Bombs couldn’t do it in Basque Country, and now it seems the ballot box can’t do it in Catalonia. So, where do Catalans go from here? Mind you, it’s not as if they haven’t been here before. The regular redrawing of the European map over the past millennium – reflecting wars, rising and falling empires, revolutions, repressive dictatorships, and territories swapping hands – have all played their part in the grievances of Catalonia. The unification of Spain in 1492 took place much earlier than the similar joining of independent dots that created Germany and Italy several centuries later, thus giving the Spanish a crucial head start in conquering the globe; Catalonia’s position as a principality was rarely a comfortable one.
The Iberian Peninsula changed hands from Visigoths to Moors to Franks before the counties that became recognised as Catalonia were united under the Crown of Aragon in 1137; during the Franco-Spanish War of 1635-59, Catalonia declared itself a republic, though in reality remained a principality, only this time under French protection. The end of the conflict saw the Catalonian counties of Roussillon, Conflent and Vallespir ceded to the French by King Philip IV of Spain; but it took until the end of another European bloodbath – the War of the Spanish Succession – before Catalonia was reduced to a Spanish province in 1716, belatedly abolishing the Crown of Aragon.
Whenever countries are created by strong regional states (Prussia in Germany, Castile in Spain) assembling often reluctant junior partners under one unifying federal umbrella, the lingering legacy of former independence survives as an inherited collective memory. All nations born this way have their ‘problem people’ (Yorkshiremen, for example), but Spain has had to deal with the explosive Basques as well as the Catalans. Franco had his own ways of dealing with perceived sedition, which is why the rather physical response of the Spanish Government to the planned Catalonian independence referendum this week has provoked such anger.
Catalonia had been granted status as an autonomous state within Spain in 1932, but within a couple of years autonomy had become insurrection and was crushed. Although the region had a resurrected autonomous status during the Spanish Civil War, Franco’s victory saw him impose increasingly repressive measures upon the Catalans, banning the native language and abolishing their independent institutions. The post-war growth of Barcelona as an economic powerhouse as well as a major tourist attraction fuelled further separatist ambitions, and the 1975 restoration of democracy in Spain at least granted the region a degree of independence; for some Catalans, however, this has never been enough.
An unofficial and non-binding self-determination referendum took place in 2014, which was branded illegal by the Spanish Government; it’s estimated 80% of Catalans who took part favoured independence, though the Government of Catalonia claimed it was merely testing the waters. This warm-up for a ‘proper’ referendum gave confidence to the most stridently separatist members of the Catalonian Government and a date has been pencilled-in for 1 October for the real deal – even though a recent poll stated 49% of Catalans were opposed to independence, with 41% in favour.
Spain’s well-publicised economic woes since 2008 haven’t affected Catalonia as badly as some regions of the country; it remains relatively wealthy in comparison to those more badly hit, though Catalans say they pay far more into the national budget than what they get back from Madrid. Limits were also set on Catalonia’s independent ambitions by Spain’s Constitutional Court on 2010, which further angered separatists. The referendum plans have pressed ahead, but with less than a month to go, the Spanish Government has delivered the strongest warning yet of how it will react to the result, something the Catalonian Government has undoubtedly provoked by announcing it will declare a state of independence within 48 hours of a Yes vote.
Yesterday, local government offices, ministries and private companies organising the 1 October referendum were swooped on by Spanish police, with 14 Catalan officials arrested and detained during the raid. They confiscated documents, computers and upwards of 10 million ballot papers. The determination to hold the referendum is viewed as a direct challenge to Madrid’s authority and Madrid has seen fit to enforce that authority; indeed, Spanish police enforced it rather brutally to break-up a protest outside the Catalan economic ministry in Barcelona, their tactics reviving those of Franco’s storm-troopers for those old enough to remember. The division of the Spanish police force dispatched to Barcelona were the militarised Guardia Civil, which made the authorities’ intentions pretty evident from the off; they anticipated trouble, and they got it.
The prospect of virtual direct rule from Madrid and the curtailing of Catalonia’s autonomous institutions is one threat that the National Government can impose if Catalans insist on proceeding with their plans for 1 October; however, when even one of Catalonia’s most revered exports, Barcelona FC, throws its weight behind self-determination, a Government faced with little option but to react to constant demands that contradict a constitution at the core of its existence may have to rely on force. This story has a long way to go yet. Adiós.
© The Editor