Since its inception in 1922, the Catalan independence movement has sought the separation of Catalonia from Spain. With its own language, constitution, identity, devolved powers, and history of repression, many Catalonians feel the nation is a separate people that must be protected through the creation of its own state within Europe. After a relative standstill for several years, this political movement re-emerged last year stronger and with more purpose, largely due to a 2010 referendum and a destructive economic crisis in 2008. With its uncompromising and austere response to the Catalonian vote and demonstrations, the Spanish government is poorly handling the contemporary independence movement, harming itself and its dissatisfied neighbors.
A region located in the northeastern corner of Spain, Catalonia’s history dates back over 1000 years. In the early 1700s, Spanish kings sought to implement Spanish rule on the Catalan region, but withdrew in 1931 and restored the national Catalan government, the Generalitat. Prior to the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Catalonia thrived as a prosperous region with broad autonomy, until General Francisco Franco rescinded this status. Under what was known as the Franco Era, Catalonia suffered years of oppression from 1939 until 1975 under the regime of the general. The Spanish dictator nullified democratic liberties, disbanded political parties, imposed severe censorship, banned the use of the Catalonian language, suppressed all leftist entities, and annulled the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia. The death of Franco marked the beginning of the democratic transition, with the government restoring Catalonia’s status as an autonomous region of Spain. However, many Catalans still desire full independence.
The contemporary independence movement began on June 28 of 2010, when the Spanish Constitutional Court released its judgement on the 2006 Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, which describes the constitutional rights and obligations of Catalan citizens as well as its responsibilities to Spain. The Court declared parts of the Statute unconstitutional, and annulled sections of the Statute that would have granted Catalonia greater independence. This sparked large protests in the streets of Barcelona; 1.1 million people attended holding signs saying “We are a nation. We decide”, waving the Catalonian flag, and adorning the region’s traditional colors of red and yellow. The ruling itself marked a turning point in the political relationship between Spain and Catalonia, with Catalonians interpreting it as an invalidation to a promise of political compromise. This represents the beginning of the modern independence movement, and triggered protests in the region.
Its history of repression, individual culture, language, and constitution aside, one of the primary reasons Catalonia wants to succeed is economic. With Barcelona as its capital, Catalonia is recognized as one of the most prosperous and industrialized regions in Spain, accounting for over 20% of the country’s GDP despite it being home to only 16% of the Spanish population. Catalonians contend that the money coming in is funneled elsewhere; they pay their taxes to the Spanish government, yet they have received little funding in return. A popular saying among the Catalonians is “Madrid nos roba”, which translates to “Madrid is robbing us.” If Catalonia is autonomous, they can decide how their taxpayer money is used. The economic crisis in 2008 escalated Catalan’s desire for independence; as a result of the regions wealth, it was hit the hardest during the recession, receiving the highest budget cuts in Spain.
On October 27, 2017, a regional parliament of Catalonia declared itself an independent nation, with the motion passing in the Catalan assembly with a majority of 70 votes. The Spanish Constitutional Court declared this act to be illegal because “it violates the terms of the 1978 constitution that proclaimed Spanish unity ‘indissoluble.’” Spain’s leader responded by firing the defiant government, disbanding the parliament, and calling for new elections. Mass demonstrations were held in Barcelona with Catalonian independence supporters marching outside the Catalan Parliament and across the capital. One month later, 750,000 rallied in Barcelona demanding the release of separatist leaders who were placed in jail by the Spanish government for facilitating the rebellious resolution in October.
The Spanish government’s forceful rejection of Catalonia’s vote and consequent protests and demonstrations are counterproductive in nature. By denying Catalonians the right to vote, Spain threatens what some call the “sacred values” of those citizens: the right to vote for independence and the preservation of Catalan identity. Preventing Catalonians from exercising this right only strengthens their movement and energizes their cause. Moreover, many hesitant Catalonians who had yet to identify with the pro-independence movement were infuriated by Madrid’s exercise of power, causing them to join the movement after the fact. Instead of engaging in constructive dialogue with the Catalonian parliament, the Spanish government has squashed Catalan requests for equality. If Spain chose to cooperate and facilitate the vote, they could have included more ballot options, such as granting Catalonia more sovereignty or incorporating it as a federal state. These options would have accurately represented the range of voter opinions and attitudes, as opposed to a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ towards independence. Yet the Spanish government chose to meet Catalan demonstrations with nothing but brute force and threats.
With Spain’s resolution to control Catalonian media, reform the education system, mobilize its police force, and ignore unequal economic returns, it has only succeeded in villainizing itself as a government and nation. Its refusal to recognize the rights of Catalonians destroys their trust in the central government, an entity that should serve to help and reassure the people. Spain’s exercise of Article 55, which would grant Madrid broad authoritative control over Catalonia, has further exacerbated their image as draconian leaders. This article has only been used once before, in 1989, by the Socialist prime minister Felipe González to threaten the Canary Islands to adhere to tax obligations. By taking over Catalonia’s government, Spain is alienating, as well as infuriating, the Catalonian people, preventing future cooperation to mend a dysfunctional political relationship.
Tamar Cahana is a member of the class of 2021. Tamar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.