IMAGE: SUPPORTERS OF CATALAN INDEPENDENCE FROM SPAIN GATHERED ON SEPTEMBER 11 2014, THE REGION'S NATIONAL DAY. (ERIC BURNICHE (CC BY-NC 2.0))
It has been a big year for independence movements and this month Catalonia, one of Spain’s autonomous communities, planned a referendum of its own. Keri Phillips explains the community's long running passion to secede from Spain, in the wake of its informal independence referendum.
In Barcelona the government of Catalonia—one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities—planned an independence referendum for November 9. Although Spain’s Constitutional Court declared it illegal, the non-binding poll went ahead, with 80 per cent of voters reportedly backing independence.
How did Catalonia become part of Spain in the first place?
The full story dates back to 711, when Arabs and Berbers from North Africa invaded the Iberian Peninsula.
Although they successfully occupied most of it, the Franks—Germanic people from Western Europe—conquered the very north-east of Spain and settled there, pushing the Arabs back from what is now Catalonia.
While the rest of the Iberian Peninsula was under Islamic rule for centuries, the north-eastern triangle of contemporary Spain was under Frankish-Christian rule. The Catalans did form alliances with different kingdoms but established and retained their own institutions, language and culture during the Middle Ages.
Catalonia remained an independent principality until 1714, when it backed the wrong side in the war of Spanish succession, when the Bourbon king of the rest of Spain competed with Archduke Charles of Austria for the throne.
The Archduke lost out, resulting in a Barcelona siege that lasted several months before the city was conquered by the Bourbon army. The new dynasty set about imposing Spanish laws and education. Consequently, the Catalan language became confined to the private sphere and the culture went into decline for a couple of centuries.
‘The Catalan revival begins in the 19th century,’ says Professor Kathryn Crameri, head of the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Glasgow. ‘People started to write in Catalan again, they started to be interested in Catalan history, to learn about the institutions, the mediaeval successes that Catalonia had had, which had largely been forgotten.’
‘But at that stage it's very much a cultural thing, it's not a political thing. So it doesn't become political really until the very late 19th century when people started to think, well, if we have a separate culture, if we've got our own language, then perhaps we should have some political power as well—perhaps we should have some institutions that reflect our culture and our identity.’
During the 20th century, political instability in Spain couple with repression under Francisco Franco became fertile ground for the Catalonian separatist movement. Up until 1931, Spain was a monarchy and although elections were held, they were not particularly democratic.
In the eight years leading up to 1931, the country was ruled by a military dictatorship that had essentially been organised by the King in response to significant social unrest and conflict in the late 1910s, the result of contagion from the Soviet revolution.
In 1931 the King called local elections and a coalition of parties—pro-Republicans, socialists and Catalan—formed an alliance and won these municipal elections. The King then resigned, abdicated and left the country.
The Second Republic was established, bringing autonomy to Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque country. In 1936, Francisco Franco and most of the army staged a coup which led to a civil war, during which Catalonia sided with the Republican government.
‘[In 1939] after a three year war ... the Franco troops came to Barcelona and they abolished the autonomy of Catalonia and they banned the language of Catalan,’ explains Carles Boix, Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton University.
‘People are fined if they speak in Catalan publicly, and this goes on for several decades, until the 1960s when things are a bit more relaxed, but not in terms of the schools, just in public use of the language.’
‘Certainly there was a big repression of the Catalan language and culture right after the Civil War. This has always had a big impact on how Catalonia has perceived its relationship with Spain.’
When Franco died in 1975 and democracy was restored in Spain, there was a big push for the recognition of Catalonia and the Basque country and their distinctive identities in the form of street protests and terrorism from the Basques.
The new Spanish Constitution was written in 1978 and was deliberately vague on such matters, as there was great pressure on the constitution makers to state that Spain was a single indivisible nation.
‘What was done at that point to recognise the regions was a kind of blanket permission for regions that wanted to have autonomy to draw up a statute of autonomy that would allow them to have it,’ says Kathryn Crameri from the University of Glasgow.
‘Initially it was thought that that would really only apply to a few regions, so Catalonia, the Basque country, Galicia, possibly Andalusia, Canaries ... Of course once something is on offer, everybody wants it.’
