Separatist rhetoric and health crisis: Spanish regional identities and their political rhetoric in the face of COVID-19
Translated by Lauren Valentine, proofread by Charlotte Borne
The current health crisis has forced the Spanish government to face up to its own limits, but it has also highlighted the weaknesses in the nation’s political and administrative cohesion. Spain is a country with an extremely decentralised governance system, based on the strong political independence of its regions. In the current context, tensions are rising between the Catalan and the central government, under the pretence of an efficient handling of the pandemic that has hit the country hard.
Historic traces of Catalan separatism until the 2017 referendum
Tensions between Catalonia and the rest of the country date back to 1714. It was at that time that King Philip V, the first monarch from the family of French Bourbons in Spain, annexed Catalonia to Spain. That day has since become a Catalan national holiday. The quest for Catalan independence in the 1930’s was one of the triggers for the Spanish civil war. Under the Franco dictatorship, any expression of cultural or regional identity was strongly censored. This was notably imposed by the suppression of the Catalan language in favour of Spanish. Today, Catalonia, as with the rest of the country’s regions, possesses a strong administrative independence in relation to the central government. Nevertheless, this has not halted the rapid growth of the separatist movement.
Separatist parties and organisations wanted a referendum on Catalan independence to be held on the 1st October 2017. This referendum symbolises the culmination of tensions between Catalonia and the central government. The power struggle between ex-president Mariano Rajoy and ex-president of the Catalan government, Carles Puidgemont, is characterised by a series of repressive political and economic measures from the former to the latter.
One of the most difficult challenges for Spanish democracy since the end of the Franco dictatorship was holding the referendum on the 1st October. The central government actually prohibited this referendum. The police forcibly repressed this procedure. The Catalan government maintained that 90% of those who participated in the referendum voted in favour of independence. The Catalan Parliament officially and unilaterally proclaimed independence on the 27th October. This led to the dismissal of the top regional leaders, Puidgemont being one of them. He is amongst those who had to abandon the country in the face of imminent arrest.
The separatist crisis echoes amid the global health crisis
The efforts that have been made since March to impose a lockdown have turned out to be efficient in the long term. A complete end to the quarantine was planned for the 9th May. Nevertheless, it is no secret that Spain has been hit hard by the current Covid-19 crisis.
The Catalan independence movement has itself been weakened by disagreements between two of the main parties that support the separatist ideology: Junts per Catalunya and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya. This situation of overall weakness therefore represents an opportunity for reaffirmation against the leftist central government. In fact, the government now led by Pedro Sanchez and his socialist party is currently overwhelmed and condemned by public opinion.
Faced with the threat of Covid-19, the Catalan government decided to act more quickly than the central government. It pre-emptively closed bars and restaurants. The same measures were promoted by the central government several days later. At the time, the current president of the Generalitat (Carles Puidgemont’s successor), Quim Torra, refused to hand over control of the region, notably the health system authorities, to the central government. He stated: “We need support, not more centralisation.”
The main argument in favour of Catalan protectionism for the health measures is that they were approved and put in to place as a preventative measure before the government had even declared a state of emergency. However, it could be said that Qium Torra’s opposition was above all symbolic. In fact, this did not prevent the Spanish army from disinfecting the port and the airport in Barcelona. Nor did it prevent the central government’s authorities from monitoring the lockdown in the Catalan municipality of Igualada.
Yet, despite the artificial nature of Quim Torra’s opposition in relation to Sanchez’s government, the health crisis raises a whole series of questions. Such questions include the dialogue between the national and regional authorities, in a country characterised by the strength of the cultural, political, linguistic regional identities. It is equally possible to wonder how these tensions will evolve following the health crisis. The country will effectively have to deal with an economic crisis which, according to experts, will overshadow that of 2008