Spain is facing its biggest political upheaval in decades
By Anna Freeman
It has been a tumultuous few weeks in Catalonia and Spain. The Catalan government has marched on with a vote of independence without permission from Spain’s central government, the People’s Party, or constitutional courts. On October 1, Spanish national police raided polling stations and violently tried to stop voters from casting their ballots. Despite their best efforts, two million people voted to separate from Spain. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has taken a hardline with Catalan separatists, refusing to use dialogue until the ‘course of law’ is restored. Today, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont is threatening to declare unilateral independence at the regional parliament in Barcelona at 6pm local time. As the world braces for another possible European separation, here is everything you need to know.
Article 155 has been described as Spain’s ‘nuclear’ option. The point of no return. Article 155, if triggered, would allow the Madrid government to remove Catalonia’s autonomous status if unilateral independence is declared. Spanish Congress describes the article as an ‘exceptional or extreme’ measure ‘for situations that are equally exceptional or extreme.’ As Article 155 has never before been triggered in Spain, a decision to invoke this constitutional bombshell wouldn’t be taken lightly, and would plunge the country into a deeper political crisis.
At the heart of Catalonia, is Barcelona. The city is a melting pot of creativity, intellectualism and style, its sun-drenched avenues and graffiti-adorned walls making it one of the most romanticised places in Europe, if not the world. And yet, the Catalan capital has become the focal point for a separatist movement unlike any other in the European bloc. Barcelona’s diversity and cosmopolitanism hasn’t deterred proud shows of Catalan nationalism. Unlike independence movements seen elsewhere – such as Brexit in the UK – young, liberal, ‘global’ voters have come out in force for separation. Although a gross simplification, patterns have generally followed that rural heartlands have bolstered independence movements globally, and cities have opted for unity. But Barcelona has shattered this expectation.
Both Spain and Catalonia are no strangers to corruption; in fact, corruption is the one thing that unites the two governments. Since the end of dictatorial rule, a ‘new establishment’ of elites have become increasingly distrusted by the public as controversies seep into the political fabric. In Spain, one of the most notable scandals to rock the nation is the Gürtel case, which came to light in 2009 and implicates officers of the ruling right-wing People’s Party (PP) in criminal activities, including money laundering, bribery and tax evasion. In Catalonia, prominent political figures have been embroiled in corruption probes as well. For example, Jordi Pujol, 87, president of Catalonia for 23 years was investigated for money laundering and tax evasion after it emerged he had hidden ‘tens of millions’ of euros in tax havens. Pro-independence parties have largely been able to refocus their agenda along separatist lines though.
DEMOCRACY AND DUI
Both Rajoy’s government in Madrid and the pro-independence movement in Catalonia position themselves as defenders of democracy. For Rajoy and his party, the October 1 referendum held in Catalonia was unconstitutional. For Catalan pro-independence parties – and those who are pro-referendum as a democratic right, such as Podemos – the referendum was exercising a region’s right to self-determination. The result of the October 1 referendum was skewed either way. Of the 43% of voters who cast their ballots, 2,044,038 (92%) people voted in favour of independence, and 177,547 (7.99%) voted against. Although Puigdemont and other pro-separatists see this as a mandate for a declaration of independence, police crackdowns deterred many from voting and those who opposed independence didn’t recognise the referendum as legitimate. If the Catalan government triggers a unilateral declaration of independence (DUI) tensions are likely to boil over between ‘si’ and ‘no’ voters.
European officials have expressed firm, yet somewhat hushed, support for Spain’s central government. The official European Union line is that Spanish democracy works and that the stand-off between Catalonia and Spain is a domestic affair. And as violent images of the Guardia Civil hitting Catalan crowds with rubber bullets and ambushing voters emerged on October 1, calls for greater mediation by the EU went largely unanswered. Perhaps the most prescient question is: If independence is declared, would Catalonia remain, or re-enter, the EU? The anti-capitalist, pro-independence party, Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), which has had a lot of sway in the Catalan movement, are campaigning to not only detach from Spain, but from the EU. Other political parties have campaigned for EU membership. But with Spain being a large player within the bloc, any efforts to remain in the EU, at least for now, look doomed to fail.
