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Why do Catalans want to be independent?

Demonstration in Barcelona on the 11th of September 2012.
Demonstration in Barcelona on the 11th of September 2012.

While it is undeniable that the separatist fervour in Catalonia has been enhanced by the economic crisis, it is also true that Catalan independence claims are not a new movement in the region. Economic, historical and cultural reasons have always pushed a part of the Catalan society to fight for independence. However, Adriana Díaz Martín-Zamorano will try to explain where the secessionist demands come from and why they have significantly increased in the last two years, reaching a 59.7% of Catalan society in favour of an independent Catalonia.

The demonstration that marked the difference
A turning point in Catalonia’s struggle for independence was the 11th of September of 2012. According to Barcelona’s Municipal Police and Catalan Ministry of Home Affairs, 1,5 million people demonstrated during the National Day of Catalonia across the city of Barcelona demanding the independence for Catalonia and its consolidation as a sovereign state under the slogan ‘Catalonia, a new state in Europe’. Taken that Catalan’s population is around 7,5 million people, the event marked the Catalan, and consequently the Spanish, political agenda and the debate about the right to hold a referendum on the independence of the region was re-opened in both public and private spheres. After the protest march, the ruling liberal party in Catalonia, led by the President of the Generalitat de Catalunya, Artur Mas, officially started to push for independence, especially bearing in mind that a couple of months before he had failed to obtain a better financial pact for Catalonia in a meeting with the central government.

Since then, the struggle for Catalonia’s secession has been more recently observed on different levels. On a symbolic level, Catalan society organised on its National Day in September 2013 the Catalan Way towards Independence, inspired by 1989’s Baltic Way, which consisted in a 480 kilometre-long human chain crossing Catalonia in support of the region’s secession. On a political level, the next milestone took place on December 2013, when the Catalan government announced that Catalonia will host a referendum on independence on the 9 November 2014. It will contain a question divided in two sections: ‘Do you want Catalonia to become a State?’ and ‘In case of an affirmative response, do you want this State to be independent?’. On January, 87 out of 135 Catalan members of the Catalan Parliament voted in favour of the referendum proposal and the request has been sent to the Spanish Congress of Representatives to debate about it.

As a response, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has repeatedly said that the referendum would be considered illegal because it is anti-constitutional since Spain’s 1978 Constitution doesn’t envision anything but a unified Spanish state and mandates that referendums affecting Spain must be held nationally and not regionally. Rajoy’s party has an absolute majority in Spanish parliament that ensures that his vote will prevail, but at the same time, the main opposition Socialist party also opposes the poll.

Considering the current political scenario, the main question that might emerge in outsiders’ minds is: why now and not before? What has always pushed Catalans to fight for independence, but especially what has moved them to struggle for it now more than ever before? The answer is indeed complex, but it can be drawn around two main reasons: economics and identity.

A region unfairly treated in financial terms
On the one hand, Catalonia is the main contributor to the Spanish economy nearly contributing 19% of the country’s GDP and it has always felt unfairly treated financially speaking. For instance, the Ministry of Economy and Knowledge of the Catalan government, Andreu Mas-Colell, estimated that in the past years the so-called ‘espoli fiscal’, fiscal plunder, has varied from 11,000 million to 16,500 million euros per year. Between 1986 and 2010 the Spanish administration has obliged Catalonia to give away an average of 8.1% of its annual GDP per year. Mas-Colell, also former Harvard and Berkeley Economics Professor, stated that with a fairer fiscal balance ‘we would not have to undertake budget cuts’ because the Catalan government would not have a budget deficit.

In addition, Catalonia is considered to be a very open economy, whose exports and imports are greater than 60% of the Catalan GDP. However, Catalan trades shows a high dependence on the Spanish market since about 50% of Catalan exports go to the rest of Spain while European countries similar to Catalonia in terms of size show greater trading diversification. A relevant factor that explains such dependence is the infrastructure policies followed by the Spanish government, which have refused several times to finance essential infrastructure projects that could facilitate trade between Catalonia and the rest of Europe, such as the reinforcement of the Mediterranean Corridor. All these numbers and data indeed seem even more sensitive to Catalan society while the country is going through a severe economic crisis and acclaimed economists, such as the Wilson Initiative, have proved that a sovereign Catalonia would be economically viable. Updated data claim that Catalonia would be ranked 10th in the European Union (EU) in terms of GDP per capita and 15th in terms of population.

