What's Happening in Catalonia: A Q&A Primer

What happened on October 1st?

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What's Happening in Catalonia: A Q&A Primer

The scenes coming from Spain turn the stomach, and may turn the government. Nine hundred people injured. Blood on the streets, rubber bullets and batons. Why is this happening, and why have the state police of Spain brought their clubs down on innocent men and women? Why is brutality being unleashed on Catalonia, and why is this allowed?

Is this democracy? Is this Europe? What’s going on?

WHAT IS HAPPENING IN SPAIN? GIVE ME THE SHORTEST POSSIBLE VERSION.

On Sunday, October 1, a region of Spain tried to have a secession vote. The government of Spain used too much force to stop them. Nobody knows what happens now.

CAN YOU GIVE ME MORE DETAIL? KEEP IT SIMPLE.

Catalonia is a region in Spain. The people there are called Catalans. A large minority of Catalans want to break away from Spain.

The regional government of Catalonia is pro-independence. Their leader is Carles Puigdemont, who came into office last year. Puigdemont and his friends said, “Let’s have a vote.” The Spanish government in Madrid said, “That’s illegal.” Madrid is led by a fragile center-right government. This government is led by the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy.

Catalonia went ahead and held their vote. The Times called it “Catalonia’s defiant attempt.” The key word there is attempt.

Rajoy sent in state police, who beat up peaceful citizens. The police dressed in black riot gear, which made them look like the evil army in a dystopian movie. Spain was governed by a fascist dictatorship until 1975. This brings back gruesome memories for everyone. Madrid is now the shame of the world. Puigdemont has declared the government of Catalonia will now formally seek independence.

WHAT DO THE PEOPLE OF CATALONIA ACTUALLY WANT?

Before the Sunday elections, the Post wrote,

There’s not a lot of good polling. But the surveys that do exist suggest the region is divided. ... Catalans are about evenly split on the question of independence. Forty-one percent of those surveyed said they were in favor; 49 percent said they were opposed. ... In 2014, Catalan leaders held an independence referendum that they framed as an “informal” survey of the region’s mood. About one-third of registered voters participated; 80 percent of those voters expressed a desire for independence. Catalonia’s separatist parties were supported by about 48 percent of Catalans in the 2015 parliamentary elections. Parties loyal to Spain garnered about 40 percent of the vote. But Spanish loyalists are boycotting Sunday’s election. So on Sunday, most voters will almost certainly support independence, even if turnout is low.

WHAT WAS THE RESULT OF THE REFERENDUM?

Forty-two percent of Catalonia voted. The result of the referendum: ninety percent pro-independence.

SO THAT MEANS INDEPENDENCE, RIGHT?

Not exactly. See above.

Also, due to Madrid’s heavy-handedness, it was impossible to have an election according to international standards. This makes claims of untampered, systematic returns hard to verify. According to Reuters, a “minority of around 40 percent of Catalans support independence, polls show, although a majority want to hold a referendum on the issue.” It is not clear whether this is a legitimate expression of popular will, or an opportunistic political alliance stating themselves independent of Madrid. The EU has declared the referendum illegal. As the European version of Politico described it:

Carles Puigdemont, the Nigel Farage of the Catalans, got his ugly way October 1. ... This was a kangaroo referendum. There is no other way to describe an exercise where voters could print ballots at home and vote at any polling booth in all of Catalonia without having to worry about their names appearing on an authenticated voters’ roll. If there were ever a Platonic ideal of a riggable, manipulable exercise in voting, it was this separatist simulacrum of democracy, designed to ensure the only result possible was a majority vote for secession.

Complicating matters, the government in Madrid, fascist or democratic, has a rich, reactionary history of choking back political autonomy. The Catalans have long memories.

MEMORIES OF WHAT? WHAT IS THE POLITICAL AND HISTORICAL CONTEXT?

States are new inventions, only a couple of centuries old. In 1714, Catalan was conquered by Spain. It was an odd fit then, and a far stranger marriage now. In 1932, under the Spanish Republic, there was a Republic of Catalan. That didn’t last. The dictator Franco came to power in 1939, and the cause of Catalan independence was rolled back: mass executions, banning of the language, the works. Everybody in the region felt the blow. When democracy arrived, Catalonia got a degree of autonomy. In 2010, the Constitutional Court of Spain declared the Catalans were a nationality, but not a nation. And so, the divide has grown.

