The political agenda in Catalonia was not always about independence from Spain. The failure to reform its Statute of Autonomy in 2010 ignited popular resentment for Madrid’s rule, propelling a secessionist movement that could result in a new European state.  

Following the Constitutional Court’s verdict that the 1 October independence referendum was illegal, the Guardia Civil arrested 14 members of the regional government, confiscated over nine million ballots, and shut down informational websites on the vote. Regional president Carles Puigdemont declared that “the [Spanish] state has by default suspended autonomy”.

Yet the biggest response was from Catalans themselves: 40,000 people marched in the streets of Barcelona to protest the arrests. A permanent demonstration has since formed, and every night from 10 to 10:15pm, citizens bang pots and pans out of their windows and balconies, while cars in the streets below honk their horns to voice their discontent. For Catalans, the actions of the police are reminiscent of a long history of repression, inequality and struggle for autonomy that has defined their past.

A long history of struggle

The crisis pits the Spanish government against leaders in Catalonia over an independence referendum banned by Madrid, and is the latest episode of centuries of friction between this region and central authorities.

For centuries, Catalans had maintained periods of control over their own legal institutions and laws through negotiations with the successive rulers of Castile and Aragon. Its self-governance was first lost, however, when the newly crowned Philip V of Spain, victorious in the War of Spanish Succession, abolished Catalan autonomy in 1716. Catalan identity had effectively been erased in favour of a powerful Spanish state. Autonomic ambitions resurfaced in the 19th century, following Catalonia’s rise as an industrial and economic powerhouse.

This resulted in the foundation of the Lliga Regionalista (the Regionalist League of Catalonia) in 1901. A free ‘Catalan Republic’ was declared in both 1931 and 1934, during the Second Spanish Republic. Despite negotiations for a statute of autonomy with the Spanish state, the imminent outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) and consequent rise of Francisco Franco saw Catalonia’s political rights, language and culture crushed.

A catalan flag on Barcelona's Sagrada Familia
The Sagrada Família in Barcelona was a focal point for La Diada’s celebrations on 11 September. Photo credit: John Bartlett/Jericho.

Franco died in 1975 leading to transition to democracy and a new Spanish Constitution in 1978. It ratified the Spanish state as a federal entity and granted each of the 17 autonomous communities and 2 autonomous cities its own autonomy. Regional governments were granted exclusive power to decide matters such as culture (including language), transportation and commerce. As a compromise, other matters such as education were to be shared with the Spanish government.

The Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, created in 1979, allowed the region to form its own independent government called the Generalitat, and recognised and guaranteed “the right to autonomy of nationalities”. However, a great deal of ambiguity remained in defining the relationship between Spain and its so-called “nationalities”. The subsequent decades saw a constant struggle in achieving a balance between the autonomous communities and the central government.

1980’s – 2000’s: First steps towards independence

Throughout the 1980s, the ruling Catalan political party Convergència i Unio (Convergence and Union, or CiU) pursued a political agenda colloquially known as “peix al cove” (literally “a fish in the basket”, which roughly equates to the English idiom  “a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush”). Filled with hope for the new democratic project in Spain, the CiU devoted its efforts to fostering the Catalonia-Spain relations.

Germà Bel, professor of economics at the University of Barcelona, sums up the thinking of Catalan politicians during the 1980s in his book Distrust, Dissolution: The Surge of Support for Independence in Catalonia: “it was hoped that Catalonia’s commitment to Spain would be matched by Spain’s commitment to Catalonia”.  However, during the years that followed the establishment of the statute of autonomy, many Catalans found themselves increasingly disillusioned.

For many, the underlying problem was the disproportionate rate of taxation on Catalonia that did not translate into spending in the region. A study on the ‘Fiscal Balance of Catalonia from 2006– 2009‘, conducted by the Generalitat and published in 2012, concluded that “for every euro that the central government takes from Catalonia, 43 cents is not spent on the territory itself”. Spanish infrastructure was another example of such unequal distribution that favoured the interests of the capital over those of the outlying regions.

In his essay ‘Strangers in Our Own Land’, Bel notes that “there are sections of railway with little or no transit that are already or about to be served by high-speed trains to and from Madrid, while between Barcelona and Tarragona – the busiest land corridor in the south of Europe – there are still 35km of single direction rail”. Moreover, the steady increase of immigration from other parts of Spain and the world put an even heavier financial burden on the region’s ability to provide education, transportation, and healthcare.

Language and culture, moreover, has remained a contentious issue. The Statute of Autonomy of 1978 restored the Catalan language – the use of which was banned in public during the dictatorship – as an official language, alongside Spanish. For many, Catalan is the vehicle through which their culture is transmitted and diffused. As a result of its history, many Catalans see the Spanish government as the incarnation of oppressors that have been attempting to eradicate their culture for hundreds of years. Thus, the petition from several families to teach more Spanish in Catalan schools was received with heavy backlash and criticism; vocal support from lawmakers in Madrid caused even more disdain for the ruling government from Catalan nationalists.

Catalan flag in front of a church in Manresa
A church in Manresa during La Diada celebrations. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

The Statute of 2006: A last attempt at self-rule

Reforms were called for as a response to widespread political, economic, and social discontent. The Socialist Party (PSOE) reformed the Statute of Autonomy in 2006, calling for greater autonomy over fiscal affairs and the recognition of the Catalan language as a “vehicle for learning”.

Though the statute enjoyed the wide support of its citizens during a referendum, the People’s Party (PP) appealed the constitutionality of the proposed statute to the highest court in Spain, the Constitutional Court. In 2010, after four years of deliberation, the court found that fourteen articles of the proposed statute were unconstitutional, while alluding to the “indissolubility of Spain” and the equal treatment of Catalan and Spanish languages.

The verdict, coinciding with the devastating economic crisis in Spain, was responsible for the major shift in Catalan public opinion. Studies on political views of citizens conducted by the Centre of Opinion (Centre d’Estudis Opinio) demonstrated this change: in June of 2005, 40.8% of polled participants wanted Catalonia to remain as an autonomous community within Spain; just 13.6% wanted independence. By November of 2013, however, the numbers were reversed: 48.5% wanted Catalonia to be an independent state, while just 18.6% continued to support Catalonia’s status as an autonomous community.

Two weeks after the court’s pronouncement, a grassroots mass demonstration was held in Barcelona. An estimated 1.1 to 1.5 million people marched in the streets of the Catalan capital to protest the rejection of the proposed statute. The young, decades-old democratic project of Spain was challenged, as Catalans increasingly identified with the need to create their own state. They made their wish known to the rest of the country and the world by displaying esteladas (unofficial state flags that represent independence) and banners with their slogan at the front of marches: Som una nació. Nosaltres decidim (We are a nation. We decide.).

In the years since, the independence movement has grown to become a mainstream political force. The Catalan Parliament, comprised of a majority of pro-independence parties following elections in 2015, called for a binding referendum in June this year. If a majority should vote ‘yes’, then independence will be declared within 48 hours. It remains to be seen how Madrid will react should a very tight referendum go the way of the nationalists, despite the expected low turnout.

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