The Catalans are the people native to Catalonia, a region to the north-east of the Iberian Peninsula. Since the beginning of the modern age, this nation has been under the rule of the Spanish Monarchy. Throughout history, the Catalan people have repeatedly expressed their desire for increased autonomy, recognition of national sovereignty and even independence from the Spanish state.
This article will outline the cultural and political differences between Catalonia and the rest of Spain, while also pointing to factors that brought Catalonia into its present state while focusing on different elements that legitimize the Catalan struggle for independence and meaningful self-determination.
The Catalan people meet all the requirements necessary to be considered a nation. They speak their own language, the Catalan tongue, which has its own grammar, pronunciation and special rules; they have their own separate history from Spain (before the Spanish ruled them, they were part of the Kingdom of Aragon, a Kingdom which had their main administrative centre located in Catalonia between the 13th and the 15th centuries). Once under the rule of a single Spanish Monarch (which happened in 1556), they kept their own laws and institutions until the Decreto de Nueva Planta was enacted by King Philip the V, that abolished all regional laws and institutions. Through history, they have had different disputes with Spain over the degree of decentralization in their region, which have led to armed conflicts and popular rebellions taking place in Catalonia.
Today, Catalonia has its own parliament, which has a fair amount of autonomy from the central government. Finally, Catalans differ from all the other peoples in Iberia in terms of culture as well: they possess their own legends and folk tales, they hold different customs such as dances, traditional music and garb, etc. They also have their own and unique cultural movements such as la Renaixença (lit. [cultural] rebirth), their own holidays and festivities, days of historical importance to their development as a nation and a strong feeling of identity that separates them from the other peoples of Iberia: a feeling of belonging “here and not there”, they have roots put down in their land and an intense feeling of common ownership of their territory.
Apart from nationalistic reasons (i.e. people wanting their own nation-state and the right to self-determination), most Catalans have a very pragmatic approach towards independence: the Catalan cause is not a struggle for independence per se, but rather a fight to increase the degree of decentralization in their lands and to allow for more autonomous governance. Since the central government has been decreasing autonomy instead of increasing it, the citizens who used to advocate for a united Spain under a federal model and increased autonomy for Catalonia have instead turned towards the separatist movement. The authoritarian behavior and centralist policies of the Spanish government is what is turning (and has turned) most Catalans who support a federal Spain into secessionists.
There are many different reasons why the Catalan people desire independence, but most of them are pragmatic ones that have to do with increasing the competences of their government and striving for self-governance.
Most of all, they want for their tax money to stay inside their regional borders. The Catalans want the entirety or majority of funds paid by Catalan citizens to the Spanish government to be used to fund their own infrastructural projects, their own healthcare or to be given to their own citizens in some form of welfare, but instead, the central government is taking billions of Euros from the region every year and giving it to other regions in order to help them balance their budget. In 2014, as you can see in the chart below, Madrid, Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands had a percentage of their GDP spent on balancing the excessive budgets of the other regions of Spain. Specifically, they took 9.89 billion Euros from the Catalan tax revenue. Some of this money is managed with utter inefficiency by the Spanish state like in the case of the construction of “ghost” airports [HTTPS://GOO.GL/REY5ZQ], an example of their gross misuse of funds and poor planning. Most Catalan citizens are not in agreement with how their tax money is being managed by the central government, and see independence as a means to get control over the whole of their budget.
Another issue that has to do with autonomy is that certain Spanish laws that a vast majority of Catalans dislike and disagree with in Catalonia are applied in their territory no matter what the will of the people living in that territory is. Most of these laws are authoritarian ones that restrict fundamental human rights such as the right to free speech. An example is the law colloquially known as the “gag law”, which was condemned by the international media [HTTPS://GOO.GL/I2KH3Q], and organizations such as Amnesty International or Humans Rights Watch that have claimed it is an authoritarian law that makes it illegal for citizens to record the police in action and limits citizens’ freedom of speech. Examples of the authoritarian interpretation and use of this law can be found all over the internet. An example would be when a woman was sentenced to prison for joking about the death of a Francoist minister [HTTPS://GOO.GL/UIVJEI].
The argument of increased autonomy and self-governance for their own region can be and is extended to almost every issue: tax rates, how education or healthcare is managed, highway tolls, spending, etc., but this article has only covered the two most pressing issues.
On September 6th 2017, the Parliament of Catalonia passed a law which allowed the regional government to conduct and organize an independence referendum. That law stated that whatever the results were, the President of Catalonia would have to take them to the Parliament and act accordingly: if more than 50% of the voters voted for the “yes” option which opts for independence, he would have to bring the results to Parliament two days later. He is expected to carry out a unilateral declaration of independence on Monday.
That referendum was held on October 1st across all of Catalonia, and the results were astonishing: over 90% of the voters voted for independence. More than 2.2 million people participated. The referendum was considered illegal by the central government and, in order to stop it, around 12000 Spanish police agents were sent to dismantle the polling stations and prevent access to them. This led to clashes between the Spanish authorities and civilians, which resulted in more than 800 citizens becoming injured, some of which were reportedly left in critical condition. Despite Spain’s significant efforts to undermine the Catalan cause, they were only able to forcefully prevent around 700000 people from voting. On the 3rd October, a general strike has been issued and it has seen a lot of participation from both the public and the private sector in response to these events and in support for the struggle for independence.
In conclusion, Catalonia fits the criteria for distinguishing a nation and the majority of its people have exercised national self-determination in calling for independence that, if achieved, would increase their autonomy, degree of self-governance and likely their overall quality of life. They have numerous grievances with the Spanish central government and their ongoing struggle for independence is a seemingly legitimate and just cause compared to many other previously successful and ongoing separatist movements. Nevertheless, realistically speaking they seem to have little chance of achieving independence, since the Spanish Constitution outlaws secession under any circumstances and Catalonia has so far seen next to no international support. Many, including most Catalans dearly hope independence can be achieved but it is imperative that the transition to a free, prosperous and sovereign Catalonia be achieved democratically and without bloodshed and that no ill will be unnecessarily created between the Catalans and the Spanish for the sake of human decency and future economic cooperation and coexistence. It would be tragic to see the kind of senseless bloodbath Balkan independence wars brought in the 90s repeat itself in Catalonia, should the authorities in Madrid attempt to prevent the secession of a people who have thus far mainly offered peaceful, passive resistance. We should keep in mind this attempt of secession was born not of nationalistic friction but of economic grievances and a desire for self-governance left ignored long enough that the Catalan people saw no alternatives as their grievances were left either unheard or unaddressed by the central government in Madrid.