Flame-engulfed cars, Molotov cocktails, acid attacks. The city of Barcelona has not seen such extended and impassioned violence since the reign of Francisco Franco.
At the time of writing, Catalonia has been dominated by violent demonstrations for 7 successive nights. Protests erupted across the most north-easterly region of Spain after 9 separatist leaders were found guilty by the Spanish Supreme Court of sedition and sentenced to up to 13 years in prison for their roles in orchestrating the illegal independence referendum in 2017.
In what originally began as protests against the court sentences, the focus of the demonstrations rapidly shifted to calls for Catalan independence from Spain. The regional president Quim Torra has adopted a similar rhetoric by calling for another independence vote to be held within two years.
The Catalan Way
The Catalonian Independence movement began before the Spanish Civil War but was subsequently subdued under the Franco dictatorship. Upon the General’s death in 1975, the movement sought to reintroduce autonomy rather than seek independence. In 1978, Catalonia agreed to the new Spanish Constitution; this set out the political and legal framework for the 17 semi-autonomous regions around Spain. Articles in the constitution provided for a large degree of self-governance for Catalonia, stated Catalan as the official language of the area, and allowed for autonomy in the region. Crucially, however, it put the indivisibility of the Spanish state on a constitutional footing. This means that if Catalans wanted independence they would have to alter the Constitution.
The dawn of a new millennium saw a renewed increase in separatist fervour. The creation of the Catalan Statute of Autonomy in 2006 set out a new economic model for the region and defined Catalonia as ‘a nation’. The new laws were approved after a 2006 referendum. However, in 2010, the Spanish Constitutional Court ruled that the statute was unconstitutional. This decision was met by mass demonstrations in Barcelona involving millions of Catalans and is often viewed as the catalyst for the new wave of separatism that has followed since.
The first referendum on independence, considered illegal under the constitution, was held in 2014. This was followed by a repeat referendum in 2017 and a subsequent unilateral declaration of independence, culminating in 9 pro-independence leaders being sentenced to prison. The current protests are in direct response to such sentencing.
Homage to Catalonia
Catalonia has its own anthem, language, and way of life. The people of Spain’s wealthiest region have often seen themselves as distinct to those inhabiting the rest of Spain. General Franco sought to eliminate this uniqueness during his reign by repressing culture and reigning in freedoms. But the Catalan way proved resilient. It is this sense of regional identity that fuels the calls for independence. Activists have also often cited strong economic arguments for Catalonian independence. Catalonia is responsible for one fifth of Spain’s economic output, generates 21% of the country’s tax revenue, and in GDP terms has an economy the size of Portugal. The region regularly pays nearly €10bn more in taxes than it receives in public spending from the central government. Many secessionists believe independence could allow Catalonia to flourish financially.
Others, however, believe that calls for independence are based on misguided nationalism. Since the 1978 Constitution, Catalonia has become increasingly autonomous. At the start of the 1980s, the local government had competency over roughly 90 areas – a maximum at the time. By 2010, this number had rocketed to 274 competencies – the maximum possible level of competency possible; areas of control range from police to education. The only areas which are not under the competency of the Catalan government are the judiciary, military and certain budget controls – these cannot be transferred without broad constitutional change. Compared to others, Catalonia is one of the most self-governed regions in the world. Opponents of independence point to such information to depict the separatist movement as being founded not on facts, but on an illusory sense of identity.
Despite overwhelming pro-independence majorities when a plebiscite has been held, there has never been a voter turnout above 50%. Even the 2006 referendum on a new Statute of Autonomy failed to pass the halfway mark. This has led many to argue that there is not so much desire for independence as prominent secessionists proclaim. In the 2017 illegal referendum, there was only a voter turnout of 43%, with a claim that 770,000 votes were lost; many against independence boycotted the vote. A poll in July shows that support for independence has fallen to 44%, with 48.3% of Catalans opposing. “I am Spanish, Spanish, Spanish,” has echoed around Las Ramblas from the crowds of pro-unity demonstrators throughout the unrest.
For whom the bell tolls
After 7 nights of protests, the independence protests appear to be returning to the peaceful nature that has characterised the movement for decades. President Torra called for talks with the central government in Madrid to resolve the situation. However, the Socialist caretaker prime minister of Spain, Pedro Sánchez, who is set to visit Barcelona, has said that there will not be a further referendum on independence.
The granting of independence would only be the beginning of a whole slew of further issues and questions. Would Catalonia embark on the long journey to EU accession? Would it join NATO? Would it even be recognised as a state by the international community?
It is within Spain’s economic interest to remain unified with Catalonia; some even go as far as saying that granting the region independence will lead to the break-up of Spain as we know it. For secessionists, such as former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, a referendum ‘is not about independence: it is about fundamental civil rights and the universal right of self-determination.’ Many simply want the opportunity to vote on the matter in an official referendum.