Catalan identity
Yet taken this brief economic analysis, it seems reasonable that in Spanish eyes, Catalonia’s claims for sovereignty look like a greedy and egoistic approach when currently Europe needs solidarity instead of selfish economic nationalism. Nevertheless, this behaviour can be explained by the other core of motives that have pushed Catalan society to remarkably struggle for independence: identity. A distinct language and traditions have always played a crucial role in defining the Catalan identity. The fact that Catalan language is as equally used or even more used as Spanish in Catalonia in all societal, cultural and political arenas or unique regional traditions, such as Saint George’s Day or Saint Stephen’s Day, have always fostered the creation of a Catalan identity. At the same time, it is true that not all regions in Spain follow a homogenous cultural pattern at all; every community has its own exclusive traditions, but Catalans have never felt identified with what could be considered commonly widespread customs in the country. For instance, Catalonia is the only region in Spain that currently forbids bullfighting.

Historical background
However, it seems plausible to admit that this stubborn will to feel different from the rest of Spain wouldn’t have gone this far if it had not been historically prosecuted. The first time Catalan society and culture were significantly oppressed was at the time of the first Bourbon King of Spain, Philip V, who implemented what he called the Nueva Planta decrees (1707-1716) shortly after the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. In order to establish a centralized Spanish state, Philip V suppressed the institutions, privileges and ancient charters of all the areas that were formerly part of the Crown of Aragon (Aragon, Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands) and forbid the use of Catalan as a language.

The second relevant prosecution came with Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship (1923-1930) who applied a radical anti-Catalan policy. This willingness to dismember the backbone of Catalan culture was intensified more recently during Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975). The dictatorship meant in Catalonia the same as in the other regions in Spain, the suppression of democratic freedom, but it also came together with a repression against Catalan culture. The totalitarian character of the dictatorship eliminated all Catalan rule-of-law and institutions, prohibited the use of Catalan in both public and private spheres and forced Catalan intellectuals and politicians to exile if they did not want to be criminally persecuted. Such repression has indeed shaped our grandparents and parents’ generation mind-set, who now feel proud to openly express themselves in the language that they could not be taught in school or freely use in public places.

Spanish government’s aim of unity
Considering this historical background, it seems natural to fight for every right you have been taken out, especially since the current Spanish conservative government seems to follow that old-fashioned trend and is constantly approving political measures trying to blur differences and imposing the unity in Spain. An example of that is the approval of the new educational law, Ley Orgánica para la Mejora de la Calidad Educativa (LOMCE), which has been controversial all over the country but significantly more in Catalonia for its anti-Catalan nature. Catalonia has had since mid-eighties an educational model of ‘immersió lingüística’, ‘language immersion’, which teaches all subjects in school in Catalan except Spanish language and literature and which has guaranteed the pupils’ excellent command of both languages. The educational model has been praised by UNESCO and the European Commission (EC) as a best practice example fostering a true bilingualism. Recently though the Spanish government has approved the LOMCE, only with the absolute majority of the ruling conservative party in the Spanish Parliament, which aims to guarantee that Spanish is the language of instruction in Catalonia, among other objectives. For instance, the law forces the Catalan government to pay for a privately-owned school for those families who would like their children to study in Spanish. According to the Spanish Minister of Education and Culture, José Ignacio Wert, the goal of the new law is to ‘Hispanicise Catalan students’.

In sum, nationalism and separatist regional movements are both a matter of the mind and the heart. While a pragmatic stand, such as focusing on the region’s economic viability, can be broadly logically understood, the emotional approach is purely subjective and debatable, a polyhedron that can be observed from several points of views. Currently, Catalonia is going through a remarkable time in its history since it is the first time in the democratic era that a majority of the population seems to be in favour of independence. The massive demonstration on the 11th of September of 2012 was the first proof of Catalan population standing together for the same cause, other than Futbol Club Barcelona (FCB) winning titles. Pandora’s Box has now been opened, what the future holds for Catalonia only demands time, patience and a lot of political action.

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