The Right To Be Independent: Crisis in Catalonia

Two Catalans share their perspectives about the independence movement in Catalonia

Published over 1 year ago in Europe and Politics

catalonia spain independence movement referendum

Catalonia

Catalan citizens holding pro-independence flags during a street demonstration. (Source: The National Interest)

October 1st of 2017 marks a memorable day in the history of Catalonia. The regional government under its president Carles Puigdemont held a referendum on independence which was ultimately declared illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court. With a voter turnout of 43%, about 90% of Catalan voters backed independence, the following weeks after the referendum were filled with massive demonstrations within the Catalan society, caused by both separatists and unionists.

On October 21, Spain’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy announced the disempowerment of the Catalan regional government, using Article 155 of the Spanish constitution as justification. Despite these circumstances, Puigdemont officially declared Catalonia as an independent republic on October 27. Only a few hours later, the Spanish government announced the dissolution of the Catalan Parliament and scheduled new regional elections for the following December. As a consequence, all powers of the Catalan administration were transferred to the central government and Catalonia was then ruled under the receivership of Madrid. Within the next few months, multiple Catalan politicians got arrested and Puigdemont, being accused of rebellion fled to Belgium, followed by four of his ministers. 

With a vast majority, the pro-independence parties could again manage to win the new regional elections on December 21, however weren’t allowed to get Puigdemont back as prime minister. In March 2018, Puigdemont was arrested in Northern Germany on the grounds of a European arrest warrant, was released on bail shortly afterwards and is currently living in exile in Germany. 

(Source: Government of Catalonia)

                                               
Referendum – The Peak of the Iceberg 

Joan Barcelo Soler is a current Political Science PhD student at the University of Washington. Born and raised in Catalonia, he has done much research on the ongoing phenomena of his native region. Joan himself claims to be in favor of the independence movement. He explained that Catalonia’s wish to become independent results from a long process full of frustration and hopelessness which had been going on for years.

In 2003, Catalan parties were working on a new statute of autonomy in order to increase several competences of the Catalan government. A revised, less demanding version of this Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia got approved by the Spanish government and was then declared as legal and binding after its ratification in a referendum by Catalan voters in 2006. However, the Popular Party of Spain, being in the political opposition at that time, sent the law to the Spanish Constitutional Court. In 2010, several articles of the law were described as unconstitutional, got rewritten or crossed out and the preambulatory clause referring to Catalonia as a nation was declared as having no legal effect. The announcement of the Constitutional Court led to great frustrations among the Catalan society whose hopes of an independent Catalonia had now been vanished. Joan describes the occurrences of 2010 as crucial for Catalonia’s independence movement. He says, “Before 2010, the idea of separatism didn’t even occur to the majority of Catalans.” 

Between Economic Inequality and An Identity Crisis

Catalonia is one of Spain’s wealthier regions, having a GDP above the national average. A key argument of the independence movement is certainly the belief that the region would be economically better off if it were its own nation. Spain’s taxation system plays an essential role in that argumentation. Rich regions in Spain, including Catalonia, pay more taxes than what they receive in return, while poorer regions receive more than they pay. However, in more recent years observation has concluded that Catalonia comparatively paid a disproportionately high rate on taxes than other regions that had even more resources per capita to spend on public services. 

This taxation system has become a major issue, especially during the Spanish economic crisis, in which Catalonia experienced an increase in its unemployment rate. What secessionists believe to be unfair is the fact that the two richest regions of Spain, the Basque Country and Nevarra, are permitted to keep their tax money within their regions, since they obtain different autonomous statues according to which they are almost treated like independent nations from an economic perspective. 

Joaquim Candel, who is a student at the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona and a member of the pro-independence Catalan European democratic party explains how his everyday life is affected by Catalonia’s economic situation. 

“Today, Catalans experience major cuts in healthcare and education. My university fee in Barcelona is three times higher than what students pay in Madrid. Catalans need to pay for parts of their motorway, while it is free in other regions. It has come to a point where its only unfair.” 

The concept of identity plays another role in Catalonia’s independence movement. The major language spoken among the society is Catalan. When asking an average citizens of the region about his nationality, the answer will also most certainly be Catalan and not Spanish. However, many citizens of Catalonia criticize that Spain continuously aims to oppress the Catalan identity and does not at all take it seriously. 

“If a politician speaks Catalan in the Spanish parliament, his microphone will be shut down“, says Joaquim. He also argues that everything in Spain is regulated through Madrid, “Barcelona is only connected with one high speed train going to Madrid and not to other cities within Spain. All major International flights land in Madrid when arriving in Spain and one needs to take a connecting flight in order to go to Barcelona and there are tons of other examples of Madrid's power.” 

An Uncertain Future

As of now, the future of Catalonia is filled with great uncertainty. After seven months of direct rule from Madrid, the Catalan parliament could finally manage to vote a new leader, Quim Torra, who is regarded as a hardline separatist. 

An important question that still remains unanswered, concerns Catalonia’s possible membership of the European Union as an independent nation. Catalonia would only profit from secession if the newly created nation remained a member of the European Union. Otherwise it would be excluded from the European single market and the Eurozone which could lead to tremendous economical and political instability. Since it has never happened in the history of the European Union that a region of a member country became independent, the EU treaty does not include any clause that specifically regulates such a scenario, which makes any possible outcome hard to predict. If an independent Catalonia were reapply for its membership, which in itself is a long process, it would have to be accepted by all current member states, including Spain. Secessionist argue that in any case, the EU would have to come up with a quick solution to dissolve conflict between Catalonia and Spain. The majority of foreign investment in Spain is located in Catalonia. In the case that Catalonia gets excluded from the rest of the European Union, other member states would suffer as well. Still, a certain risk of economic and political isolation remains. 

The Right to Independence

One interesting aspect of the conflict that has hardly been recognized is the fact that according to a report by a commission of international experts, Catalonia’s referendum to secession can not be declared as illegal from an international law perspective, as it has been by the Spanish Constitution. If the situation in Catalonia will attract increasing international attention in the future, this fact could be one game changing factor in the future of the region. 

When asked about solutions to the conflict, and what the two Catalans would prefer for the future of Catalonia, Joan and Joaquim both agreed that remaining a part of Spain would definitely be the best option. 

“Secession is always the ultimatum”, explains Joan.

The wish for separatism never appears unwarranted. It is the ultimate call for a change, when all other measures have failed and a different solution for a so needed change seems to be no longer possible. Separatists agree that most supporters of the independence movement feel the same, and that a peaceful reintegration into Spain is not completely impossible, yet very unlikely under the given the circumstances. 

Madrid will have to make drastic changes on its current strategy in order to bring this conflict to an end and both sides will have to open up for new negotiations and compromises. Until then, Catalonia’s strive for independence continues.

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