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Why Catalans Want Independence From Spain

If anyone thinks, says or writes that the Catalan question is easy to understand, I would say that she or he did not understand anything. The question comes from long back and is complex. Catalan independence can appear to a foreign eye, both as a matter of avarice (Catalonia not willing to share its economic wealth with the rest of Spain), and simultaneously as a political force of emancipation (similar, but obviously different to that of the Kurds or Saharawi).

I’ve lived in Barcelona for ten years. I’ve witnessed the cultural, economic and political motivations of contemporary Catalan ‘independetism’ (separatism might be a more common expression for this in English, but not in Latin languages). In response to the referendum that took place on October 1st, I suggest the need for mediation, rather than repression to tackle a political conflict that questions the meaning of democracy itself.

Catalonia is a small region between Spain and France, with Barcelona as the capital, and 7.5 million people. The name is used since the Middle Age, and is roughly the same territory of the County of Barcelona created around 800 dC. In those years, Muslims controlled almost the whole of the Iberian peninsula under the name Caliphate of Cordoba (or al-Ándalus). For centuries Catalonia has been conquered repeatedly by neighboring kingdoms (more or less Spain and France, in today’s configuration). It was an independent republic, under the protectorate of France, between 1640 and 1652, before falling definitively under the Spanish dominance in the War of Succession ended in 1714. At that time, the King was Philip V of Spain (1683 – 1746) of the Bourbon dynasty, still reigning in Spain. Today the King is Philip VI. Catalan nationalism (that Paul Mason calls ‘cosmopolitan’), as we know it today, has its roots in the second half of the 19th century, at the time of industrialization. From the beginning, and through out its history, nationalism has been supported by both progressive and conservative forces. The first Catalanist party was the Lliga Regionalista de Catalunya (1901-1936; Regionalist League of Catalonia). In 1931, the party, which still exists, the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, Republican Left of Catalonia) supports the cause of a Catalan republic, but they would have to be content with an autonomous region under the name of Generalitat de Catalunya (Government of Catalonia). The autonomous government between 1936 and 1939 will be abolished after the victory of the putschist Francisco Franco. Political autonomy is canceled and the Catalan language is forbidden. Once Franco died in 1975, the new Spanish Constitution of 1978 allowed for the formation of the new Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia in 1979, similar to that of 1932 abolished under the dictatorship. In 2006, the Catalans approve a new Estatut by referendum, that would further expand the authority of the Generalitat de Catalunya, but the Constitutional Court challenged its constitutionality and modified it substantially. This generated a lot of frustration, and as a consequence the option of independence from Spain, up to that time rather a minority position, begins to gain terrain in the public opinion. This is demonstrated by the increasing participation in the Diada (Catalan National Day) on September 11th each year, with 2 million people according to the organizers (and 600,000 according to the Spanish government) in 2012 demanding independence. In 2014, the first popular consultation is celebrated and in the elections of 2015 the coalition of independent parties wins the elections. Here’s how we get to the referendum on October 1st 2017, vite fait.

To simplify, I would say that there are three main elements of contemporary Catalan indepententism that have to do with culture, economy and politics.

First of all, the Catalans are very proud of their language and culture, and feel different from the Spaniards. Catalonia is completely bilingual, Spanish and Catalan. Those who went to school under Franco’s fascist dictatorship (from 1939 until 1975) speak Catalan but often do not know how to write it. It was forbidden even to speak it. Of course, schools today are in Catalan. The memory of the civil war (1936-1939) and the fascist oppression is very alive.

Secondly, there is an economic issue, that recalls reasons behind the Brexit. Catalonia accounts for 20% of Spanish GDP, 16% of the population and pays 23% of taxes but receives ‘only’ 10 % of investments. There would therefore be a fiscal deficit, between what Catalonia contributes and receives from Spain. So if Catalonia was independent, it could ‘earn’ about 10% of its GDP. I confess that the exact logic of these estimates escapes me. For example, in terms of energy, Catalonia is largely dependent on foreign imports of fossil fuels, and its industrialization has been allowed by migratory flows from southern Spain and from abroad. What is the deficit and debt not only economic, but also ecological, between Catalonia, Spain and the rest of the world is questionable. In a more comprehensive way, the Catalan left-wing eco-feminist party CUP, based on autonomous local assemblies according to the principles of deliberative democracy, calls from a transition from autonomy to sovereignty, not only in political and economic terms, but also in relation to energy, food, health and education.

