Failed Catalan Independence: Micronationalism, Discontinuities, and Poor Leadership

Written by: Valeria Sinisi Garcia/ Edited by: Ewa Bialoglowska

In the last few decades, the movement for Catalan independence has gained significant popularity and support. However, in direct correlation to its support, opposition has also risen. This topic is characterised by an extreme polarisation: rarely can one find neutral stances, especially from the two parties involved in the issue. In fact, the independentistas and the Spanish governmental authorities have seldom engaged in fruitful dialogue, rather one usually tries to diminish and contradict the other.

It is clear that what the secessionist movement entails would have many different effects on Spain, which range from economic difficulties to effects on the state of domestic order. On the other hand, for Catalans, if Madrid continues to constantly ignore and dismiss these nationalist sentiments, dissent in the region could grow, emboldening separatists to take the matter of the independence into their own hands. Before it comes to what could be a second civil war in the Iberian peninsula in less than 100 years, Spain should seriously consider listening to Catalonian interests and come up with a solution that does not culminate in violence. Indeed, it would not be the first time that Catalan nationalists and law-enforcement interact in this way. Thus, with the growing possibility of tensions escalating, why has a democratic and peaceful solution not been proposed yet? And more importantly, why is it that Catalan independence efforts have, to date, failed?

As previously mentioned, separatist sentiments in Catalonia have been growing in recent decades, especially since the beginning of the new millennium, circa. However, the origins of this movement can be traced back to the 19th century, specifically to the cultural revival of the Renaixença. Some scholars even state the specific importance of Jacint Verdaguer, a Catalan poet who actively linked the concepts of nation and territory within his work, creating a new understanding of Catalan nationalism (or micronationalism, as historian Payne has suggested).

More generally the Reinaixença aided in both the linguistic and the cultural development of the Catalan language, especially as a basis for national political mobilisation. The difference in language, and, by consequence, culture, has often been used to justify the modern independence movement, with some even stating that Spain continuously disrespects it. Other arguments for self-determination concentrate on historical claims of recovering their lost independence. However, what is possibly the most important one revolves around tax revenue and the allegation that Spain “steals” from Catalonia, indeed, ‘Espanya ens roba’ is a very popular motto used by the independentistas.

While some arguments are stronger, and often also authentic, than others, it is clear that a lot of Catalans don’t want to be part of Spain. The historic, and unconstitutional, referendum of 2017 was not the first time that a Catalan politician had proposed the organisation of a vote to determine Catalonia’s future. In 2014, after Spain’s constitutional court ruled out an official referendum, the Catalonian leader, Artur Mas, organised an informal vote amongst Catalans which would show the approximate numbers in favour of and against independence.

This came after a protest attended by hundreds of thousands of people, who formed a human chain of 400km across the region, demanding the secession of Catalonia from Spain. The vote in 2014 showed overwhelming support for the self-determination of the autonomous region (more than 80% according to Catalan officials). Nonetheless, it was unbinding and only about 43% of the electorate participated in the poll. Regardless, it is undoubtedly clear that there is at least a substantial minority of Catalans who want the possibility to rule themselves. The results of the infamous 2017 referendum pointed towards the same conclusion: in this case, support for independence was at 90%, however, voter turnout was still very low (42%).

The low turnout to both these referendums was partially due to a boycott from Catalans who do not support independence and who didn’t want to take part in a process which is illegal and unconstitutional according to current Spanish law. Many of these, similarly to the majority of Spaniards that are against the independence movement, have recognised the argumentative inconsistencies in the demand for Catalan secession.

Firstly, they don’t see the difference in language as necessarily indicative of a difference in culture or ethnicity with Spaniards. In fact, the most widely spoken language in Catalonia, and the rest of Spain, is Castilian Spanish. Furthermore, Catalan is not specific to Catalonia: it is also spoken in the Balearic Islands, Valencia, Andorra and to a lesser extent in a region of south-western France and the Italian island-region of Sardinia. Some anti-secessionists dismiss Catalan as a dialect, however, linguistically it developed from Vulgar Latin when the Romans colonised the Tarragona area. In addition, other regions in Spain also have their regional languages, specifically Aragon, the Basque Country, Galicia and Asturias.