‘Spain was then divided into 17 regions, and every region of Spain has powers which may vary slightly from one to another, and it is true that the Catalans and the Basques—and the Basques especially because they have a different economic setup—have more powers than the others.’
‘But what the Catalans argue today is that that settlement didn't actually recognise the distinctive character of Catalonia because it gave everybody similar powers, and they talk about it with a phrase that is “coffee all round”. So no matter what you asked for, you get given coffee ... And this phrase café para todos is a summing up of this discontent with the settlement in the 1970s and 1980s.’
How much autonomy does the government of Catalonia have?
‘In theory it has no power over Spain's fiscal policy, economic policy, and there are some areas where the Spanish state sets framework legislation,’ explains Crameri.
‘For example, in education the powers are shared so that the Spanish state can say this is the framework within which you must work, and then the Catalans have power within that to do what they want ... But there are other things, like health for example, where the Catalans have great autonomy, and certainly in anything to do with culture.’
‘This is one of the most controversial areas because the Catalans are determined to promote their language, and one of the ways they've done this is by making it the primary language of education in schools.’
‘This has become a very controversial area and one where there are tensions between the powers of the Spanish state and the autonomous community of Catalonia.’
Many Catalans complain that their affluent region pays more in taxes to the central government than it gets back, and Spain's painful economic crisis has been a further spur to the separatist cause.
‘In terms of its economy, as you know, Spain has now very high levels of unemployment, about 25 per cent of the population are unemployed,’ says Carles Boix.
‘Unemployment rates in Catalonia are lower ... I think it's about 20 per cent or perhaps a bit less ... But structurally the economy in Catalonia is much healthier because it has a manufacturing base, it has a very powerful tourist industry very much centred around Barcelona, and it has a good university system and hospitals that attract a lot of students and researchers.’
‘Those things make the region much richer than the average Spanish region. At this point the calculation is that every year about 8 per cent of the Catalan GDP ... [is] transferred to Madrid, and never comes back.’
The Catalans have always said that their primary desire is to be part of the Spanish state but to have that state recognise their difference. In fact, there hasn't been a strong independence movement until very recently.
A new Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia had been promised in the lead-up to the Spanish general election of 2004, but the proposal approved by the Catalan parliament became mired in legal challenges, which fuelled massive street protests in support of a total break with Spain.
‘After that the people in Catalonia—not the political parties that in a way remained silent—they started organising demonstrations, referenda at the local level, and without any institutional support or official support, they organised in a sort of grassroots movement,’ says Boix.
‘This is very much a very broad middle-class movement. New organisations were set up. There is one called the Catalan National Assembly that was set up by a bunch of people in the spring of 2012, and now it has 30,000 to 40,000 members and they are the ones that have organised these massive demonstrations.’
‘The last one was held on September 11 , and there were 1.8 million people marching in the streets of Barcelona.’
Such well attended demonstrations might suggest overwhelming support for independence. However, as in Scotland, a significant number of people would like a compromise.
‘As with all surveys, it very much depends how you ask the question. If you ask “Independence, yes or no?” you can get quite high responses, maybe 55 per cent or slightly more saying that they would vote for independence,’ explains Cameri.
‘If you ask “Independence, federalism [or] more autonomy?” [and] give them more options, then the support for independence as an option goes down towards the 30s.’
‘It is clear that there are people out there who would like what's called a third way—they would like either federalism or more autonomy, but because that's simply not on offer, they are seeing independence as the only way forward.’
‘One other statistic that is used a lot is the fact that around 80 per cent of people say that they would like a referendum, so even if they are not in favour of independence they would be happy to have a vote and actually be able to decide this matter once and for all.’
Sunday 9 November 2014
Catalonia held that an independence referendum on November 9 but it is unlikely to settle anything definitively.
Organisers reported a turnout of two million voters and an overwhelming support for independence but the ballot was held in the face of fierce opposition from the Spanish government, which dismissed it as a sham.
Although Catalan president Artur Mas declared the poll a success, one that should pave the way for a formal referendum, the central government in Madrid has not shown the slightest interest in future negotiations over the status of this restive region.
Source: ABC Australia