FRANCO AND FASCISM
The ‘independistas’ of Catalonia have consistently pursued a campaign of autonomy for over three centuries. By 1932, the region’s leaders had declared a Catalan Republic, but when General Francisco Franco ruled from 1939 at the end of the Spanish Civil War, all progress was seemingly lost. Franco’s dictatorship tried to quash all efforts towards Catalan nationalism. His regime repressed Catalan institutions, language and culture until his death resurrected these entities. Fascism in Spain and Catalonia is not a distant memory. The ghost of Franco still looms over a nation whose collective memory can’t forget the failings of the past. Rajoy and the Popular Party’s aggressive handling of the ‘Catalan problem’ has no doubt stirred up painful reminders of fascism in force.
President Puigdemont’s Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT) formed in 2016 after the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia ceased to exist. Although its remaining MPs and officials have always leaned on the side of independence, this revamped nationalist party came out all guns blazing for separation from Spain. Not only has the party gambled its own popularity on the assumption most Catalans want independence, but PDeCAT has also gambled the future of Catalonia itself.
Thousands poured onto the streets of Madrid and Barcelona – and elsewhere – on October 7 and 8 to demand dialogue, rather than aggression, in solving the Catalan independence issue. In Madrid, many dressed in white clothing and painted their hands, holding them in the air as they marched under the slogan, ‘Hablamos?’ (‘Shall we talk?’). Meanwhile in Barcelona, avenues filled with anti-independence demonstrators waving Spanish and Catalan flags, and carrying banners saying ‘Catalonia is Spain’ and ‘Together we are stronger’. Many called themselves the ‘invisible’ because pro-independence voters and politicians had silenced their desires to remain part of Spain.
IDENTITY AND CULTURE
Independence movements are almost always cultivated through a sense of a collective identity. The Scottish drive for autonomy from the UK, for example, relies on a sense of ‘Scottishness’; that persons from a variety of backgrounds, communities and political spectrums cut across these boundaries because of their nationality. And the same is true in the Catalan push for independence. The region’s traditions, music, food, festivals, to name a few, create a mosaic of ‘Catalanism’ that is separate from Spanish customs. The problem with essentialist constructions of identity is that they tend to rely on a puritanical sense of nationhood, often at the exclusion of other races, ethnicities and cultural influences.
JUNTS PEL SÍ
Junts pel Sí (translated in English as Together for Yes) is a Catalan political alliance and parliamentary group whose aim is to achieve the region’s independence. It is made up of the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT), of which Puigdemont is leader, the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), Democrats of Catalonia (DC) and the Left Movement (MES), and with the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) confidence and supply support, has been operating as a minority government since the 2015 election. Although each party differs on a range of political issues, Junts pel Sí is responsible for a renewed push for independence.
KING FELIPE VI OF SPAIN
Two days after the October 1 referendum, King Felipe VI appeared in a rare televised address to the nation. In what many Catalans saw as a rebuke by Rajoy via the king, he strongly criticised the Catalan government for threatening the ‘unity of Spain’. ‘These authorities have scorned the attachments and feelings of solidarity that have united and will unite all Spaniards,’ King Felipe said. ‘Their irresponsible conduct could even jeopardise the economic and social stability of Catalonia and all of Spain… They have tried to break the unity of Spain and its national sovereignty.’ He made no mention of the violence that marred the referendum.
The Catalan language has survived many attempts to thwart its existence. It has been referred to as a mere Spanish dialect in the past, but this classification isn’t correct. Catalan is the predominant language spoken in Catalonia, with Spanish as the second. The region having its own language has given credence to claims that Catalonia is a nation in itself, rather than a geographical area of Spanish mainland.