Also: Catalan is both wealthy and progressive. Spain’s track record in both categories is less than inspiring. As the BBC put it:

This [secession] feeling is fed by memories of the Franco dictatorship, which attempted to suppress Catalan identity, and is nowhere more clearly expressed than in the fierce rivalry between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, Spain’s top football clubs. A roughly triangular region in Spain’s far north-east corner, Catalonia is separated by the Pyrenean mountains from southern France, with which it has close historical ties.

WHO’S REALLY IN THE WRONG HERE?

The Spanish government has behaved shamefully. It’s a textbook coward-with-a-club reaction, reminiscent of how the Spanish dictator Franco acted. This is not how democracies work.

DOES THAT MAKE THE REGIONAL GOVERNMENT OF CATALONIA THE GOOD GUYS?

Not exactly. Nando Vila had an excellent thread about this on Twitter:

Within Spain, Catalonia is a mecca for left ideas. (Orwell described Barcelona in 1936: “The anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing … It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. ...”) But the current wave of Catalonian independence is not a progressive cause. Vila points out that Catalan nationalism was a project of the neoliberal CiU, and that Puidgemont himself is conservative. While progressives should condemn the violence, it does not necessarily follow that an independent Catalan is a good thing. Inside Spain, veterans of the left-resistance against General Franco have argued against nationalism as a solution. The Guardian interviewed four veterans of the anti-Franco left:

All four dismiss the independence movement as a distraction from more pressing social issues, claiming it has proved a useful smokescreen for the Catalan government’s spending cuts. “What’s happening now is that everyone has been told that Spain is the origin of our problems,” says Salas. “They are being fed a version of Catalan history that has nothing to do with reality and this has radicalised young people around independence.” “There’s been a sort of mantra, that Spain is robbing us, and there’s a lot of confusion, as though the Spanish government and the Spanish people were one and the same,” Jiménez says. “With a prime minister like Mariano Rajoy it’s very easy for everyone to oppose the government.”

As Nando points out, economic hardship breeds nationalism. Far-right parties are springing up across Europe, like dragons from the bronze teeth of Cadmus. Instead of targeting immigrants like the U.S. or Britain, Spain prefers to fight with itself. Additionally, Rajoy’s government is suffering from a corruption scandal and its inability to solve the country’s economic problems. Hitting Catalonia is a first-rate way for Madrid to summon strength from its base.

WHEN IS IT OKAY FOR A PART OF A DEMOCRACY TO BREAK AWAY?

That’s an interesting question. The American Civil War was a theoretical discussion over the same puzzler. There are all sorts of legal answers, of course. As you might imagine, these issues are rarely settled in court. There is no amicable divorce between states. Many scholars argue that a Constitution is like a contract: if you want out, you have to get the majority’s support. Otherwise, the will of the many is frustrated by the will of the few.

In reality, the process is typically a long, drawn-out experience of political discord and violent rebellions until an agreement is reached. In the case of Quebec, the 1995 referendum came after a series of failed political settlements, including the Constitution Act and the Meech Lake Accord. The Quebec sovereignty party came to power, and had a vote which Canada’s supreme court declared was illegal. As it turns out, the referendum was defeated, so the question was moot. There are other examples of states breaking away: Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and South Sudan separated from Greater Sudan in 2011. However, those births were midwifed and negotiated by the Great Powers. Spain and Quebec are in the heart of the wealthy Western system, and that complicates matters to a ridiculous degree.

WHAT’S THE ANSWER?

Catalonia should be able to vote on their own independence, and Madrid should not stop them. That said, Catalonian nationalism is not a balm for what troubles the region. As Vila notes, self-determination is distinguishable from independence. As another Twitter user, @particleist, pointed out: You can be against separatism and also against violent attempts to suppress separatism. We don’t know what follows from Sunday. Prior to the crackdown, public polling suggested independence was not a position shared by a majority of Catalans. After the reaction by Madrid, it’s anyone’s guess. In the Old World, new solutions are needed more than ever.

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