“Madrid doesn’t pay.” This is the standard sentence of many Catalans when they talk about central government investments in their region that were promised but never implemented. This sentence immediately comes to mind as I get off the high-speed train in Barcelona Sants. Here around the train station everything is a bit dirtier and more broken than in the more orderly capital Madrid.

But I also have the question of where all the money actually goes that the economically vibrant region of Catalonia itself earns. According to the state funding agency Biocat, there are 79 factories here that employ almost 16,000 people, including the country’s most important pharmaceutical companies and auto suppliers.

State and regional investments will play an important role in the early regional elections in Catalonia on May 12th. The trigger for bringing forward the vote by almost a year was the government’s failure to pass a budget.

There had already been repeated arguments about the household. In 2022, the coalition of two separatist parties that had been in power since 2017 collapsed. The liberal-conservative party Junts per Catalunya (“Together for Catalonia”) had terminated its cooperation with the left-wing Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) and left the government.

In the current election polls, the Catalan branch of the Socialists in the national government, the PSC, is currently ahead. They already represent the mayor of Barcelona and are in line with Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. Since taking office in 2018, he has been trying to convince the Catalans that joining Spain is the best option.

Spanish business consultant Juan Linares believes the entire discourse about Catalonia’s independence from Spain, as it has been going on in recent years, is a waste of time. The 65-year-old lived in Madrid for a long time, but actually comes from Barcelona. He is half-American and loves the city’s cosmopolitan flair: “Nationalism of any kind seems completely remote from the world in this international and economically vibrant context.”

He has been living in Catalonia again for some time and has noticed that “the dependence on Spain and the money there is undeniable. But Spain also needs Catalonia.”

Almost a third of Spanish exports come from the region, where food, cars, medicine and machinery are mainly produced. “Spain’s market is supplied via the ports in Tarragona and Barcelona,” explains Jorge Díaz, a lecturer at Madrid’s elite Icade University.

Catalonia is also considered the country’s most important employer. The number of inhabitants has therefore grown from six to eight million in 20 years. The unemployment rate is less than 9 percent, which is lower than the national level of just over 11 percent.

“With the Universidad Pompeu Fabra and the Autonomous University of Barcelona, ​​Catalonia also has two of the best universities in the country,” says Díaz.

The growing interest of young talents from all over the world in Catalonia as a place to work is also thanks to the Mobile World Congress, an industry trade fair. It has been taking place in Barcelona every year since 2006 and brings together big names in the mobile communications and tech industry.

“Thanks to ecosystems that have grown over decades, Catalonia is still the industrial heart of Spain,” says Díaz. The VW subsidiary Seat has just expanded its factory in Barcelona into a center for electromobility and innovations.

Chery, China’s third largest car manufacturer, also wants to produce in Barcelona soon. In a joint venture with the Spanish company EV Motors and its Ebro brand, the first cars are expected to roll off the assembly line in the former Nissan factory this year.

The Financial Times has named Barcelona the most successful European city in attracting foreign direct investment in 2023. In the rapidly growing life science sector alone, it increased its sales from 18 billion to almost 22 billion euros between 2017 and 2021.

Some hospitals in Barcelona are among the best in Europe, including Hospital Sant Joan de Deu, Hospital Clínic and Vall D’Hebron. There are now more clinical test phases of medications and therapies taking place here than in Germany.

This in turn is a reason for the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca to invest 800 million euros in a development center in Barcelona over the next five years and thus create 1,000 new jobs.

The Ciutadella Park is currently being converted into a “Knowledge Hub”, which will also become a space for science when it opens in 2025. Barcelona-based Caixabank is funding an immunology research institute. The private foundation of the former savings bank is one of the largest in the world and a politically independent supporter of the Catalan economy.

Catalonia’s economy is thriving despite separatism. It was founded in 2020 by former Catalan Prime Minister Carles Puigdemont. He is also running for Junts in the May 12 election, despite living in exile in Belgium since 2017.

As a candidate from exile, he doesn’t want to talk about economic success in his region, but rather about a referendum. Because Puigdemont held an illegal vote in October 2017 and then proclaimed the Catalan Republic, an arrest warrant was issued against him in Spain. Puigdemont fled to Spain, which did not extradite him to Spain.

In recent years, as a member of the European Parliament, he has often railed against Spain, which he calls an “oppressive state.” Spanish Prime Minister Sánchez has approved an amnesty law that theoretically promises Puigdemont impunity if he returns to Spain.

For the Catalan business association Cercle d’Economia, the amnesty law is a necessary evil. The companies organized there want to concentrate fully on their business again. And they are going well: According to official information, the regional economy grew by 2.4 percent in 2023, and 1.8 percent is expected this year.

But despite all the economic successes, the issue of independence remains on the political agenda. If the PSC Socialists win the election, as the polls suggest, they will need the support of the ERC. Their stated goal is a legal referendum on the question of a separate Catalan state.

Even to me as a foreign observer, this idea seems anachronistic in a cosmopolitan city like Barcelona. I walk from Barcelona Sants train station over to Plaça d’Osca, a small square where dirt and leaves from many months lie on the ground. If the Socialists and their candidate, the studied philosopher Salvador Illa, actually win the election and are able to form a government, then they will definitely still have a lot of work to do to convince part of the Catalan population.

Here, in this district of Barcelona, ​​which is home to the alternative scene, not only does everything seem a little dingier, but in some small restaurants and bars there is still a ballot box from the illegal referendum on October 1, 2017 on the shelf.

In such establishments, people don’t like to speak Spanish and people tend to argue during table conversation that the Catalan government’s high debts and the dirt on the streets and squares clearly have something to do with Madrid: “They simply don’t pay.”

Author: Stefanie Claudia Müller

*The article “Catalan economy is flourishing despite separatism” is published by Deutsche Welle. Contact the person responsible here.