An uncertain future for an independent Catalonia

With an independence declaration looking likely, Lucía Benavides reports from Barcelona on the long history of Catalan repression, what’s at stake for the region and why Europe has been mostly quiet on the issue.

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October 6, 2017
Esteladas (the Catalan separatist flag) hang from buildings three days after the banned independence referendum in Barcelona, October 4, 2017. REUTERS/Susana Vera

As Jose Gonzalez exited the polling station in downtown Barcelona, people clapped and looked on, smiling. His eyes swelled with tears, and he sniffled as he smiled back, pulling out his handkerchief.

Gonzalez, 72, was one of millions to vote “Yes” in Catalonia’s independence referendum on Oct. 1. For him, the moment was special: He lived through the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, when repression against Catalans was widespread. He said he experienced “all the repressions a person could have lived through” during that time, and thinks, despite a return to democracy in 1975, it’s still felt today.

“It’s more diplomatic, but it’s the same,” he added.

Much to the Spanish government’s disapproval, 2.4 million people turned out to vote in last Sunday’s referendum — 43 percent of eligible voters. According to Catalan officials the “Yes” won with an overwhelming 90 percent, despite attempts by Spanish police to shut down polling stations and block the vote.

The scene was one not often seen in Europe: Spanish police officers showed up in riot gear, breaking windows, confiscating ballot boxes and hitting people with clubs, rubber bullets and even tear gas. Almost 900 people were injured, including elderly men and women.

Sunday night, Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy went on national television to announce that the referendum had not taken place.

“We did what we had to do,” he said.

Hours later, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont also appeared on television, speaking in both Catalan and Spanish, and announced that Catalans had won the right to independence. He is scheduled to make an official announcement on Oct. 9, when the Catalan government is expected to declare independence. (Despite a Spanish court order Thursday for a temporary suspension of the meeting, the regional government said Friday the session will still be held.)

But the fight for independence goes back much further than events this week — further, even, than the last few years of heightened separatist sentiments within the region. And the implications of the separation, if it goes ahead, could be felt around the world.

Catalonia’s long history of repression

Catalonia is one of 17 autonomous regions in Spain; it has its own language, Catalan, and a culture unique to the area. Instead of sangria and flamenco, locals drink vermouth and dance the sardana, a type of circle dance where people hold hands. Bullfighting was banned in the region in 2010.

For centuries, the Kingdom of Catalonia prospered on its own, until it succumbed to Spain during the War of Spanish Succession in 1714. Subsequent kings tried to impose the Spanish language on the region, but softened their efforts in 1932 — the same year they restored the Catalan government and gave it autonomous power.

But it didn’t last long. When the right-wing party led by Francisco Franco won the Spanish Civil War in 1939, they imposed even stricter sanctions on the region. One of Franco’s main goals was to annihilate Catalan aspirations for independence, and he did so by restricting the Catalan language and banning Catalan institutions. The Francoist dictatorship lasted until his death in 1975.

For many Catalans, ripples of the Francoist dictatorship are still felt today. At a polling station early in the morning on Oct. 1, Francesc Morales talked about how this lingering feeling of repression brought him out to vote. Morales grew up hearing stories from his grandfather, who went to prison for having a sign outside his barbershop in Catalan, instead of Spanish.

“When you know all these stories and you see the reality, there is an internal force that pushes you to go,” said Morales.

A matter of economics

With a GDP of 266 million Euros, Catalonia is one of the richest regions in Spain, making up almost one fifth of the country’s economic output. Barcelona — Spain’s second-largest city — is the capital of the region. And while the fight for independence may be political and cultural, it’s also economic.

The independence movement gained momentum in the last five to 10 years, partly a result of the 2008 economic crisis that caused Spain’s unemployment rate to rise to 26 percent. But Elisenda Paluzie, economics professor at the University of Barcelona, says what really caused separatist sentiments to grow was a Catalan statute of autonomy that was struck down by Spain’s Constitutional Court in 2010. It would have given Catalonia more power to collect its own taxes, as opposed to funnelling them straight to the central government, where Spain decides how to distribute public funds.

“Catalan economy is financing fiscally most of the regions in Spain, in the sense that we represent 16 percent of the Spanish population and we provide in taxes 20 percent of all taxes collected in Spain,” says Paluzie. She says Catalonia only receives 14 percent back in public funds.

