Catalonia and Independence

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts Miss W’s mum, Mama W, is Catalan. My mum was born in a village in the mountains about 50km away from Barcelona. Mama W comes from a very traditional Catalan family, and Miss W was brought up with a very strong feeling of Catalan identity. Miss W herself was born in Barcelona. I have come and gone from the UK to Catalonia a few times in my life. Papa W was from a town on the edge of the Lake District so every few years my parents would decide to move and off we went back to the other country.

Miss W considers herself about 80% Catalan, and about 20% British, but this has fluctuated several times throughout my life. Anyway, the point of this post is to tell you all about what is happening in Catalonia at the moment. Catalonia is at the moment an autonomous region of Spain. It is in the north east corner, it has a border with France and faces out to the Mediterranean sea. Catalonia has always been a distinctive part of Spain, with its own language, culture and history. In the past few years there has been a strong call from Catalans to become independent from Spain.

To understand the motivation behind the Catalan independence movement, I’ll give you a bit of historical and political context. Catalonia’s history began when Charlemagne, the Frankish king, appointed Guifré el Pelós as first Count of Barcelona to protect the Spanish March from a Moorish invasion in the eight century. The Counts of Barcelona ruled under France until they were united through marriage with the Crown of Aragon in the 12th century. In 1469 the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon to Isabel of Castille marked the birth of the modern Spanish state. Under the Catholic kings and their successors, Catalonia was absorbed into a centralised state and lost much of its autonomy. Catalonia had its own laws as a principality under the Crown of Aragon, but this ended in 1714, when the Bourbon dynasty conquered the throne during the Spanish War of Succession. Over the centuries, Catalonia made several unsuccessful attempts to gain more autonomy from Spain, but it has remained part of the larger Spanish state.

Jumping way ahead in time for brevity’s sake, in April 1931 Spain became a republic. In Catalonia, Francesc Macià, the leader of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), declared “a state of the Iberian Federation.” However, he later deferred to the Spanish government’s wish of not creating a separate Catalan federal state, but a  comprehensive state compatible with the autonomy of municipalities and regions.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Catalonia was a Republican bastion. When General Francisco Franco’s fascist Falange won the war in 1939, Catalonia’s autonomy was revoked. Catalan nationalism, culture, and language were officially banned. Franco’s was the “first serious attempt to culturally and linguistically homogenize the peoples of Spain” into a Castillian, conservative, united land. This continued until Franco’s death in 1975.

In 1977 the first democratic elections in four decades were held in Spain, and the following year the main political parties agreed on a new constitution. It proclaimed the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation” (Generalitat de Catalunya, 2014) but implicitly recognised Catalonia as a “historical nationality”. In order to control separatism, Spain created regional governments in Catalonia, the Basque country and Galicia. This aimed to silence the Catalans who had been calling for the restoration of the Statute of Autonomy. By 1983, Spain was a “quasi-federal state, comprising 17 autonomous regions”

In 1980 parliamentary elections took place in Catalonia and Jordi Pujol, leader of Convergència i Unió (CiU), became president of the Generalitat, the Catalan government. Pujol’s party was actually a coalition between Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC) and Unió Democràtica de Catalunya (UDC). Pujol acted to build up Catalonia’s culture and language within the framework of Spain and Europe (Guibernau, 2004). CiU was traditionally not in favour of secession, unlike other parties like ERC. Pujol remained president until 2003, when Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya (PSC), led by former Barcelona mayor Pasqual Maragall, came to power with a coalition between CiU, ERC and PSC.

In 2004, after the Atocha station bombings in Madrid, discontent with the right-wing Partido Popular (PP) Spanish central government’s false accusation of the Basque terrorist group ETA led Spain to vote for the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE). Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was elected as president. Zapatero started a process to revise the statutes of autonomy, and a new Statute of Autonomy was drafted by the Catalan Government. The draft was supported by 90% of the Catalan Parliament, and approved by 73.9% of Catalans in a referendum in June 2006.

