Separatist movements have swept through Europe as of late. In fact, twenty-six European countries have at least one active independence movement. Spain alone contains sixteen secessionist claims. Catalonia’s movement signed their declaration on October 10th and have suspended independence until October 24th. This is nothing new in Catalan history. In fact, their desire for autonomy goes back centuries.
During the Franco-Spanish war from 1635-59, the Catalans asked for military help from France to challenge the Spanish forces. In yet another effort, Catalonia declared independence from the Spanish Hapsburg monarchy in 1641. Later, during the Spanish Wars of Succession, the Bourbon king, Philip V, reconquered Catalonia. Philip’s “Nueva Planta decree” punished Catalonia by abolishing their constitution, parliament, and the use of Catalan language in administration and schools. Miguel Primo De Rivera and Francisco Franco also repressed Catalan autonomy and culture.
Since Franco’s death forty years ago, Catalonia has become a semi-autonomous region in Spain. The Catalonia government has worked to increase their autonomy by gaining their administrative powers. Calls for complete independence rose immensely starting in July 2010, when the Constitutional Court in Madrid overruled part of the 2006 autonomy statute, stating that there is no legal basis for recognizing Catalonia as a nation within Spain. Furthermore, the economic crisis in Spain has only served to magnify calls for Catalonia independence. As one of Spain’s wealthier regions, many Catalan citizens believe Spain disproportionately benefits from their relationship. However, some argue Catalonia prospers due to loans from the Spanish government.
In 2014, a referendum deemed an 81% vote in favour of an independent Catalonia, but the turnout was only 42%. This action was considered to be illegal by the Spanish government. On October 1st of 2017, another referendum for independence was held. It resulted in a 43% turnout, with 90% in favour of independence. However, the Spanish government deemed the referendum illegal because the Spain’s Constitution maintains Spain as indivisible. The referendum was a violent affair, because Spanish police attempted to shut down polling stations. On October 20th, Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, declared his intent to invoke Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution which allows the Spanish government to take control of an autonomous region in times of crisis. Therefore, Catalonia will no longer hold autonomy in the area for a period of time.
Can we call this a case of history repeating itself? Does Catalonia require independence from Spain to protect its culture and autonomy? I would argue no. Since the fall of Franco’s regime, Spain has allowed Catalonia to enjoy autonomy and independence. They may desire more administrative autonomy, but Spain poses no threat to their language or culture. However, constitutionally, Spain will always be opposed to Catalonia independence. Furthermore, despite the referendum, it has not been proven that a majority of Catalans are in favour of succession. First, a voter turnout of 43% is not a majority. Second, most who oppose secession boycotted the ballot. In order for Catalonia to achieve national self-determination, and earn recognition in the interstate system, a post-colonial construct, requires that a majority of citizens chose independence.
However, again, on Friday, October 27th, the Catalonia parliament declared their intention to “create a Catalan republic as an independent state.” The Spanish Senate immediately affirmed their intention to implement article 155, which removes all of Catalonia’s devolved powers.
As Friday’s proceedings advanced, it became increasingly clear how fragile the hold is on the much needed majority. The New York Times cited average Catalan people who perceived the referendum to be illegal, and an inaccurate representation of the best interests of the average Catalan population. These citizens, like their lawmakers, are concerned that continuing to insist on sovereignty and independence will result in Catalonia losing any and all cultural, social and administrative autonomy and facing oppression once more.