The road to independence: understanding the Catalan conflict

What is Catalonia?

Catalunya, or Catalonia, is a nation, home to the Catalans. It is currently an autonomous community under the Kingdom of Spain. Home to 7.5 million people, and with a GDP of 204 billion Euros, it is comparable in size to European countries such as Finland or Denmark.

Over the last few years the Catalan independence movement has grown strong, not only in the streets where pacific pro-independence demonstrations have reached two million people for several years, but also in the institutions where a 62% independentist majority has been the driving force of the institutional push for independence.

In this article, I will try to set a foundation for understanding the power dynamics that started the conflict, so one can follow the current discussions, as well as giving some inside perspective on how the last few weeks have developed.

Story of two brothers

The principality of Catalonia formed in the 11th century at the end of the Gothic period as a union of counties. However, it really flourished after a marriage with the kingdom of Aragon. Catalan language and culture spread with territorial expansions. In this period the first institutions were also born, most notably the Generalitat de Catalunya (home to the Catalan government).

A marriage lead to the union of Aragon and Castile: the court and thus the “high culture” moved to Castile. Aragon maintained the language, the institutions, and the laws, however, which made it a de facto independent region under the kingdom of Castile[1].

In the 18th century, a series of revolts known as the “reaper’s war” confronted the Catalan Principality and Castile. The aftermath merged into the war of succession to Castile’s throne, where both ended up supporting opposing dynasties. The Castilians and their allies won, imposing an absolutist monarchy and after ruthless military repression banned the use of Catalan, and put an end to centuries of self-governance.

Geopolitical as well as social circumstances such as Catalan inheritance laws brought speedy industrialization in Catalunya, this was a marked contrast with still mostly rural Spain, which had two distinct effects.

First off, there was development of an industrial bourgeoisie, who recovered Catalan literature and culture from centuries of diglossia in a movement called “la renaixença[2]”. This set the stage for the eventual political Catalanism.

Secondly, the development of a strong working class made Catalonia one of the most left-leaning regions, including a strong presence of anarcho-syndicalism, which decisively marked its role in the second Spanish Second Republic and the civil war.

The bunker of 78

In 1936 the fascists organised a coup d’état leading to the Spanish civil war. After nearly three years of war, the Republic lost. The revolutionary Catalonia, being one of the major centres of resistance, suffered from terrible repression. Catalan nationalism was especially persecuted, and the Catalan president was tragically executed. The government fled into exile.

Needless to say, 36 years of fascist dictatorship strengthened the socio-economical position of its supporters and severely crippled the opposition. This made the Spanish democratic transition a messy period. When Franco was on his deathbed, he named the Spanish king as leader of the State. External pressure and the growing opposition made the regime crumble, prompting a transition. But in the construction of the democracy, the left was still weak and disorganised, the nationalist right wing was still at its strongest.

Many compromises had to be made: There were no “Nuremberg trials”; war crimes never went to court, and fascists maintained their power positions forming the so-called “bunker of 78”. The two first presidents and the founder of what nowadays is the governing People’s Party, are only a few examples of new politicians who also held positions in the fascist regime.

The Spanish constitution is, in fact, the only European constitution to be written in such a turbulent period. Nevertheless, Catalan Government was restored with the Statute of Autonomy of 1979.

Growth of independentism

These last ten years have been key, seeing independentism rise from a counter-hegemonic movement, to a driving force in politics.

In 2005, after more than 30 years of democracy, the Catalan parliament approved a much-needed reform of the statute of 1979. It recognised Catalunya as a nation and it gave more autonomy in different fields ranging from language to law and finance.  It was passed with 88% support in the Catalan Parliament.

Back in 2003 the Spanish government had promised to support the reform, yet when taken to the Spanish congress, the proposal was mocked. It only passed after hard negotiations which cut numerous articles. A referendum in Catalonia passed the new reform, not without severe disaffection from the supporters.

In 2010, however, the constitutional tribunal, which has often been used as a repressive organisation for the government, deemed the new statute anti-constitutional, negating its validity four years after its implementation. A massive demonstration resulted under the slogan “We are a nation, we decide.”

A similar scenario is repeated after the crisis-torn Catalonia attempted negotiation of a fiscal pact in 2012. The outcome was the first of what would become annual pro-independence demonstrations. This time under the slogan “Catalonia, a new state in Europe.” The non-binding consultation of 2014 saw overwhelming results, as Spain’s immobility triggered the final cascade, the election in 2016. The mandate under the new president, Puigdemont was clear, push for a binding referendum. After almost a year, in September 2017 two laws are passed, one detailing the 1st October referendum, the other planning disconnection in case a yes comes out.

The referendum

Spain has promised that no referendum will happen, yet 10 days before it takes place barely anything has been done to stop it. A reckless intimidation campaign starts with no regard for human rights. Threats to take over Catalan police and suspend Catalan autonomy are constant. Police detain members of the Catalan parliament and call 715 mayors to court. Police break into several printing presses and correspondence is registered without orders looking for ballots and votes. In Madrid, pro-referendum meetings are banned, violating freedom of speech and reunion. 10,000 police officers are docked in Barcelona awaiting further orders.

However, Catalunya responds to these taunts not with violence but with spontaneous massive acts of pacific resistance, giving flowers to the police and chanting “we will vote.”

October 1st finally dawns. Word is that the police are going to close the voting stations. At 5pm hundreds of people gathered outside, to prevent them from closing them. The ballots are snuck in, and the last piece of information is revealed: the census will be online to allow for flexibility.

I was volunteering in a voting station. The voting started and the air was filled with joy and many voters burst into tears: “I have been waiting for this all my life,” “My brother died fighting the civil war, today he would be proud.” In other stations people go to vote with Spanish flags tied around their waist, they are received by applause. People know what is at stake, this is no longer a matter of independence, it’s a matter of democracy and human rights.

The joy does not last, as social networks are flooded with images of police violence: Spanish police smashing down doors, breaking into schools and stealing ballots. Young and old were thrown down stairs, dragged over the floor, beaten down, and shot by rubber bullets. Interrogations were carried out in search   for “proscribed material” (ballots). A total of 944 people had to be given medical care. Their crime? Voting.

The participation was severely harmed, 400 schools were closed and ballots were confiscated, yet 43% of the votes could be counted. The results are clear, with 90% of voters saying Yes to independence, 7.8% against.

The following week flies by as protests fill the streets. Most notably a general strike is held on Tuesday. Flags of all sorts unite condemning Spanish violence against civilians. On Saturday a demonstration without flags supporting dialogue is held in many parts of Spain. The only violence occurs on the Sunday demonstration held by unionists with the support of fascists. The king of Spain gives a speech; instead of asking for mediation, he backs the Spanish government and calls for intervention.

On Tuesday the 10th, Catalan parliament meets. Everyone expects the declaration of independence, as promised by the law of transition. Puigdemont indeed announces the Catalan Republic, only to immediately suspend it, calling for dialogue one last time.

The turn is now for Rajoy to play: will he accept the dialogue? He seems determined to suspend Catalan autonomy if plans for independence are abandoned before Monday. This would force a Catalan government to declare independence, to maintain control over the country. Finally putting an end to oppression, to the bunker of 78, and returning to Catalunya their right to Self Determination.

[1] Catalunya is only the central part of the Països Catalans, the area in which Catalan is spoken, approximately overlapping with what used to be the crown of Aragon.  For simplicity’s sake this article will talk about Catalunya, but many independentists aspire for the independence of Països Catalans.
[2] The rebirth

Opinion Column by Pau Barba i Colomer


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