The Independence Movement in Catalonia

Over the weekend, a region in northeast Spain voted to become independent.  Even so, it’s entirely possible that won’t happen.

Catalan officials announced a staggering 90 percent of those who had voted had said ‘yea’ to the question of independence, according to the New York Times.  (To put that in perspective, about half of Catalonia’s registered voter population participated in the Sunday referendum.)  The question of independence isn’t new –the region has been at odds with the central government of Spain, based in the nation’s capital, Madrid, for centuries.

Catalonia was made part of Spain with the marriage of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1469 and has been one of the most autonomous of the regions ever since, with its own strong social and cultural identity.  The War of Spanish Succession only served to cement the relationship; the city of Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, allied itself with Austria’s Archduke Charles against Spain’s Philip V.  After a brutal, fourteen-month-long siege, the city surrendered to Philip in 1714, and was made a part of Spain, the beginning of the nation’s system of centralized government.

One of the first major pushes for independence came in the nineteenth century, along with an attempt to preserve the region’s dialect, Catalan.  The largest push for the region’s autonomy came after the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who was known for his nationwide attempts to quell regional dialects and cultures in favor of a centralized Spanish identity and language.  The bitterness caused by Franco’s efforts remain still today, all across Spain, but especially in regions such as Catalonia.

Recently, the Catalan independence movement once again rose to prominence, led by Carles Puigdemont, a former journalist-turned-politician.  But why now?

The October 1 referendum certainly wasn’t the first of its kind, even just in the past few years.  There was an attempt in 2014, which was declared unconstitutional, just as Sunday’s was, and held more of a symbolic role in gauging the stance of the public.

An opinion poll in March 2017 showed uncertain results, as more people seemed in favor of remaining a part of Spain; though in the past few months, the movement had started to gain favor.

It followed the international trend of nationalism –like the imagery used in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum; the ‘America First’ rhetoric that got President Trump elected; the ‘Leave’ vote that triggered Brexit; and, most recently, the alt-right movements that gave President Macron of France and Chancellor Merkel of Germany a run for their money in this year’s elections.

The central government in Madrid attempted to stop the vote, first by declaring it unconstitutional, then by sending police to physically stop Catalans from voting.  There were reports of police blocked polling stations, using riot gear and in some cases rubber bullets in an attempt to stop the referendum from proceeding.

The most commonly cited reason is an economic one: Catalonia is an influential region in Spain for many reasons, including the draw of cities like Barcelona to tourists.  In fact, Catalonia makes up an estimated 20 percent of Spain’s economy, and produces a fourth of the country’s exports, according to CNN reports.

In addition to these hefty economic costs, the split –which some are dubbing ‘Catalexit’– would lead to uncertainty within Spain on a small scale, and the EU at large.  It’s not clear if Catalonia would be given a seat on the European Central Bank, despite the fact they’ll likely still be using the euro.  Madrid also worries that Catalonia won’t step up to handle their part of the national debt, and will continue to fight against the central Spanish government, leading to further conflicts and little progress.

The international reaction has been less than enthusiastic.  Few leaders have made a statement either in favor or in opposition to Catalan; the ones who did respond focused on condemning the violence that has continued in the days since the vote.  Though, the European Commission, an executive branch of the EU, made a brief statement Monday siding with Madrid in saying the vote violated Spanish law.

On Tuesday, Spain’s King Felipe VI appeared in a televised statement to voice his disapproval at the vote, and reassert that it was unconstitutional.

“With their decisions, they have systematically undermined the rules approved legally and legitimately, showing an unacceptable disloyalty towards the powers of the state –a state that represents Catalan interests,” he said.

So what now?  In just the past few days, protests have continued across the region, with thousands blocking streets in Barcelona.  Madrid seems to be sticking to their guns that the vote was illegal and that the result is not valid; it’s likely they won’t recognize the Catalonian state, which Puigdemont says will attempt at full independence in the next week or so.

So far, more than 700 people have been injured in the protests.  And that number is rising every day.

Why should Americans care?  It’s understandable that most Americans wouldn’t be bothered to think about a region in Spain fighting for its independence; most probably couldn’t point to Catalonia on a map.  But Spain and the U.S. have had close economic and diplomatic ties for several decades, and history has shown that any problem of an ally is a problem of ours, whether it affects us directly or not.

Not to mention the fact that independence movements are infectious.  One needs only to look at the recent past: at the time of the Scottish independence referendum, many analysts immediately looked to Catalonia to see how the region would react to the outcome.

In a time of nationalist movements and political turmoil across the world, the need to understand motivations behind such independence movements is more important than ever.  People don’t act without reason; they don’t make such powerful demands without a deep-seated feeling that they have been wronged.

If leaders create a dialogue about these feelings and address them as a unified nation, it may just be possible to create solutions –solutions that don’t involve blood being spilled.