Policing has become politicised. Accusations are flying around that Catalonia’s regional police force, Mossos d’Esquadra, have sided with the independence movement. Spanish national police leaders have expressed their disgruntlement that Mossos officers ‘allowed’ an illegal vote to go ahead, and forced the hands of the Guardia Civil. Footage emerged on the day of the referendum that showed Mossos officers – alongside firefighters – protecting voters against national police, earning them the reputation of the ‘flower police’ among some ranks. But the recent ‘soft and fuzzy’ approaches to policing are in stark contrast to Mossos’s forceful crackdowns during austerity protests just a few years ago, from which the force emerged as aggressors rather than protectors.
Nationalism in Catalonia is often represented as a yearning for recognition above all else. Meandering through the streets of Barcelona it’s difficult to ignore the hundreds of Catalan flags that drape off balconies and windows. What many Catalans will tell you is that a push for independence is a push to become more global, more outward-looking, unlike other forms of nationalism. Yet, every nationalist movement thinks ‘their nationalism’ is different; it’s one of the main features of nationalism. It’s not to say that the right to self-determination should be denied – quite the contrary – but leading a campaign of independence solely on shared national identity is likely to hit some catastrophic roadblocks. Nationalism is a banner for which politicians can hide behind to rally support without answering crucial questions. In the context of Catalonia, the fight for independence has largely been won on sentiment.
OPPOSITION TO INDEPENDENCE: C’S, CSQP, PSC–PSOE and PPC
There is much opposition to independence within the Catalan parliament – and the public. Citizens (C’s) emerged 12 years ago as a social democratic party against separation from Spain. Although C’s touted itself as centre-left party, it has increasingly come to represent the centre-right of Catalonia, particularly given its support of the Spain’s central government. Catalunya Sí que es Pot (CSQP) is a left-wing coalition that formed to stand in the 2015 election, and is composed of Podemos, Initiative for Catalonia Greens (ICV) and United and Alternative Left (EUiA). The coalition is pro-referendum and right to self-determination, but advocates for Spanish unity. PSC–PSOE, a merger of the Socialist Party of Catalonia–Regrouping, Socialist Party of Catalonia–Congress and Catalan Federation of the PSOE, campaigns for a federal system of governance. And, of course, the People’s Party of Catalonia (PPC) are staunchly anti-independence as the Catalan affiliate of Rajoy’s party in Madrid.
The international community stood up and took notice of Catalan nationalism after the October 1 referendum. Spanish military police officers, the Guardia Civil, armed with batons and rubber bullets, violently broke into polling stations and seized ballot papers, and injured nearly 900 people as they tried to vote – including children and the elderly – while the world stood as witness. Rajoy’s party was thrown into even more turmoil for aggressively curtailing the freedom of its people, and arguably pushed more voters towards independence. 10 days previously, 14 Catalan officials were arrested after mass raids on parliamentary institutions in Barcelona as well. Photographs and footage of the calamitous events were widely circulated on social media, dealing a huge blow to the Spanish government’s reputation.
En Sant Gervasi pic.twitter.com/IAgKFy3IoW
— Clara Gil (@Cler_Hache) October 1, 2017
QUITTING STATUTE OF AUTONOMY OF CATALONIA
A new Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia was a key promise in the run-up to the 2003 Catalan parliamentary election and the 2004 Spanish general elections. It was approved by 91% of the Parliament of Catalonia, by the parliament of Spain, and by the Catalan electorate in a referendum in June 2006. In 2010, however, the Spanish Constitutional Court peeled back Catalan autonomy by removing and reinterpreting a number of its articles. More than one million people took to the streets of Barcelona after the decision was announced, providing the breeding ground for a re-energised separatist movement.
RED BELT OF CATALONIA
On the outskirts of Barcelona lies satellite towns built in the 1960s and 1970s to accommodate the mass migration from the south and west of Spain to industrialised Catalonia. The cinturón rojo – or red belt – of Catalonia has a long history of radical labour politics and workers’ rights movements. And the area has never voted for nationalist candidates. An article written by The Guardian posits that many veterans of the Catalan labour movement living in the cinturón rojo reject separatists’ claims that Rajoy’s government is a reincarnation of Francoism, having lived through General Franco’s rule themselves, and dismiss the independence movement as a distraction from more pressing social issues, like Catalan government spending cuts and corruption.
