Catalonia: time for independence?
On Sunday, October 1st, Catalonia will hold a referendum of unilateral self-determination for independence, despite being prohibited by the Spanish government. Looking back at the historical tension between Madrid and Barcelona, it seems to peak in the days leading up to the referendum. For almost 40 years, Catalonia has fought for more autonomy vis-à-vis the central Spanish power. The referendum this Sunday represents the opportunity for Catalans to finally attain independence.
A long struggle for independence
Catalonia has benefited historically from special treatment within the Kingdom of Spain. As early as 1978, the Spanish Constitution recognized Catalonia’s special status as a “historical community”. This Catalan singularity was confirmed in 1979 with the adoption of the status of regional autonomy by referendum, which gave Catalonia new powers in education, health and language policy. In this area, the official language is attributed equally to to Catalan and Castilian.
For the past 40 years, the independent movement has continued to grow in the region. The claims of Catalan separatists are primarily based on cultural, historical, economic and political arguments. At the fiscal level in particular, the region has campaigned for years for a redesign of the national redistribution system. The feeling of exasperation now seems to be widespread among Catalans who feel they have been robbed by the current system. According to the calculations of “Generalitat de Cataluna” in 2011, the difference between the amount that Catalonia pays to Madrid through taxes and what it receives is about 8.5%. The Spanish government, on the other hand, advances much less with about 4.3% of the region’s GDP.
Several non-official referendums on the independence of Catalonia were organized in 2009. However, the arrival of Artur Mas as the head of the Government of Catalonia in December 2010 breathed new life into the separatist movement. A referendum of self-determination, propelled by the nationalist parties of the region, was thus organized on November 9th, 2014. The result was non-disputable with nearly 2 million people taking to the polls and 80.7% voting in favor of Catalan independence. Considered illegal, this referendum was never recognized by Madrid and was declared invalid by the Constitutional Court.
Less than three years after the referendum, Catalan voters are expected to return to the polls on Sunday. They will have to answer a single question: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic? “While as many as 70% of Catalans claim they wish to have a referendum, Catalan society remains largely divided on the issue of independence. According to the newspaper El País, 61% of Catalans currently consider this referendum illegal and that its validity cannot be recognized in the case of the success of “yes”.
The counterattack from Madrid
The organization of this referendum is now brewing a major crisis in Spain. There is also a feeling of political and legal insecurity at European level. The Spanish State remains fiercely opposed to the holding of this referendum, and it has decided to prevent the organization by all means. For the past two weeks, the Spanish authorities have been carrying out a vast police and judicial operation and have reinforced the presence of law enforcement in the region.
On September 20th, 2017, 14 major senior officials of the Catalan government were arrested and more than twenty investigations were carried out. In a press conference on the same day, the Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, asked Catalan leaders to “return to law and democracy“. He further declared the vote to be an “impossible dream“.
Following these various investigations and arrests, the tension has risen a notch in Catalonia. Thousands of protesters took to the streets. They marched in the center of Barcelona to protest against the police repression, reaffirming their right to freedom of speech during this referendum. Carles Puigdemont, president of the region and leader of the separatists, spoke on Thursday, September 21st, confirming his willingness to organize the referendum, despite the opposition from Madrid.
“On the 1st of October, we will hold the referendum on self-determination that we have called for. It will be carried out because we have contingency plans in place to ensure it happens, but above all because it has the support of the immense majority of the population who are sick of the arrogance and abuse of the People’s Party (PP) government. “
Since then, the Spanish government has attacked the logistic facilities of the separatists. The public prosecutor of Catalonia in particular has ordered the police to seal off the potential polling stations on Tuesday.
On the eve of the ballot, no one can predict how the referendum will turn out. It is undeniable, whatever the outcome of the vote on Sunday is, this episode will leave a rift in relations between Madrid and Barcelona. Clashes between separatists and the police are foreseeable.
Un cœur partagé entre l’Europe et l’Amérique latine.