Support for Catalan nationalism has grown significantly in recent years. It’s estimated that about half of those who supported separatist parties in 2015 did not back secession a decade earlier. In 2015, Catalans elected a pro-independence majority in the Catalan parliament and a pro-independence president, Carles Puigdemont.
Like Scottish nationalism, the Catalan independence movement used to be dominated by middle class layers. On the Catalan national day (the Diada) in 2013, when protestors joined hands to form a human chain across Catalunya, “the parking lots were filled with BMWs and it really looked as if the Catalan bourgeoisie was having a fun day out,” observed one commentator, quoted in Raphael Minder’s recent book The Struggle for Catalonia (Hurst, 2017).
Yet the presence of conservative forces within Catalan nationalism should not overshadow the popularity of the cause among ordinary people - and not just Catalans. 2016’s Diada in the northern town of Salt,with its 40% migrant population made up of 70 nationalities, saw contingents participating from the town’s African, Latin American and Asian communities, with banners calling for independence in Arabic. There has also been growing involvement by poorer, working class young people, who see in the fight for independence an opportunity to escape the austerity policies of the Spanish state, much as similar sectors voted yes in Scotland’s 2014 indyref to opt out of Cameron’s Britain.
There is a longer standing grievance about the historic oppression the region has suffered. Franco’s regime unleashed brutal repression and banned the Catalan language, but even today Catalan culture and language are marginalised within the Spanish state; for example, there are only eleven Spanish universities outside Catalunya that offer courses in Catalan - compared to 27 in Germany.
Tensions have risen, particularly since the economic crash. It’s estimated that Catalunya, which accounts for one fifth of Spain’s economy, contributes about 10 billion euros a year more to Spain’s tax coffers than it gets back in services.
In 2016, a pro-independence government in the region set the October 1st 2017 date for an independence referendum. The Spanish PP government reacted aggressively, with a smear campaign and pressure to get the six main banks to issue a joint denunciation. This year Catalan politicians received sentences for civil disobedience for the first time in the modern era and were banned from office for organising an independence vote. This was just the latest in a long history of Spain’s constitutional court ruling Catalan statutes illegal, including laws about sanctuary for those fleeing persecution, banning energy companies from turning off people’s electricity, and one for a higher minimum wage. The Spanish state’s paternalistic mindset is illustrated by Spanish ministers repeatedly referring to the Catalans as “disobedient”.
As the October 1st referendum approached, tensions mounted. The Spanish state government declared the referendum an absolutely illegal act, saying any referendum materials would be seized, including election fliers. Schools were informed too that any involvement by staff in facilitating voting in the referendum in school buildings would result in them being permanently stripped of their teaching qualifications. Spanish state prosecutors ordered a criminal investigation into 700 Catalan mayors planning to stage the referendum.
Next, the central government seized control of Catalunya’s finances, imperilling the payment of thousands of public employees’ wages. The move was condemned by the region’s vice president as “leading us to administrative collapse.” Then on September 20th, the Civil Guard, under the direction of Spain’s interior ministry, carried out dawn raids on regional government offices, arresting a dozen officials. Spanish judges ordered mobile phone networks Vodafone and Movistar to block access to the official referendum website and the Spanish Post Office to open ‘suspicious’ mail to check if it contains referendum-related material.
The central government crackdown helped the independence cause. Barcelona’s radical mayor Ada Colau, previously ambivalent, came out in favour of the referendum and denounced the state’s repression. And the campaign spread - on September 16th, 35,000 Basques marched through Bilbao carrying banners saying “We want to decide” - a reference to the strong support for independence in their region, which already has more autonomy than Catalunya.
The Spanish interior ministry poured extra police into the region, although when two 600-berth ferries were brought to Barcelona and Tarragona to accommodate them, dockers there immediately refused to assist them. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights website took the unusual step of calling on the Spanish authorities “to ensure that measures taken ahead of the Catalan referendum on 1 October do not interfere with the fundamental rights of freedom of expression, assembly and association, and public participation.” After the poll, the UN High Commissioner called for the Spanish government to carry out an independent investigation into the violence.
Commentators believe that support for independence is stronger in rural areas and small towns, which are over-represented in the regional (and national) parliament under Spain’s electoral system compared to the cities. The left is divided, with Podemos, for example, supporting the right of Catalunya to exercise self-determination but calling for a no vote. The Spanish Socialist Party is staunchly backing Rajoy’s PP and sees the crisis primarily as a way to expose inconsistencies within Podemos, their main electoral threat.
In Catalunya, the ‘municipal socialist’ movement, including en Comu (In Common), to which Barcelona mayor Ada Colau belongs, did not believe the referendum held was valid, but did see it as a legitimate political mobilisation and believes a mutually agreed legitimate referendum is the way forward. Colau voted, to show solidarity with those facing police repression, but left her ballot blank.
The day of the referendum itself was one of widely reported state violence, as police battled voters, protesters and even firefighters in their efforts to prevent the vote. Puigdemont said that night that the region had “won the right to an independent state” after a vote in which 90% of voters backed independence on an estimated 42% turnout - astonishingly high, given the police repression that left nearly 900 people needing hospital treatment.
Two days later a general strike, called by a broad range of social movements and leftwing unions, gripped the region and 300,000 people took over Barcelona. Newly formed ‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’ helped organise the action across the region. The energy pouring into this participatory democracy is impressive, building on the grassroots democracy that helped elect Ada Colau mayor of Barcelona in 2015. Meanwhile the region’s police chief was summoned by a Spanish state court to answer accusations of sedition.
The following weekend, there were various demonstrations in Catalunya - and Spain as a whole - both for unity and dialogue. Free transport bussing protestors into Barcelona may have compromised the authenticity of some of these. Powerful business interests, fearing the instability resulting from a declaration of independence, are threatening to withdraw from the region. Meanwhile, a leading PP figure warned that if Puigdemont didn’t pull back, he would meet the same fate as Lluís Companys, a Catalan leader shot by the Francoists in 1940.
Puigdemont’s declaration of independence on October 12th, which he then immediately suspended may create a breathing space for dialogue. The Spanish government set up a commission to look at revising the 1978 constitution which may lead to greater Catalan autonomy. But it also reacted harshly to the declaration of independence, demanding clarity on whether independence had been declared or not, adding “any statement different from a simple negative or affirmative reply will be considered as affirmative.” This could be the precursor to a complete suspension of Catalan autonomy.
Most Catalans still want a legal referendum to decide their future one way or the other, but October1st’s, in which many opponents just stayed away rather than voting no, may have achieved little - other than polarise people and generate considerable legitimate anger against the Spanish state’s repression - which may have been the principal intention of those who organised it. But the culpability lies primarily with the Spanish government of Rajoy which has demonstrated it is not fit for office.
If the Spanish state does embark on further repression, don’t expect the EU to lift a finger. In response to calls that it could play an arbitrating role in the dispute, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker dismissed the Catalans’ - and anyone else’s - right to self-determination, saying “We must not mediate… I don’t want a Europe that within 15 years is made up of 98 countries.”
Behind Rajoy stand the military and the extreme right. The latter are taking to the streets increasingly confidently, disrupting the Aragon regional parliament when it debated the Catalan cause and issuing death threats to at least one Catalan independence leader. But the biggest threat remains the Spanish state: protests spread across Barcelona on October 16th when separatist leaders Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez were arrested and held on sedition charges. Within hours posters went up calling for the release of the “political prisoners”. This crisis is far from over.