This is the second half of a two-part article about Catalonia and its independence movement. It is based on the article published by me in the Winter 2019 paper edition of Rostra Economica.
In the previous part of the article we discussed the origins of Catalonia and the most important political events leading up to the 2017 independence referendum.
The “illegal” referendum (as opposed to other “legal” independence referenda like the Scottish referendum of 2014) of 1 October 2017 resulted in 92% voting in favour of independence but with a turnout of only 43% of the electorate, as most “constitutionalists” (those that want Catalonia to stay in Spain) did not vote. The referendum was marked by a police crackdown on polling booths as thousands of policemen were called to Catalonia from other parts of Spain. Police violence resulted in hundreds of injured civilians and tens of injured police officers.
The result of the referendum led to a suspended declaration of independence on 10 October by the President of the Generalitat, Carles Puigdemont. As no point of dialogue was reached with the Spanish Government, the Catalan Parliament unilaterally declared on 27 October 2017 the independence of Catalonia with the votes in favour of 70 out of 135 MP’s.
This was quickly followed by a decision of the Spanish Senate to suspend Catalonia’s autonomous powers invoking Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution. The Spanish government then dissolved the Parliament of Catalonia and called new regional elections for 21 December 2017. The anti-independence party “Ciudadanos” won first place in the elections but the pro-independence parties maintained their absolute majority in the Parliament.
Several Catalan politicians and activists were arrested in the weeks and months following the October 1 referendum, including the President of the Catalan Parliament, the Vice President of Catalonia Oriol Junqueras, and the presidents of two pro-independence cultural organisations. The imprisonment of these two activists called “Jordis” led to critiques from several independent organisations, such as Amnesty International. These arrests delayed the process of the investiture of the new president of the Generalitat, which only happened in May 2018 when Quim Torra was elected by simple majority with the support of the pro-independence parties ERC and JuntsxCat. The imprisonment of many Catalan leaders and the escape of the former President of the Generalitat, Carles Puidgemont, into exile has led to some division and disheartenment among independentists.
The conviction of nine of the Catalan leaders to heavy prison sentences on 14 October 2019 has reignited the protests in favour of independence and the calls for the liberation of what they call political prisoners. However, this time, with the continuous lack of dialogue, some of the protests have become violent. Despite being a minority, they have had a big media impact, influencing the Spanish general elections called for 10 November.
On 19 December, the European Court of Justice considered that the former vice-president of Catalonia Oriol Junqueras should be recognized as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and consequently, he should also enjoy from parliamentary immunity. This created a precedent for two other Catalan independentists, including former President of Catalonia Carles Puidgemont, to take their seats in the European Parliament (which had not been permitted by Spanish authorities).
However, on 9 January 2020, the Spanish Supreme Court denied Junqueras’ immunity, which meant that he continued serving his sentence in prison in Spain, while the two other Catalan independentist politicians occupied their seats in the European Parliament for the first time on 13 January. This created even more political tension in Spain, as the newly elected Spanish government depends on the abstention of Junqueras’ party ERC.
Another destabilizing event has been the decision of the Central Electoral Board (JEC) to declare that the current President of Catalonia, Quim Torra, cannot perform public functions for a year and a half for failing to follow orders to take out any symbols supporting the release of the “political prisoners” during election period. However, Torra has disobeyed the calls for his destitution.
The protests following the Supreme Court decision have also been marked by more “professionalised” demonstrations called by the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR) that occupied the Barcelona international airport and by the newly-created “Tsunami Democràtic”. This leaderless movement has organised its protests with a “bespoke” Android app and has called for non-violent acts of mass civil disobedience. The app can only be accessed by an invitation by one of its users. This innovative form of organising protests has led them to the blocking of the main crossing point between Catalonia and France.
For me, there does not seem to be in the short-term any possible outcome that is favourable to independentists or any political will to find a solution or compromise that satisfies most Catalans. Catalonia is nowadays a profoundly divided society between frustrated independentists and those who want to stay in Spain. I’m not trying to be in favour of either side, but I want to remember that the right to self-determination is enshrined in international law, but that naturally, the concept of a “people” or a “nation” is hard to determine precisely.
In my opinion, there are two main reasons that explain the current situation in Catalonia. On the one side, the complex composition of peoples in Spain and the political structure of the Spanish State. On the other side, a lack of dialogue that is not particular to Catalonia but to Spain in general. Spain is a country that has seen an increase in the culture of conflict between left and right and that still has open wounds from the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist dictatorship.
The Catalan Independence movement has stirred up old feelings of nationalism in Spain that people thought had been buried with Franco. It explains why in one year, VOX, a party without any representation in national or regional parliaments, has grown into the third-biggest party in the Spanish Congress. Speeches that glorify Spain’s past and that defend a heavy-hand to deal with Catalonia have grown in popularity and can be found in parties other than VOX.
After almost one year without a government, the leader of the Socialist Party (PSOE) Pedro Sánchez was invested as prime-minister on 7 January 2020. The left-wing coalition between PSOE and Podemos has managed to get the support of Basque and Catalan independentists. However, the coalition government will likely face very substantial challenges, since it depends on the support of a large number of parties to pass any legislative measures in the Parliament.
Despite the government’s support by the left-wing Catalan independentist party ERC and its commitment to negotiate with the Catalan Generalitat, any relevant solutions to the Catalan “problem” that please a majority of Catalans and a majority of Spaniards seem very unlikely to be reached. Between the Catalan independence movement and the rising Spanish nationalism, moderate politicians face a two-bladed sword, and social and political stability in Catalonia and in Spain are increasingly unlikely.
In the end, the Catalan independence discussion is not just about Catalonia itself but about Spain in general. Spain is still searching for its identity as a country. Is it one nation with one people (as the Francoist motto: “¡Una, Grande y Libre!”) or is it a federation of different nations and peoples? The consensus that followed the end of the Francoist regime seems to be threatened and needs dire reform, as parties that defend greater autonomy and even independence grow as well as parties that defend the end of the autonomies and a centralised state. Spain does better when it’s united and not divided and when it recognises its own variety.
I think that a path for dialogue between the Spanish government and the Catalan Generalitat should be followed and it should include a consultation that gives the choice back to the Catalan people. However, I’m not in favour of celebrating a referendum that leads to a crucial decision about a country based on a narrow majority. Half of the population of a region cannot be ignored regardless of the result. I also defend that Spain should have a debate about its own political organisation, perhaps moving in the direction of a Federal State, that gives more autonomy to regions like Catalonia and the Basque Country but that does not give more autonomy to regions that do not want it, while keeping the unity of the country, solidarity between regions and equality of rights between Spanish citizens.
I know that it is very hard to reach this “equilibrium” between different forces, goals and identities. Ultimately, the most important is to create an environment of dialogue, trust and respect, since it seems to me that it was the lack of it that led to such a dire and divided situation in Catalonia.