The Push For Independence in Catalonia

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Above: Could this soon be the world’s newest national flag as Catalonia’s independence bid grows?

Following Scotland’s independence vote last year, another historic region of Europe is in the process of trying to become an independent state. Catalonia has had a tempestuous relationship with the nation state of Spain ever since Ferdinand of the Principat of Catalonia (or Aragon as it was named) married Isabel of Castile which led to unification. Although Catalonia still had political autonomy, this marriage had, perhaps unwittingly, set in motion a long running series of battles to prevent the region being fully integrated into a greater Spain – a process which began in the 1830s (Nagel: 20151) and concluded with the dictatorships of Primo de Rivera in the 1920s and General Franco from 1939 (adapted from Nogue & Vicente: 2004: p 120-121).

Throughout the Franco era, the use of the Catalan language was forbidden, as was raising the Catalan flag. The only outlet for the identity of the region was through CF Barcelona, who competed in the higher echelons of the Spanish and European football world. People “threw their cultural pride in to Barca. At a Barca match, people could shout in Catalan and sing traditional songs when they could do it nowhere else” (cited in Peffer: 1984: p 120). As Franco’s grip on power lessened during the 1970s, it was through some of the directors of CF Barcelona that Catalan nationalism began to surge. They used their influence within the nationalist Convergencia Democratica de Catalunya to “promote a campaign advocating the use of Catalan in schools, use Catalan to make announcements over the public address system and they also flew a Catalan flag in the stadium” (Shobe: 2008: p 341). It was this influence by an educated group, seeking to use the indigenous language in a move akin to Gramsci’s ‘passive revolution’ theory, which began the reawakening of Catalan identity.

When Franco’s regime ended with the dictator’s death in 1975, Catalonia became one of seventeen autonomous communities in Spain, with its own parliament, and an executive known as the Generalitat. The Catalan parliament has 135 seats, with elections at least once every four years. It is responsible for matters such as culture, transport, and commerce. The region has its own police force, the Mossos d’Esquada and has laid down legislation to ensure that the Catalan language is spoken in all schools. Additionally to this, it has eighteen universities or higher education institutions. With all this existing autonomy, why does Catalonia want more?

The answer to this is manifold – firstly, there is “popular support among the region’s positionally advantaged, native middle-strata, in pursuit of a ‘Catalanizing’ agenda” (Miley: 2013: p 9). This ‘Catalanizing’ has been a long established process, crucially rooted in academia. Garcia-Ramon and Nogue-Font (1994) speak of the role of the Catalan Geographical Society in constructing a nationalist identity of the region, and resistance against the rule of Franco. They also identify how the popular Catalan pastime of hiking developed an awakening of patriotism. Hiking group meetings became fertile ground for Catalan intellectuals to spread nationalistic feelings through lectures regularly delivered as part of group activities. Such overt involvement in Catalan nationalism by the territory’s leading minds meant that “Although the Catalan language was long persecuted by the state…(it) remained widely spoken among the middle classes, including the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie” (Keating: 2001: p 166). As Paasi (2001) has suggested, this was absolutely crucial, – those at the higher echelons of Catalan authority were keeping the language alive, and they were continuing to spread nationalist feelings.

The first step on the road to where the territory presently finds itself was taken on 11th September 1977 – the National Day of Catalonia when: “A demonstration… drew a supposed one million Catalans onto the streets of Barcelona to assert their Catalan identity and demand a statute of autonomy” (Crameri: 2011: p 58). Over the years this growing demand for greater autonomy has been reflected in the elections for the Catalan Parliament. The moderate CiU group have, historically been the most popular party in the Generalitat, but recent elections have seen their popularity plunge from a high water mark of 73 seats in 1984 (Bukowski: 2001: p 159) to its present tally of 50 (Guardian Newspaper Website: 2014). During the same period, the fiercely pro-independence ERC party have risen from holding just five seats to an all-time high of 21 in 2012.

The economy has provided a further factor in independence demands. With the crisis in the Eurozone in 2009, Catalans became aware of an ever-growing deficit fiscal. Historically, Catalonia was responsible for around 20% of the total Spanish GDP, and 30% of total Spanish exports (Bukowski: 2001: p 162). It has always been leading virtually all of the nation’s economic indicators. In order to maximise its financial and political impact within Europe, Catalonia joined up with three other financially powerful regions of the continent – Baden Wurttemberg, Lombardy and Rhone-Alpes – in a bid to develop business relations and attract further investment (cited in Loughlin: 2000 p 30). This served to widen Catalonia’s potential ‘agglomeration of locations’ and put in place reciprocal freight agreements which mirrored Losch’s (1978) theory and strengthened their ‘economics of location’. Additionally, this could aid the region’s ability in breaking what Lefebvre (1991) would see as Spain’s colonization of Catalonia’s spatial grids of power.

As the gap between the amount paid in taxes by the Catalans and what they received in return from the Spanish state in terms of services and investment grew ever wider, concerns grew about the unfairness of Catalonia’s relationship with the Spanish government. Therefore it was not long before “a growing civil movement for independence with a strong presence of young Catalans” began emerging (Crameri: 2011: p 52). This movement presented a powerful argument, claiming that if all taxation collecting responsibilities in the territory was the responsibility of the Catalan parliament, it would result in major improvements to the local budget and welfare situation. There is also an increasing school of thought that an independent Catalonia could thrive, despite the impact of a likely boycott of Catalan goods by Spain and what part of Spain’s debt the new country would have to pay (Nagel: 2015: p398). Consequently, the moderates of Mas’ CiU called for a referendum on Catalonia’s self-determination. To many, this didn’t go far enough, as “most of the opinion polls published since 2010 show(ed) that between 40% and 50% of the population would support independence as an alternative to the status quo” (Serrano: 2013: p 525). Fuelled by the lack of recognition from Madrid that Catalonia was being unfairly treated, the opposition to the national government grew. On 11th September 2012, over a million Catalans marched through Barcelona “under the slogan ‘Catalunya, nou estat d’Europa’ (Catalonia, new state of Europe)” (Marti: 2013: p 509). A year later, groups without any political affiliations organised a human chain of Catalans to be set up from the border with France in the north, to the region of Valencia in the south. Turnout for the subsequent Catalan Parliamentary elections was a record high – 67.8% – and the results set in trend a motion for a non-binding vote on independence in 2014. The outcome was, given the events of the previous three years, no surprise – 80% of the two million people who voted (out of a total eligible of 5.4 million) were in favour of secession. In September 2015, what could turn out to be a landmark Regional Election was held in Catalonia, with the outcome an absolute majority for Catalan nationalist parties. Another record high voter turnout (77.4%) emphasized just what an important issue independence is at the present time. The JxSi movement (Together For Yes) stated: “The responsibility we have now is to fulfil this democratic mandate” (Nationalia: 2015).

The die had been cast, and in November 2015, the Catalan parliament voted in favour of beginning the process to breakaway from Spain, with a stated aim to declare independence as early as 2017. Here we see clearly what Gramsci (1971) meant when he stated the importance of a (regional) political party performing in a way that could set a wider agenda in terms of challenging the hegemony of the state. Spain’s response had all the hallmarks of Hechter’s Internal Colonialism. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy threatened to impose direct rule on Catalonia and refer the matter to the Constitutional Court, which has “persistently ruled against any moves towards independence” (Herald Scotland: 2015/Nagel: 2015: p 393). Rajoy is in a seemingly impossible position influenced by the forthcoming General Election on 20th December 2015. He will be more than aware that “If the rest of Spain goes down the pan and an independent Catalunya thrives, there are…serious implications” (Guardian Newspaper Website: 2014).

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