The economic issue has certainly been aggravated by the financial crisis. Although it was the Catalan government to apply the first austerity measures, these were said to be justified by the lack of funding from the Spanish government. The economic question is the most controversial one.

The last question would be the political one. Spain is a parliamentary hereditary monarchy, divided into 17 autonomous communities. Communities have ample competences, which include health and education, and to the state only corresponds the basic legislation. Some communities such as the Basque Country and Catalonia have their own political dynamics with their regional parties. They complain that Spain has never recognized to be a pluri-national state. The Catalans do not feel identified with the Spanish government, now dominated by the right-wing post-fascist Partido Popular of Mariano Rajoy. There is also the hypothesis that if the government was at a lower geographical level, it would be more democratic. Last, there is the intention to break with the 1978 Constitution, which many on the left think it has not made justice with the fascist past (a transaction rather than a transition). Each one projects on a potential Catalan republic her/his own expectations and fantasies, many of which are in itself contradictory. For example, CUP sees it as an opportunity for a revolutionary project focused on anti-capitalism, direct democracy, feminism and ecology. This is definitively not the position of the majority of Catalans.

In conclusion, even though these issues contribute to understanding the emergence of Catalan independetism, I still wonder whether there are broader issues that have to do with global processes, such as some refusal to globalization, and which could potentially be valid elsewhere. Some argue that across the world, people yearn to govern themselves. Are there increasing aspirations for direct democracy? We shall see.

Hoping to have clarified some of the origins of Catalan independetism, let’s focus on today. The current Catalan government convened a referendum on October 1st with the question: “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state in the form of a republic?” Yes or no.

The Catalan government, made up of independentists (or separatists), celebrated the referendum, according to a law approved in the Catalan parliament. More than 2.000.000 Catalans casted their vote, 90% in favour of independence. The Spanish government considers it illegal because it violates the Spanish Constitution, and attempted to prevent it with violent repression. The Catalan government consists of the coalition Junts pel Sí (with the two main catalan parties Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, center-left, and the Partit Demòcrata Europeu Català, center-right) with the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP), left-wing, eco-feminist and pro-degrowth. These Catalan parties have 72 votes in a parliament with 135 votes. Against, with 52 votes, there are the Catalan branches of main Spanish parties Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya, il Partit Popular de Catalunya e Ciutadanos. The other 11 deputies are from Podem (the Catalan Podemos) are in the middle: they are not in favor of independence, but of a referendum.

With the same firmness, the Spanish government (in minority) of the Partido Popular has been determined to prevent it. Even the Partido Socialista Obrero Español opposes, while Podemos no. The Constitutional Court has suspended it. Over the past two weeks, government officials have already been arrested and 10 million ballot papers have been seized, calling 700 (out of 900) Catalan mayors to declare in the Court for showing their support for the referendum. The Spanish government has sent in Catalonia about 10,000 members of the Spanish military police Guardia Civil (same that under the fascist dictatorship), which are partly hosted by three Italian cruise ships. The Spanish government has little faith in the Catalan police (the mossos) with 16,000 members. Let alone that one of the cruise ships, Moby Dada, is decorated with the canary Tweety and Sylvester the Cat. The brutality of the Spanish anti-riot police has left 800 wounded voters, despite their peaceful attitude. In Catalonia human and civil rights, freedom of speech, freedom of information and freedom of assembly are being violated by Spain’s central government, in a dangerous drift towards authoritarianism. The unquestionable truth is: the more the repression by the Spanish government, the more the support for Independence in Catalonia. This is linked to a fundamental question: What is democracy? Is it defending the Spanish Constitution principle of the indissoluble unity of Spain with repression, or voting to exercise people’s right to self determination?

This recalls an old debate in political science regarding whether national self-determination, in the form of creation of a new state through secession, overrides the principles of majority rule and of equal rights. Surveys say that around 80% of Catalans think that they should be legally allowed to vote. Participation would be about 60/70%, and about 50% would vote for independence. Instead, 60% of Spaniards think that such a referendum should not be allowed. The Catalan question is a political conflict that I doubt can be solved with repression. It needs mediation, urgently.

Federico Demaria is an ecological economist at Environmental Science and Technology Institute, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona (Spain). He is the co-editor of Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era (Routledge, 2015), a book translated into ten languages.

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