However, the PP decided to appeal against the Statute at the Spanish High Court. In 2010, the court suppressed or modified several articles regarding Catalonia’s financial, symbolic and judicial status. A million Catalans took to the streets of Barcelona in July 2010 demanding more autonomy under the motto: ‘We are a nation. We decide’. All political parties joined the march except PP. Shortly afterwards, Artur Mas, leader of CiU, won the Catalan elections with a vast majority. CiU’s 2010 electoral programme proposed a consultation to decide on Catalonia’s independence. In 2012, Mas called new elections in order to reassert support for Catalan independence after failed talks on fiscal issues with Mariano Rajoy, the leader of PP who had succeeded Zapatero as President of the government in 2011. CiU was returned to power in a coalition with ERC, and immediately announced that the new government would be dedicated to build an independent Catalan State within a European framework.

Although nationalism is strong in Catalonia, support for separatism has historically always been weak. In 2008, only 15.7% of those surveyed in Catalonia said they would be in favour of independence (Institut de Ciències Polítiques i Socials, 2008). However, the European economic crisis in 2008 exacerbated Catalans’ anger against Madrid’s economic policies and a 2013 poll showed that 82.1% of those surveyed were in favour of a referendum on independence and 58% said they would vote in favour of independence (L’Associació de Municipis per la Independència, 2013).

In 2012, CiU and ERC agreed to go ahead with a referendum on independence to be held in 2014 despite Spain’s insistence that it would be unconstitutional.  Rajoy has declared: “I have sworn to uphold the constitution and the law and, because of this, I guarantee that this referendum will not happen.” After much noise from the Spanish government and a ban, this unofficial referendum was held by the Assemblea Nacional Catalana on the 9th of November 2014, and Catalans were asked two questions: “Do you want Catalonia to be a state?” and “Do you want that state to be independent?”  Miss W voted in this unofficial referendum, queueing for 3 hours along Fleet Street in London to vote at the delegation of the Catalan government in London. There were many others who travelled from all around the UK and Ireland to be able to vote and many who queued for longer than I did.

Despite threats from the Spanish government, a total of 2,305,290 Catalans voted, 35.81% of the eligible electorate. 80.76% of those voted in favour of independence, 4.54% against and 10.7% in favour of a non-independent state. (Figures from cataloniavotes.eu) As this vote was not binding, the Catalan President, Artur Mas, called an early plebiscitary election that was held on the 27 September 2015. This vote was a de facto referendum on independence from Spain. Last weekend Miss W flew off to Barcelona to take part in the vote.

Junts pel Sí (Translates as together for yes) an independentist nationalist coalition party supported by different parties (ERC) (CDC) (MES) (DC) won 62 out of 135 seats, with 10 more seats won by CUP, a radical-left independence party. This amounts to 47.7 per cent of the votes, sadly not quite enough to make up a majority. The other major player in this vote, with 25 seats was Ciudadanos, a centre-right party which is firmly unionist and is open to debating solutions and negotiating greater fiscal autonomy.

A week after the vote, and different parties are now in talks to form a government. This is probably the closest that Catalonia has ever been to gaining independence from Spain, although the vote is only the beginning. There will be many obstacles along the way, not least the Spanish government’s refusal to recognise any kind of vote. They are firmly entrenched in the view that the Spanish constitution cannot be changed and that this independence is a non debate as it is simply impossible. This is certainly a position, but one that cannot be sustained for long, as Catalan people are speaking up about what they want for their nation.

I have always been in favour of an independent Catalan state. It does not mean that I hate Spain, Spanish people or that I have no relationship to Spain. I would like Catalonia to be an independent country with our own language, culture, identity and being able to manage our own resources without the Spanish state imposing on us. Smaller countries with less resources have become independent in the past, so why can’t Catalonia?

Whatever happens, one thing Spain will never be able to take away from Catalans is the way we feel, no matter how many “españolisation” campaigns Spain indulges in. As the words of the popular Catalan sardana La Santa Espina say,

Som i serem gent catalana
tant si es vol com si no es vol

(We are and will be Catalan people

whether they want us to be or not)

https://www.youtube.com/embed/OJLFbxsRrgg“>http://

Voters at the Junts pel Si rally on Sunday 27th of September 2015.
Voters at the Junts pel Si rally on Sunday 27th of September 2015.

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