By Indigo Eve Lilburn-Quick (BA History and Politics)
On October 1st, I sat with my flatmates in pure horror and disgust watching video after video of peaceful protesters getting assaulted by an armed police force in Barcelona. Right there and then, I was ready to get “Visca Catalunya” tattooed across my chest and go out into the street and protest for Catalonia’s right to self-determination. It wasn’t until I asked a Catalan friend their opinion – which was in opposition to independence –that I realised it wasn’t so simple. Looking into statistics and news articles I saw the arguments and facts I wasn’t aware of. So if you’re struggling to get your head around what has happened, like I was, here’s a breakdown of everything you need to know that is key to understanding the referendum.
A very brief history of Catalonia
Catalonia is an autonomous region in the North East of Spain with around 7.5 million residents. Since its initial unification with Spain in 1469, Catalonia has had varying degrees of self-rule ranging autonomy to Spanish absolutist rule. These periods of Spanish tyranny have left a dark mark on Catalonia’s history, the first being in 1716 when Bourbon Philip V of Spain, angry at a betrayal by the Catalans, terminated many Catalan institutions, laws and rights and made Castilian Spanish the official language. In the 19th century the region became the industrial centre of Spain, boosting Catalonia’s wealth. This lead to a Catalan cultural renaissance and the growth of Catalan nationalism. There was a brief period of democratic rule from 1931-1939 and Catalonia had increased autonomy but this was swiftly removed when Francisco Franco came to power. During Franco’s rule Catalonia was increasingly repressed with a ban on the public use of Catalan and any form of political dissidence including Catalan nationalism. Since Franco’s death and Spain’s return to a democracy system, Catalonia has enjoyed relative autonomy as specified in the 1978 constitution.
So why do people want to leave?
There are several reasons some people want independence, although all these arguments are disputed by opposing sides. Many claim that Catalans culture differs from Spanish culture, most obviously in their different language and shared history. There is also a purely economic reason: Catalonia is a highly industrialised and wealthy region (it contributes 19% of Spain’s GDP) but many feel they are not getting what the Spanish government takes out of the region put back in. Then there is the political reasons: the central government is made up of mainly centre to right-wing parties which are unrepresentative of Catalonia’s left leaning politics. These structural factors have built up over time leading to the disenfranchisement of many Catalans, but the independence movement really kicked off in 2006 when some parts of Catalonia’s autonomy statute were deemed unconstitutional by Spanish courts – denying Catalonia’s right to nationhood, since then the Catalan government has been trying to open a dialogue with the Spanish government in order to allow more self-determination but has been shut-down at every point.
Subsequently, Catalonia had a referendum on independence on October 1st with over 90% voting to leave, although the vote only had a 43% turnout, but it was deemed unconstitutional by the Spanish government.
Why was the referendum deemed unconstitutional?
The Spanish constitution was written in 1978. This constitution allowed for the relative autonomy of Catalonia and was approved by over 90% of Catalans. Although giving Catalonia self-rule it affirmed “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation” preventing regions from breaking away. Only a majority vote from the Spanish government could change the constitution to allow Catalonia to leave.
Regardless of its legality, is the referendum justified? The Catalan government has stated if the yes vote wins there will be an immediate unilateral declaration of independence regardless of turnout. Considering that in the most recent opinion polls most Catalans did not want independence and were not willing to vote in an unconstitutional referendum it certainly is a questionable move. Furthermore, when the Catalan government voted on the issue, those from anti-independence parties (representing a large proportion of the Catalan population) were not included in the decision, and there was no cross-party debate meaning only pro-independence opinions were represented, so the referendum could also be considered undemocratic.
Protests and Police violence
Police violence is a worrying issue and many people from around the world have been horrified at the level of violence being used. Human Rights Watch has confirmed that there was an unlawful and excessive use of force from Spanish police with hundreds injured. The figures are disputed but they range from 250 to over 900. This violence was justified by the Spanish government and King as “proportional and professional.” In addition, it is reported that many key figures of the independence movement have been detained unlawfully. This violence has generally been condemned by leaders throughout Europe and the world. However, most are still against Catalan independence and their right for self-determination, and it highly unlikely that they will be allowed to join the EU, should they succeed.
Many believe that the future is not bright for those who are pro-independence. Catalonia’s president, Carles Puigdemont, has refused to give up his bid for secession but has suspended plans for independence in order to open a dialogue with the Spanish government. Despite this, on the 19th of October Spain’s president, Mariano Rajoy, invoked Article 155, an unprecedented decision that will suspend Catalan autonomy and impose direct rule of the Spanish Government. However, before implementation, it will have to be debated and passed through the Spanish Senate. Regional elections have been called by the Spanish government in the hope of Catalonia voting for a party more amenable to Spanish demands – though this strategy is a risky one, as pro-independence parties could increase their share of the vote and gain a bigger mandate for secession. Although the future is unclear, Catalonia’s independence is looking less likely by the day.