SECESSION AND SEPARATISM
Unlike legally binding referendums, Catalonia’s recent vote will not be acknowledged by other countries, or by Spain itself. Succession from Spain will throw up a multitude of obstacles, but what is clear is that no one knows what is coming next if unilateral independence is declared by Puigdemont. This is unchartered territory. With Rajoy stating that dialogue can only resume when the course of law is taken, pundits are speculating that the Catalan premier’s announcement today will introduce a symbolic independence, rather than unilateral. It is widely believed that Puigdemont delayed the declaration because of internal divisions within the Catalan pro-independence coalition, Junts pel Sí.
THE POPULAR UNITY CANDIDACY (CUP)
Despite having only 10 of the Catalan parliament’s 135 MPs, the anti-capitalist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) party become one of the central kingmakers in the process of self-determination. Its members are crucial for securing a separatist majority in parliament, but their Eurosceptic, anti-capitalist views often clash with the liberal parties at the helm of the Catalan government. The CUP decided not to support the nomination of former Catalan president and neoliberal Artur Mas as leader, forcing him from the position and paving the way for Puigdemont to take over in 2016. The grassroots party (or movement, as some describe it) has been vital in bringing Catalonia to the brink of independence.
The referendum was called by the Generalitat de Catalunya, who argue the referendum could lead to a declaration of independence because central government wouldn’t allow the region to democratically vote for autonomy. The Spanish government has completely ruled out the possibility of a legal vote on independence because it violates the Spanish Constitution of 1978, which states Spain is an indivisible country.
VALUES OF TWO LEFTS
The Spanish left and Catalan left are at loggerheads over independence. Leftwing parties in Spain defend a federal country whereby a central government coexists with regional governments, like that seen today. Catalan leftwingers tend to support independence. There is some middle ground among the left in Catalonia who advocate for a legal referendum to be held, but want to remain a union. Podemos in Catalonia and Catalunya Sí que es Pot (CSQP) coalition represent this line of thought.
WEALTH AND AUSTERITY
Catalonia is the richest region in Spain, and the most highly industrialised too. The region makes up about 16% of Spain’s population and accounts for 20% of the Spanish economy. Economics has played an important role in the uptick of independence support. Catalans often complain that they contribute more in taxes to the Spanish government than they get back. In 2014 alone, Catalonia paid about $11.8 billion more to Spain’s tax authorities than they got back. Discontentment about Catalan financial independence also stems from austerity measures introduced by the central government after the Great Recession from 2008 onwards.
(E)XEMPLARY REGIONS: BASQUE COUNTRY
As Catalonia gears up for a head-on collision with the Spanish constitution, lawmakers are rightly looking towards the Basque Country. A previously violent and bloody campaign for independence in the northern region has given way to a peaceful autonomous community. The Basque Country now enjoys relative economic freedom away from Madrid, allowing unrest about independence to fetter out slowly. Basque militant group ETA, which killed more than 850 people in a decades-long battle for a separate state, surrendered all its weapons this year. However, Catalan officials aren’t seeking a similar model to the Basque Country currently.
YES VS. NO: THE PLAGUE OF REFERENDUMS
Referendums are arguably the most divisive political solution at the disposal of any government. A complex, multifaceted issue is repackaged as a question that can be answered by either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The electorate is stretched apart to either side of the debate, polarised by a singular query with so many answers. A prime example is Brexit in the UK. In Catalonia, voters were asked: ‘Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?’ No room for grey areas. No space for ambiguity. And the region is now paying a price with heightened hostility among its citizens and a divided nation in Spain.
Ultimately, what has spurred the independence movement by the people is a dominant set of beliefs and ideals. The spirit of ‘Catalanism’ has emerged on top. Achieving autonomy from Spain would embody a shared feeling of togetherness; an ‘us’ against ‘them’ dichotomy that drives deeper detachment between the two regions. Politicians around the world are slowly realising that facts can’t stamp out passion and emotion. If the cultural zeitgeist is for Catalan independence, it won’t be silenced.