Another claim often disputed by those who do not approve of the separatist movement is the claim to honour a bygone independence which Catalonia has lost. Historically, this is inaccurate: the current regional territory of Catalonia has always been a part of larger units in the Peninsula. In medieval times, Catalonia was a province of the Kingdom of Aragon, and with the marriage between Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabel of Castile, it became an even smaller part of the total territory. Since then, it has been a part of Spain and all the different forms of ruling which it has endured throughout its history.

Furthermore, the statements declaring that Madrid and the government steal from Catalonia are also often proved wrong. These claims are based on the current tax system in Spain, which collects more from richer regions in order to redistribute the wealth to the less economically advantaged autonomous communities in the country. Catalonia is, in fact, one of these richer regions that has a higher fiscal deficit due to its high income and GDP. However, Catalonia’s deficit is normal considering the nature of Spain’s progressive tax system. Many other regions are in the same situation, and others have even greater deficits, such as Madrid or the Balearic Islands. What economic analysts do acknowledge is underfunding compared to the national average, and mediocre investment in terms of regional GDP and population.

Still, the current failure of the Catalan independence movement does not depend solely on the above-mentioned discontinuities; a lot of the burden could fall on its leaders. Since Franco’s death and the transition to democracy, Catalonia has enjoyed a regional government with extensive power and freedom with regards to decisions on education, public services, and tax matters to name a few. For more than three decades during this democratic period, the region has been ruled by Catalan nationalists, who since then have voted in favour of about half of Spanish national budgets.

However, at present, many of Catalonia’s elected officials continue to claim that Catalan interests are constantly marginalised in a national context, with the Catalan nationalist and elite-subsidised press conveying the same message, and, although they have gained a high number of voters through this rhetoric, they still haven’t been able to deliver independence to their supporters. Unlike Artur Mas, who exhibited a certain amount of regard for Spanish law, Carles Puigdemont, ex-president of the region, showed no such thing. He organised an illegal referendum, which had a voter turnout so low that accurate results could not be determined. He then declared, unilaterally, independence for the region while he also proceeded to say that it would be postponed in order to pursue dialogue with the Spanish central government. Consequently, when Spanish law-enforcement started going after him, he went into exile abroad.

Currently, the prime minister and general secretary of the Socialist Party, Pedro Sánchez, who has in the past made statements showing his support towards a Spanish federation, is showing, through his policies, the intention of giving more autonomy and respect to Spain’s many autonomous regions. This can especially be seen in the recently passed amendment which removes Castilian Spanish – the most widely spoken language in Spain – as the official language of the country. It also allows autonomous communities to make their regional languages (those that have another official language other than Castilian) the official language for state-funded education.

Pedro Sánchez, moreover, has formed a coalition with several other leftist parties in order to secure his position as President of the Government. One of these being ERC, or Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, a Catalan nationalist and separatist party. Their collaboration could bring a new chapter into the Catalan-Spanish relations which could perhaps pave the way for a constitutional change, allowing the separatists a legitimate, legal referendum on their right to rule themselves.

A bilateral agreement and participation would be the only way to ensure a controlled, peaceful and democratic solution to the issue of Catalan independence. Nonetheless, unionist parties recognise the flaws and misleading allegations which have characterised the movement, making their approval or support of an official Catalan vote on the matter very unlikely. This form of micronationalism is often seen by Spanish actors as a very volatile and radical sentiment which could explain their reluctance to authorise separatists to pursue independence. Also, Catalan secessionist politicians and high ranking state officials have rarely shown exemplary leadership with regards to securing a dialogue with Madrid on the topic of independence. Perhaps different leaders could have begun this much-needed communication a long time ago. Even so, Spain should consider this arrangement soon, if it wants to maintain the upper-hand over the situation, and, arguably more importantly, domestic social order.


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