By Tom Davidson
On Sunday 1st October, over 2 million Catalans went to the polls to cast their vote in an independence referendum judged ‘illegal’ and ‘unconstitutional’ by the Spanish government. Despite the weak turnout, the region voted unanimously in favour of autonomy, with the ‘Sí’ campaign gaining more than 90% of the votes. Carles Puigdemont, leader of the nationalist Catalan European Democratic Party and president of Catalonia’s regional government, has dedicated his entire political career to sowing seeds of separatism. On Monday, he is expected to make an official statement declaring independence: a statement that will undoubtedly be rejected and disregarded by Mariano Rajoy and his government in Spain.
Lately, seas of red and yellow, the colours of the region’s flag, the Senyera, have flowed through the streets of Barcelona. Draped over balconies and donned as capes on the backs of pro-independence Catalans, the Senyera has become emblematic of the independence movement. Yet, many of us know very little about the drama surrounding the independence plea and the implications of an autonomous Catalonia.
In 1714, after the War of Spanish Succession, Catalonia came under Spanish control. Now, after 300 years of marriage, Catalonia is filing the divorce papers. The region’s search for autonomy, however, is no recent phenomenon. The conflict is said to take its roots in the mid-19th century when the Renaixença, a literary renaissance that brought light to the local language, inspired Catalan pride. Throughout the 20th century, during Franco’s regime, the region saw its language suppressed by the state. More recently, Catalonia’s decision to abolish bullfighting, dubbed a political stunt symbolizing a rejection of traditional Spain, was revoked by the national court.
After almost two centuries of dispute and over a decade of demands for more self-ruling rights, each time met with an uncompromising snubbing, Sunday’s referendum marked the culmination of Catalonia’s frustration.
In the days leading up to the referendum, Spanish police carried out raids, arresting 14 Catalan officials in a bid to stop Sunday’s show from going on. This would not, however, be the last we would see of the Spanish forces.
In what would prove to be a PR nightmare for the PM, Rajoy hastily took the decision to deploy thousands of policemen on the streets of Catalonia in an attempt to physically prevent people from voting. Police seized ballot boxes, confiscated voting papers, and closed polling stations. Peaceful protests were responded to with riot vans, rubber bullets, and guards armed with batons. The Catalans refused to stand down. In Girona, polling centres were barricaded with bins to protect them from police and, in Barcelona, firefighters offered themselves up as human shields. Despite these defensive measures, over 900 Catalans now bear the wounds of the brutality of the Spanish police and the Guardia Civil.
The scenes we saw on Sunday were evocative of those that so infamously brought Venezuela to the headlines in recent months. Much like what has been happening across the Atlantic, here the intervention of the Spanish police has proven counterproductive, ironically attracting Catalans to the independence cause. Whilst trying to extinguish the flames, Spanish forces simply added fuel to the fire.
Many Catalans see Rajoy’s vio lent response as a clear display of the twisted sense of legality from which they are trying to escape. But, is Catalonia really capable of fending for itself? Well, economically speaking, the region does not look set to struggle. Catalonia, the most visited region of Spain by tourists, contributes over 20% of the country’s GDP. The stakes are thus a lot higher for Spain than they were for the UK when Scotland threatened to leave the band and launch its solo career.
The EU, a somewhat taboo topic in the UK at the moment, is what will pose a real obstacle for Catalonia. The region relies on the EU market for two thirds of its exports so will certainly be anxious to re-negotiate its membership. However, these negotiations will present Spain with the perfect platform to wreak more havoc and problematize Catalonia’s transition even further.
In terms of creating a nation, Catalonia already has a lot of the classic ingredients. The region boasts a rich cultural history, has its own flag, and its own language, Catalan, spoken by almost the entire population. As aforementioned, Catalonia also already has its own governing body in place; the Generalitat consists of a president, an executive council, and a parliament in which the majority of the seats are held by Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes), a not-so-cryptic name for a pro-independence party.
So, gazing into the crystal ball, what does the future look like for Catalonia? One thing is certain, Catalexit will be a slow and complex process. Now, a week after the referendum, masses of pro-Spain protesters have flooded Madrid and Barcelona making it clear that any attempt to declare independence will be fiercely opposed by the Spanish. Whilst the events of the past week seem like a step forward to many Catalans, they mark a giant leap towards the past for the Spanish who, after Rajoy’s tyrannical use of violence as a political tool, appear to have regressed to the repression of the Francoist era.
Photographs: Galceran via Flickr and Rob Shenk via Flickr