Monday, October 16, was the deadline for a formal declaration of Catalan independence. This comes after the controversial October 1st independence referendum held in the region. Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, has taken a decisive stance with Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, in asking him to clarify the region’s independence status after the latter’s confusing speech earlier this week. Catalonia is a small, triangular area in Spain which accounts for just 16% of the country’s total population of 46.6 million, yet it has dominated news in Europe over the last month.
While the hot topic is the legitimacy of Catalonia’s independence, the path to Spanish unity and democracy has spanned most their history. Spain was once fragmented as independent, self-governing kingdoms, and it wasn’t until 1150 with the marriage of an Aragon heiress and a count from Barcelona that the identity of a separate Catalonia ended. Through the centuries, marriages continued to unify the regions, most notably in the case of Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon. Through turbulent monarchs and European power struggles, Spain remained largely united. Catalonia, however, deflected the central government’s attempts to impose Spanish language and laws on their region and in 1931 restored the semi-autonomous national Catalan government. That is, until the Spanish Civil War broke out and the fascist dictator Francisco Franco “destroyed Catalan separatism.” After a forty-year dictatorship ending with his death in 1975, a monarchy was temporarily re-established before a hard-fought transition to democracy and, in 1977, the first democratic general election was held since 1936. At that time, Catalonia was also granted a limited degree of autonomy but later attempts to gain greater independence were discouraged by a 2010 ruling that there was “no legal basis for recognizing Catalonia as a nation within Spain.”
For such a young democracy, with collective memories of a brutal civil war and subsequent dictatorship, the idea of Catalonia seeking separation stirred conflicting feels. Some perceived it as illegal and as an attempt to provoke unrest, while others see it as a just recognition of what is due to the Catalan people. The region is distinct from the majority of Spain in a number of ways including language, cultural identity, and economic prosperity. It is one of the wealthiest and most industrialized regions in the country, boasting the city of Barcelona and a growing service sector. Ultimately, it was Spain’s 2008 debt crisis that proved too much for Catalonia to bear. It held the Spanish government at fault and still feels that, for all the region’s prosperity and contributions to the country as a whole, there has been little benefit in return.
This brings us to the action of the last couple months and their independence movement. In the weeks leading up to Catalonia’s October 1st referendum vote, there was a strong opposition from the Spanish government. They attempted to stop the vote from happening altogether, even going to so far as to steal ballots and ballot boxes. On the day of the vote, thousands of police were sent to the region at the order of the Spanish government to keep the vote from happening, resulting in a shocking amount of violence in response to peaceful protests and attempts to cast ballots. The Spanish government hurt its own image not only as photographic evidence spread of its police brutality, but with failure of the Prime Minister himself to apologize for the excessive force. In the end, the result of the referendum was 90% supporting independence, but it should be noted that this number reflects the votes of just 43% of registered Catalan voters because some were barred from polling stations while many Spanish nationalists chose to boycott the vote altogether.
This outcome has been met with protests and warnings from the Spanish government. Last week Barcelona was the site of a large unity protest against separation and since then more Catalan voices have spoken out in opposition to independence, claiming that they represent a silent majority that has been ignored by ambitious Catalan politicians. Meanwhile, the Spanish government has been firm that the referendum was illegal by the terms of the Spanish constitution and is prepared to intervene and suspend the region’s current autonomy and replace it with direct rule. As the Monday deadline approaches for Catalan to clarify the status of its independence declaration, the country waits and watches, mindful of the potential repercussions of separation. Catalonia is one of Spain’s most prosperous regions, yet the uncertainty of its situation may greatly damage its economy. The potential of it having to leave the EU, the current unrest, and the fear of what may follow a formal independence declaration has caused businesses to look elsewhere for a more stable environment and may result in a hit to the Spanish (not to mention Catalan) economy.
While the question of Catalan independence may feel distant to us as Americans, there are much larger, more personal implications for this separatist movement. Both the EU and the United States have spoken out in support of the Spanish government and national unity. This may be surprising given that both support the principle of self-determinism in UN international law, but it may speak to the concern other countries have for their own unity. The EU has a stance of “self-preservation” in which it will not encourage division, in part because each country would desire support if the situation was reversed, but also because they have an obligation as EU members to support “stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human right…[etc.].” For the U.S. in particular, this is a complicated issue. Given our own unilateral declaration of independence from the British Empire, the situation of Catalonia is not unfamiliar. The U.S., too, had made claims of having its own cultural identity separate from England and essentially stifled the quieter voices in opposition to independence, thus forcing Tories to assimilate to America or ship off to England.
Separatist movements are not new but have been more prominent in the last several decades, especially that of Scotland and Quebec. In Scotland, while the primary language is English, it does still have a minority language of its native Gaelic and a separate identity from England. It conducted its own independence referendum in 2014 but lost in a 55% remain to 45% leave result, with an 84.59% turnout. Discussion of Scottish separatism flared up around the time of the Brexit vote (in which they voted to remain), but has since petered out, though Scottish Nationalist leaders contend that they will continue the fight. The Quebec sovereignty movement has a similar situation to Catalonia in that it has its own language, culture, and prosperous economy, and a separation would mean a significant demographic and economic loss for Canada. After two referendums (1980 and 1995) and ongoing discussion, it has been nicknamed the “neverendum referendum.” In 1977, they solidified their differences by passing the Charter of the French Language, effectively establishing French as the province’s official language and made it mandatory for its business and commerce. The question of formal independence is complicated by concerns over the innate uncertainty and what it would mean for their economy and currency. Though support increased from the first referendum (59% remain to 40% leave) to the second (50% remain to 49% leave), recent polls show that today, the younger generation is less interested in this issue, and there is a general lack of enthusiasm for the stress of another referendum.
Catalonia, however, is still a very different set of circumstances. It is set apart not only by the majority vote for “independence” but by the aggressive opposition of the Spanish government. Its situation is now without recent precedent and therefore the world watches their struggle with interest and, for some like the EU and U.S., a hint of concern for their own national unity amidst trending separatism.
Courtney Neltner is a Master’s candidate at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, concentrating in International Commerce. She grew up in Northern Kentucky and earned her Bachelor’s degree at Thomas More College in English, History, and International Studies with a European concentration. She is interested in pursuing a career in the private sector and in her spare time enjoys reading classic literature and watching documentaries on history and cultures around the world.
Featured Image: Aftermath of The Catalonian Independence Referendum by Sasha Popovic, Flickr Creative Commons