Artwork by Paige Busick
Acrylic on Canvas
The Fight for Catalan Independence: What Has Happened and Why
Written by Whitney Thomas
Catalonia, a province of northeastern Spain, held its first referendum over secession on October 1st. There have been whispers of political autonomy throughout Catalonia’s entire history, but we are fortunate enough to witness action finally being taken in this long sought-after independence. The distinctions between the Spanish state and Catalonia extend beyond the intense rivalry that exists between the two countries’ soccer teams, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, but include a difference in more fundamental aspects, such as language and history. The Catalan self-identity is rooted in cultural differences that have developed over almost a thousand years. Catalans are now ready to make that final distinction between themselves and the Spaniards by vying for national independence.
Arguably, the most significant reason Spain is fighting Catalan independence is because secession would have a detrimental impact on Spain’s economy. Catalonia has always been a source of economic wealth in Spain, historically through textile production, but modernly through finance and high-tech companies. In addition, Catalonia is home to tourist city of Barcelona. According to The Telegraph, if Catalonia were to secede, Spain would lose 20% of its economic output. The issue of debt also arises, considering the country would owe 52.5 billion Euros to the Spanish central administration. However, independence offers the choice of economic prosperity. Its gross domestic product would be $314 billion, making it the 34th largest economy in the world. Catalonians understand the economic potential that could accompany independence, and no longer want financially unstable Spain using Catalonia as an economic crutch.
In addition to economic frustrations, Catalans desire an independent nation because they are historically distinct people from the Spanish. In order to understand the unique Catalan identity, it is important to look at the history of the relationship between Spain and Catalonia. Catalonia has not been independent of Spain since 1150, whenever a marriage between the Queen of Aragon and the Count of Barcelona created a dynasty that united these territories under one rule. Fast-forward to 1777, in the War of Spanish Succession, modern-day Spain was created through the defeat of Iberian territories including Valencia and Catalonia. Spanish kings tried to enforce Spanish law in Catalonia throughout their reign until 1931, when the national Catalan government (the Generalitat) was restored. This autonomy was short-lived until the infamous dictator Francisco Franco took control in of Catalonia in 1938, in the bloody Battle of Ebro Following his death, Catalonia was granted partial autonomy in 1977 (The Telegraph). Among Catalans, talk of full independence grew, but in 2010, Spain overturned an autonomy statute and asserted that Catalonia was not a nation within Spain. This angered Catalan officials, as their autonomy was further decreased.
In 2015, Separatists were elected into the Catalan government, and began planning a referendum in which the public would vote on independence, though it is illegal under the Spanish constitution for Catalonia to secede. The question on the ballot read, “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?” , with two boxes for yes and no. It was reported that out of the 5.3 million eligible, 2.2 million voted, with just under 90% having voted for independence. Though the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of independence, only about half of registered voters voted. The “no” vote was likely underrepresented, because parties loyal to Spain boycotted the election.
The central government in Madrid sent national police officials to disrupt the elections and confiscate voting booths. In San Julià de Ramis, police used rubber bullets and truncheons against the Catalonian crowds, injuring over 750 people, according to the Catalan government. The Spanish government claimed that dozens of police officers were injured. According to The New York Times, both Spain and Catalonia argued that their respective sides were successful, Spain claiming the referendum was interrupted, and Catalonia boasting the overwhelming vote of 90% from those who were able to do so, despite Spanish interference. Carles Puigdemont, the president of the government of Catalonia, asserted that balloting was taken in most of the polling stations, and the results are legitimate and will be used to further the fight for independence.
According to the British publication The Times, Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister of Spain, has threatened to enact Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which allows the federal government of Spain to take control of any Spanish region that “does not fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the constitution or other laws, or acts in a way that is seriously prejudicial to the general interest of Spain”. Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, a Spanish government spokesperson, told the The Times that Spain will use force to quell opposition to direct Spanish rule.
According to The Guardian, though Puigdemont had promised to issue a declaration of independence 48 hours after independence had been voted for, he has since backtracked on his decision to do so, in order to make negotiations with Madrid. The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, also pleaded for Catalonia to discourse with Spain before taking the momentous step of declaring independence, though Catalans think the government will eventually do so.
The effects of Catalonia’s fight for independence extend beyond the Iberian Peninsula. Peoples throughout the world are watching how this incident plays out in order to assess their own future or current independence movements, such as that of the Kurds in the Middle East. James O’Malley in an op-ed in The Independent explores the potential risks in Catalan independence, suggesting that though it may be tempting to automatically side with Catalonia in the name of democratic freedom, it is also important to think about the consequences and tension this could cause among European countries and how it might affect the peace that has existed in regard to their national borders since World War II.
According to CNN, the Catalan Parliament declared independence on October 27 with an overwhelming vote in favor of secession. In response, the central government in Madrid immediately dissolved the Catalan President and Parliament. Catalan leaders have asked for their people to hold peaceful protests. The world continues to watch this conflict unfold, and the threat of Spanish coercion still looms over Catalonia as they continue to fight for Spain to recognize their independence.