While Paluzie believes Catalonia could be economically viable as an independent country, others say it wouldn’t be so easy. In case of secession, Catalonia would remain outside the European Union until it was reaccepted, which would mean tariffs with EU countries and possible relocation of businesses. Catalonia’s economy could also be hurt through reprisals like boycotts from countries opposed to its independence, or even be expelled from the common market.

The fight to vote

Sunday’s independence referendum wasn’t the first time the region voted on the matter. In 2014, Catalonia held a non-binding referendum where 80 percent of people voted in favour of independence — a largely symbolic poll that was seen as paving the way for a more formal referendum.

This time, Catalonia insisted the vote would be legally binding. When the regional government announced the October date back in June, Spain immediately opposed the referendum, claiming it would go against the country’s constitution that states Spain is indivisible.

In the months and weeks leading up to the referendum, however, the fight for independence turned more into a fight for the vote itself. Spanish police raided Catalan government offices, shut down pro-referendum websites, confiscated voting material and arrested local officials involved in planning the referendum. Thousands of people turned to the streets to protest, chanting things like, “This also happened with Franco.”

Yet, referendum day arrived. The Spanish government continued their fight to block the vote by sending thousands of national police officers to polling stations around the region. After hours of confrontation that left almost 900 civilians and around 400 police offers injured, Spanish police successfully shut down hundreds of polling stations and confiscated ballot boxes. Still, the people voted.

Amnesty International responded to the violence on Oct. 1 calling the police force against voters “excessive and disproportionate.” They called on Spanish authorities to launch an investigation into their actions. The United Nations had warned Spain in the days prior to the referendum that their actions “appeared to violate fundamental individual rights.”

Prime Minister Rajoy faces domestic and international criticism for the recent actions by government and police forces. Belgium’s Prime Minister, Charles Michel, was one of the few national leaders to publicly condemn the violence, saying on Twitter that “violence can never be the answer.” Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn also took to Twitter to call on the Spanish government to end police violence against citizens.

An unprecedented move

Catalonia’s move to vote in an independence referendum, and now implement its results, despite the Spanish government’s view, is considered unprecedented in the country. It is still unclear what will happen in the coming days, weeks or even years. From the Catalan perspective, the regional government passed a referendum law in September that set out the framework for a Catalan republic and constitution following a ‘yes’ vote, including details such as allowing for double nationality and control over Catalonia’s borders. A new assembly would be created, it said, to draw up the new constitution — a process that could take around six months.

Yet if Catalonia moves ahead with declaring independence on Oct. 9, Spain could invoke Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which would suspend Catalonia’s autonomy and allow Spain to take control of the region. Such a step has never been taken since the constitution was established in 1978.

Jaume López, political science professor at Pompeu Fabra University, a Catalan institution based in Barcelona, says he doubts any European country would even recognize Catalonia as a nation.

“At this point, I hope the European Union says at least something,” he said. “But I don’t think they’ll welcome us with open arms.”

López says the referendum is technically unconstitutional, but it’s not necessarily illegal. The Catalan law passed in September stated that independence would be binding with a majority vote, regardless of how many people turned out to vote.

But while Catalonia’s referendum law contradicts Spain’s constitution, López says it’s still a law.

“It’s a conflict of legitimacy,” said López. “The referendum could have been legal” if Spain would have authorized a consultative referendum to amend the Spanish constitution, specifically a clause that states the country is indivisible.

The day after the recent vote, the European Commission issued a statement saying that the vote in Catalonia was not legal. The issue was an internal matter, it said, to be dealt within the constitutional order of Spain.

Such a statement however may be taking into account the implications beyond Spain’s borders. Independence in Catalonia could provide a boost to separatist movements elsewhere — in Spain’s own Basque Country, but also in Scotland, other parts of Europe or even Québec. On Wednesday, Québec’s political parties, some of which have expressed solidarity for the Catalan independence movement in the past, condemned the “authoritarianism” of the Spanish government’s actions against the region. They called for the two sides to engage in dialogue.

“Whether you like it or not, we’re past the tipping point,” said López. “We’re already heading in that direction, it’s a snowball that no one can stop now.”