor of the Statute of Autonomy, there was also a rather worrying rate of abstention. Slightly less than 50% of registered voters voted in the referendum. Both Spanish nationalists, who believe in maintaining the centralized, unified nature of the Spanish state, and Catalan nationalists, who want nothing less than full independence opposed the Statute. However, the statute was supported by Zapatero's Socialist government in Madrid which is also pursuing talks with Basque nationalists. In concrete terms, the new Statute would give Catalonia's government more tax revenues from the central government in Madrid as well as more say in areas such as the management of immigration, airports and language and culture.
While some may argue that "autonomy" just means an added layer of bureaucratic red-tape, I would still have to say that autonomy is a step in the right direction, with full independence through a democratic process being the most desirable end result in the long term. After all, in the last few weeks, we have seen Montenegro and Serbia become independent countries through peaceful, democratic means, putting the final nail in the coffin of the former Yugoslavia. I think the increasing number of independent, sovereign states in the world is good for democracy and good for the protection of cultural and linguistic diversity. We have other historical examples of peaceful and democratic separations of nation-states, such as the Velvet Divorce of Slovakia and the Czech Republic as well as the independence of Norway from Sweden.
It is interesting to note that while there has been a greater trend towards "national" and regional sovereignty and autonomy, there is also the parallel trend of international integration – such as the European Union. These trends work very well in tandem, even if they sound contradictory at first. The basis of international, interstatal organizations is that of national sovereignty. All parties come to the table as sovereign states. So the Catalan people, should have the right to negotiate in the context of the European Union as a sovereign state, equal in standing to Spain or France or any other E.U. member state. Only then can the system be truly democratic and ensure the protection of cultural diversity in a globalizing world.
Economically, an independent Catalan state is viable. Along with the the Basque Country, it is one of the most economically developed regions in Spain. On the socio-cultural level, even though Catalan is considered a "minority language," in absolute numbers, it has more speakers than European "national" languages such as Danish, Norwegian or Finnish.
Radio-Canada has also recently done a report on Catalonia, comparing the situation there with that of Québec. Both are regions with minority cultures and languages with nationalist aspirations. Both have embarked on projects of linguistic and cultural revitalization as a way of countering years of colonialism, assimilation, and neglect. Catalan leaders interviewed in the report openly admited that Québec served as a model for Catalonia in terms of linguistic and cultural policy.
In a broader context, we can apply the example of Catalonia to other regions/nations without a state. Certainly, China can learn a lesson or two. China is still working under outdated, imperialist notions of the Chinese "nation" when it comes to its policies towards Xinjiang (East Turkestan), Tibet, and Taiwan (even though Taiwan is already de facto independent since 1949). Obviously, China is growing very quickly on an economic level, and it seeks to maintain its territorial integrity as a way of maintaining law and order as well as to ensure its access to natural resources. However, a "smarter" way to progress would be to allow for state-to-state relations on the political level while maintaining increasingly integrated economic ties. So in the case of Taiwan – let us be our own country, but let's work together economically. Otherwise, Chinese policies amount to nothing less than imperialism, no better than the Japanese imperialism of the first half of the 20th century that the Chinese government is so quick to point out and attack Japan for.