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Monday, April 2, 2018

To Be or Not to Be: Catalonia and the Fight for Independence

By Natalie Varney, Intern

On December 21, 2017, the Spanish autonomous state of Catalonia held snap regional elections to declare the distribution of seats in the 135-seat parliament. This election was triggered by the independence referendum of October 1, 2017, in which thousands of Catalans voted in favor of the referendum and subsequently declared independence from Spain. Against this unilateral decision, Madrid seized power over the region with an iron fist--which is permitted under Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution. As the referendum was deemed unconstitutional, Spanish police used force and violence in an attempt to stop voters from reaching the polls in October. There is shocking footage of the police using batons and rubber bullets--the rubber bullets ironically being forbidden in Catalonia.
According to the Catalan government, 90% of those who voted backed independence, but turnout was only 43%. This turnout can be considered an inaccurate representation of the thoughts of Catalan citizens due to the closing of many polling stations and the presence of police suppression at the remaining opened ones. However, the majority of citizens against the independence movement are thought to have boycotted the vote.
After the referendum, the Catalan Government was subsequently terminated by the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy. In hopes to calm the Catalan independence fever, the snap regional elections were declared to take place in December to fill the 135-seat parliament. The President of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, then fled to Brussels--escaping arrest from the Spanish government.
A record of more than 80% of Catalan voters showed up to cast their ballots in the snap regional elections. Results demonstrated that Catalonia’s separatist parties won a slight majority in the Parliament with 70 of the 135 seats--a number that could continue the push for independence. Unfortunately for the separatist parties, many of their leaders or politicians remain incarcerated or in self-imposed exile. Additionally, the Ciutadans (Citizens)--an anti-independence party--gained the most seats for a single party in the parliament. However, the 36 seats are not a majority.
This picture was taken on La Diada Nacional De Catalunya, a day that
commemorates the fall of Barcelona during the War of the Spanish
Succession on September 11, 1714.
Whether or not separatist leaders remain in self-imposed exile, it is unlikely Catalonia will become independent--at least not in the near future. While recent events in Catalonia may seem as unforeseen to those around the world, the Catalan people have desired independence from Spain for centuries. In 1640, Catalonia revolted against the Spanish crown in an attempt to become independent for the first time. Unlike Portugal, Catalonia was unsuccessful. In 1714--not even a century later--a new dynasty abolished the laws and the institutions of all the former kingdoms of Spain, including Catalonia. The use of Catalan became prohibited for the first time, and this is considered the beginning of discrimination against the Catalan language.
During my year of study in the Universitat de Barcelona, I had the opportunity to befriend many students with diverse opinions on Catalonia’s fight to secede, as well as experience many non-violent political demonstrations in the streets of Catalonia. Due to the recent events of Catalonia’s appearance in international news, I decided to reach out to a few friends in an attempt to understand a general younger opinion on the secessionist movement. According to a Catalan student of the Universitat de Barcelona, the decision of independence “is not a decision of politicians, it is the people’s decision. People will continue to want it, and that is not going to change.”
The same student also mentioned that “Spain would need to change its constitution, which was written in transition after Franco’s death. It’s a very old and outdated constitution and does not include the interests of all communities.” During Franco’s dictatorship, the use of languages other than Spanish (like Catalan, Basque, etc.) was forbidden and made illegal in an attempt to establish national homogeneity. Nonetheless, citizens continued to use Catalan in private. It is also interesting to note that this “old” constitution was put in place in 1978, being a mere 40 years old compared to the ancient United States Constitution.
When another Catalan student was asked about the likelihood of independence, the source responded: “Catalonia would need recognition from other countries, and especially from Spain. This could take time. But how long? I don’t know.”
However, it is not likely that Catalonia would get recognition from other countries, being that many have to deal with their own problems of rising nationalist movements. Not one nation-state in the European Union backs Catalonia in its battle to secede--not even Belgium, where separatist leaders sought refuge.
A third student described many reasons why they wanted Catalonia to be independent, one being along the lines of Woodrow Wilson’s self-determination: “I believe in the right of self-determination,” the source said. “Catalan society wants a referendum...and the state denies us every time.”
With that, the second source also described opinions of diglossia in Catalan society. One common factor that each interviewee agreed on was that the Catalan language and culture is very important to them and that they wished it receive the respect it deserves. The first and second source also agreed upon the idea that the Spanish government is manipulating television and radio of not just Catalonia, but the rest of Spain so that Spanish citizens remain uninformed.
Catalonia’s deep history and current events describe why many citizens may want to separate from Spain. However, opinions of Catalan citizens may range from complete indifference of independence to a pure hatred towards Spain. During my time in Barcelona, I was able to encounter citizens on both sides of the spectrum. Generally, the younger population backs the independence movement. There were select students who would only discuss with professors in Catalan, as well as bakery workers who would only respond to me in Catalan--making it clear that they knew Spanish but chose not to speak it, even with someone who clearly did not speak Catalan.
Catalonia has attracted a substantial amount of international attention within the last decade or so, and is likely to attract much more attention in the years to come. It does not seem likely that Catalan citizens will cease to fight for secession, however, it is also not likely that Catalonia will secede in the near future. Rising up from near political-irrelevance to international breaking news, Catalonia’s fight for secession is guaranteed to become a household topic in subsequent years.

Additional Readings

Cuadras-Morató, Xavier. Catalonia: A New Independent State in Europe? London and New York: Routledge, 2016.
Henley, Jon. "Catalonia secessionist parties declare victory in regional elections -- as it happened." The Guardian. 21 Dec. 2017. 16 Feb. 2018. <>.
"In Pictures/Timeline: The Catalan Crisis in October 2017." The Local. 30 Oct. 2017. 16 Feb. 2018. <>.
Minder, Raphael. "Catalonia Election Gives Separatists New Lift." The New York Times. 21 Dec. 2017. 16 Feb. 2018. <>.
Minder, Raphael. "Catalonia's Parliament Delays Vote on Puigdemont as President." The New York Times. 30 Jan. 2018. 16 Feb. 2018. < spain-catalonia-carles-puigdemont.html>.
Rodriguez, Vicente. "Catalonia." Encyclopedia Britannica. 28 Feb. 2018. 20 Mar. 2018. <>.
Woolf, Christopher. "The roots of Catalonia's differences with the rest of Spain." PRI. 20 Oct. 2017. 20 Mar. 2018. <>.

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