Global Daily Explainer: Catalan Independence

Tensions Rise in a Divided Spain

Nationalist movements, for better or worse, have become increasingly common in recent years. These movements have coalesced into attempts to form new nations out of culturally distinct territories.  From the establishment of South Sudan, to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, to the breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine, the world has witnessed a sharp increase in movements that seek to redraw borders based on territories affiliated with tribes, languages and former alliances.  Currently, the most prominent of these cases revolves around the current crisis in Spain, with the parliament of the province of Catalonia declaring independence, and the Government of Spain later  taking direct control of the region, setting a new regional election for December 21st.

Historical Context

Catalonia has a rather long history of trying to break away from Spain.  It’s first (unsuccessful) bid for independence came in the 1460s, when it attempted to separate from John II’s Kingdom of Aragon.  In 1640, Catalonia sided with the French in a war against the Spanish crown, but ended up back in the hands of Spain. In 1931, the region’s Esquerra Republicana political party declared a short-lived Catalan Republic, until September of the following year when the central government allowed it greater autonomy in exchange for staying within the country.  This autonomy came to an abrupt end though during the reign of Francisco Franco, who seized power in 1939, and cracked down hard on Catalan nationalism.  This lasted until Franco’s death in 1975, with Catalonia achieving a large degree of autonomy again two years later in 1978.

Current Controversies

The reasons are varied as for why modern Catalans in both the parliament and the streets are calling for independence. Perhaps most prominently, Catalonia has its own language, Catalan, and a 1000-year history as a distinct entity, making the region even older than the Spanish state it seeks to secede from.  Further, Catalonia constitutes the “industrial heartland of Spain,”contributing to 19% of the country’s GDP.  Many Catalonians feel their region finances much of the rest of Spain, and would prefer Catalan to finance itself.

Current political and legal decisions have also contributed to the contentious argument.  While  Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party holds governing control of the country, it is relatively unpopular in Catalonia, as it does not even qualify as one of the top three political parties in the region. This is partly due to the austerity policies put in place during Rajoy’s term in office, which both fueled Catalonian resentment of the ruling party and amplified the calls for independence. The incident with Spain’s Constitutional Court, which reversed a 2006 statute that had described Catalonia as a “nation,” only furthered the sense that Spain’s national government was infringing on Catalonia’s autonomy and denying the distinctiveness of its culture.

A View from the Ground

Ever since the referendum on independence in October, when nearly 900 people were reported injured after clashes with national riot police, much has been made of the violence associated with the crisis.

For some Barcelona residents, such as Alexandra Galceran Latorre, actions like these on the part of the Spanish government are clear examples of why Spain has not moved on from its past under Francisco Franco, and show why independence is needed.  “We are still seeing Franco in our political parties,” Latorre said to CNN.  “They are fascists, and they are strangling us slowly, step by step.”  Stating her intention to vote for the pro-independence party of Carles Puigdemont, Latorre added, “We are fighting to defend our language, our traditions and our culture. This is what our ancestors fought for.”

However, according to Ben Walker, a British businessman and longtime resident of Barcelona who favors unity with Spain, much of the violence that has been previously reported has largely been blown out of proportion. Walker blames “fake news” media outlets on both sides of the debate for hyping up the conflict between national officials and supporters of independence.

He argues that the unrest has hurt tourism and that full independence could have a worrisome effect on the local business community.  Noting the local prevalence of Catalan flags and the relative lack of Spanish flags on Barcelona’s streets, Walker summed up the independence movement as being “quite annoying.”

Going Forward

Any hopes of a quick resolution to the crisis seem unlikely at the moment.  Since the declaration, a number of pro-independence leaders have been arrested by Spanish authorities who have promised to return stability to the region and the nation by holding new local elections on December 21 .  However, it is estimated that more than 700,000 protestors went out into Barcelona’s streets on November 11th to denounce the arrests, indicating that the secessionist movement remains strong and vocal.  If Catalonia’s people were to elect new leaders who were just as pro-independent as the ones now in Spanish custody, or even reelect their arrested leaders, it is unclear how this would alter the facts on the ground and resolve the conflict.

According to Walker, though, the most likely outcome is that Catalonia will not ultimately secede, and that Spain will find some form of economic concessions to pacify the region, referring to aspirations of full independence as “fantasy politics.”


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