A roughly triangular region in Spain’s far north-east corner, Catalonia has been party to one of the most riveting independence battles in modern times. The whole of Europe watched on as extraordinary events unfolded in the Spanish province of Catalonia on Sunday the 1st of October. The battle between pro-independence Catalans and the Spanish government came to the fore on this day of voting. On the one hand, we have the central Spanish government, led by Prime Minister Rajoy who contend that the vote is ‘illegal’ while on the other, we have regionally elected Catalan representatives claiming that the election is only illegal under the Spanish Constitution, which they don’t view as legitimate in the first place.
The crisis has important historical background as well as more modern economic factors at play as well. Dating back to the middle ages, Catalonia has always distinguished itself from the rest of Spain based on its own identity and language. This independent-mindset was evident during the Spanish Civil war when they were the last province to resist General Franco during the Spanish Civil war. However, modern sentiments are few from memories of the dictator’s rule, which attempted to suppress Catalan identity. The tension is nowhere more clearly expressed than in the fierce rivalry between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, Spain’s top football clubs that are viewed as ‘representing’ the different sides during the Civil War.
To add to the strong cultural and historical factors behind the separatist movement is the fact that Catalonia is one of Spain’s richest and most highly industrialised regions. Spain’s painful economic crunch has fuelled enthusiasm for sovereignty. Many Catalans believe the affluent region pays more to Madrid than it gets back, and blame much of Spain’s 2008 debt crisis on the central government.
The current tensions date back to 2014 when, the Catalonia’s regional government which is run primarily by two separatist parties, defied the central Spanish government and held a non-binding independence vote. More than 80% of those taking part voted for separation from Spain. About two million out of 5.4 million eligible voters cast ballots. Since then, l tensions have steadily increased as a legal and political tug-of-war as ensued between the Catalonia pro-independence regional government and the Spanish central government and constitutional system. The Spanish government says Catalonia has no constitutional right to break away. This has been backed up by rulings from the Spanish Constitutional court that had declared any unsanctioned vote would be illegal. Yet, these declarations have not deterred the pro-separatist regional government, now led by Carles Puigdemont, from pursuing their agenda.
With the ‘illegal vote’ being organised across the province, the Spanish government stepped up its operations considerably. The regional government control over spending has been revoked, Special forces have bene deployed and have raided Catalan government as well as arresting 12 officials last week. Despite this monumental effort, the ‘illegal’ vote went ahead on the 1st of October. To further disrupt the election’s operation the Special Forces were given a more extensive remit and actively engaged in preventing people getting to voting stations as well as seizing ballot boxes. While there were no casualties, reports indicate that at least 844 people and 33 police were reported to have been hurt, including at least two people who were thought to have been seriously injured. It appears however, that violence did not have a lasting impact as Jordi Turull, the Catalan regional government spokesman, told reporters early on Monday morning that 90% of the 2.26 million Catalans voted for independence. He said nearly 8% of voters rejected independence and the rest of the ballots were blank or void. The region has 5.3 million registered voters.
Special forces (Guardia Civil) attempt to break into a polling station. (Source: Irish Times)
Tensions still run high. If anything, the violent scenes from the election day galvanised the separatist movement with Barcelona nearly coming to a standstill due to mass protests on Monday. In his first interview since Sunday’s referendum, Carles Puigdemont said his government would “act at the end of this week or the beginning of next” in giving effect to the independence vote. Clearly, the Spanish government would view this as an illegal unilateral declaration of independence as well as treason. Meanwhile, Spain’s King Felipe VI said organisers of the vote put themselves “outside the law”. In his televised address to the nation, the king said the Catalan leaders who organised the referendum showed their “disrespect to the powers of the state”. However, he stressed that Spain “will overcome difficult times” in what is clear statement of intent from the Spanish monarchy and the central government.
As the world watches on, some of the approaches of international players has been insightful. The EU, for example, has been remarkably quiet despite the separatist movement calling for them to intervene to protect them from Spanish violence. It is a very contentious issue for the EU and one that it is shrugging off by announcing it is an internal issue for Spain to handle. Meanwhile, the UN has said that “Spain must respect fundamental rights in response to Catalan referendum” as it announced its dissatisfaction with the resort to violence to bring about stability.
As this drama continues to unfold, one can be assured of the fact that the entire world is watching. Catalonia presents a major modern crisis in a Western Europe democracy. With increased stability around Europe, the way this drama resolves itself is of utmost importance.
Raphael O’Leary – Politics Writer