As the summer comes to an end, Spain’s autonomous region of Catalonia is courting greater domestic and international support for an independence referendum in 2014. Although the Catalan independence movement has its roots in the early XX century, public support has significantly increased since 2010, with recent polls showing over 50% in favour of separation from Spain. However, the Spanish Constitution does not allow for the separation of any of its 17 autonomous communities from the State, posing a significant obstacle.
This year, pro-independence Catalans celebrated the Catalan National Day with a 400km human chain stretching from the southernmost point of the region to the French border. The holiday, held on September 11, commemorates the final defense of Barcelona during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714. For many separatists, the day also marks the loss of the region’s institutions and laws, and the beginning of nearly three centuries of Spanish rule.
The Catalan National Assembly (ANC), a civic association that seeks the political independence of Catalonia, organized the human chain. Although the ANC was founded recently in March 2012, it has propelled itself into the public arena as an association unaffiliated with any political party. In September 2012, it organized a 1.5 million-strong protest in Barcelona; this past June it coordinated a concert in FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou. In all of these protests the goal has been the same: to draw international attention to the region and its desire to hold a democratic vote on the issue of independence. As such, English-language slogans feature prominently at these events, declaring, “Catalonia is not Spain” and “Catalonia, next independent state in Europe”.
In fact, separatists frequently emphasize a European identity when discussing their vision for the future. Miquel Izquierdo, 29, of Sabadell, explains, “Even if we don’t belong in the European Union later, the European project is an insurance that there won’t be military retaliation or military action against Catalonia. We believe that the European Union is a group of open-minded countries that understands the importance of democracy and respects the right of self-determination.”
Politically, the push for an official referendum on independence has been met with opposition both within and outside the region. The leaders of the Partido Popular in Catalonia oppose holding a referendum, citing the illegality of such an action under the Spanish Constitution. Spanish President Mariano Rajoy has also been firm in his stance toward Catalonia. Last September, talks between the Spanish and Catalan governments fell apart when Rajoy refused to offer the region greater fiscal autonomy, declaring the request unconstitutional. Recently, he has stated that Catalonia will suffer economically if it declares independence, saying, “to have strength in Europe you have to be big, small countries do not count for anything”.
Opinions on independence in the region also vary greatly. According to a survey conducted by the Centre for Opinion Studies in June, 47% of respondents believed the region should be an independent state, while 21% supported a federal Spanish state and about 23% favoured remaining an autonomous community. Still, these numbers show a significant change since 2009, when a poll conducted by the Institute of Political and Social Sciences showed only 21% in support of an independent Catalan state.
But what has happened recently to change public opinion? For some, the turning point came in 2010 when the Spanish Constitutional Court removed several sections from the voter-approved Catalan Statute of Autonomy. For others, President Rajoy’s refusal to negotiate a fiscal pact—similar to one that the Basque Country currently enjoys—converted them to the cause.
Andreu Marzal, 32, is one of these recent converts. “For sure my way of thinking has changed, because I’ve always wanted the best for Catalonia because I was a Catalanist, not even independentist. But the things I’ve seen in the last years of the way the Spanish government acts, I think it’s the best way. Probably if they changed their treatment of our community, most of the people like me wouldn’t have changed their minds.”
Although the ruling party in Spain considers the country’s unity non-negotiable, Catalan President Artur Mas has vowed to hold a referendum before September 2014.