By Campaign Agent Luke Jeffery
"With this day of hope and suffering, Catalonia has earned the right to be an independent state". This statement from the Catalan President Charles Puigdemont after Catalonia’s independence referendum reflects not only the physical pain suffered by peaceful Catalan voters on Sunday, but also the centuries of neglect of Catalonia’s identity, culture and autonomy.
Last Sunday’s referendum was not the first to take place in Catalonia. In fact there were self-determination referenda in 2009, 2011 and 2014, followed by a snap regional election in September 2015 that was ran as an alternative vote on independence. The snap election gave the pro-independence ‘Junts pel si’ - the ‘together for yes’ parliamentary group - a majority in Catalan’s parliament. Their regional parliamentary majority soon became the catalyst for Catalonia’s determination for self-governance with an independence referendum ratified by the Catalonian parliament and scheduled for October 1st 2017.
The debate over Catalonia’s independence has been a constant theme since the formation of Spain in the Middle Ages. More recently, however, an evident increase in nationalist and secessionist sentiment has been propounded since 1975, following the collapse of the Franco regime. As part of the democratisation process, the new Spanish constitution of 1978 recognised the existence of distinct national communities within Spain, setting in motion a process of regionalisation in order to decentralise the political system in the country. Spain is a de facto federation (de jure unitary state) made up of 17 autonomous communities, each with their own culture, identity and sometimes their own independence movements, most notably in the Basque Country. In many ways Catalonia seeks a Scotland-style independence referendum but at the current time this seems a distant dream.
Catalonia is a proud historic region of Spain. It boasts its own identity, language and cultural movements and has long seen itself as a ‘nation’ separate from the rest of Spain. The use of the word ‘nation’ in the Catalan statute is one main point of contention as many conservatives, like the current ruling party in Spain – the Peoples’ Party - see this as an assault on the unity of Spain. In addition, Catalonia is rich, highly industrialised and the most independently minded province in the country. The pro-nationalist feeling in Catalonia is driven by the fact that the Catalan language has long been suppressed by the Spanish government despite the fact that it is still used by 75% of Catalonia’s 7.5 million strong population. It is used in Catalan schools, public institutions and courts and is a clear signal of defiance to the memories of oppression carried out on the Catalans by the Franco regime.
As well as this and perhaps just as crucially, is the fact that Catalonia is centered on its most vibrant political and economic hub, Barcelona. The regional capital along with the region’s strong manufacturing base, tourism and growing service sector, has become Spain’s economic powerhouse, accounting for one fifth of Spain’s economy.
This may be one of the many reasons why Spain reacted in the way it did against voters who are still Spanish citizens. However this does not justify such actions by one Western European government in opposition to free expression. Madrid’s actions almost certainly added to the pro-independence impetus while the vote was taking place. Before the vote, government polls suggested a relatively low turnout with a projected 41% voting in favour of independence with a large amount of potential voters boycotting the vote. With a resounding success for the ‘Yes’ vote, the figures somewhat confirm government polls but with 90% of the recorded votes in favour of independence. These figures are marred by the violence that ensued, resulting in 893 people being injured in confrontation with the Spanish municipal police, who were instructed to stop the vote deemed ‘illegal’ by the government in Madrid and by Spain’s constitutional court.
The unity of Spain is now in question as the vote for independence may lead to other independently minded Spanish regions such as Galicia or the Basque country to follow Catalonia’s example. Above the national level, the European Union’s response was to match the rhetoric of Madrid, stating that the vote was illegal under the Spanish Constitution whilst simultaneously criticising the response by the authorities, arguing that ‘violence can never be an instrument in politics’. Whilst referenda are no friend to the EU, the Commission’s response to the events in Catalonia have been criticised as being late and more importantly, not being in line with protecting its founding principles. As it stands the EU has no mechanism to deal with issues of this kind and must respect the territorial integrity of its member states.
Mr Puigdemont had claimed he would move to a unilateral declaration of independence within 48 hours of a successful ‘yes’ vote, but the closure of several polling stations and the actions of the Spanish police will somewhat complicate a formal declaration. Tensions have escalated beyond the vote with secessionist movements and trade unions in Catalonia holding a general strike in response to the Spanish government’s actions and seemingly to a speech made by King Felipe falling short of reuniting the country. If the EU were to step in later down the line it would risk bringing the tensions between Barcelona and Madrid to the European level. Yet if the EU sets a precedent in Spain it could well risk being unravelled when compared to its response to similar issues in countries such as Hungary and Poland.
Sources and Further Reading
Image: Sasha Popovic @ Flickr