News & Analysis

Spain vs. Catalonia: A Case for Unity in a Society Divided

Posted on behalf of Nichole Naoum

There’s nothing quite like taking a leisurely stroll down a cobblestone street that predates your own country by over a thousand years only to have your eye nearly gouged out by a selfie-stick wielding tourist moments later. Venturing further into the city, the potent aroma of sea salt, marijuana, and on occasion, raw sewage, wafts through the gothic spires and narrow alleyways. With the late afternoon sky tinged with vibrant hues of purple and pink, you begin to appreciate the silence, as distant echoes of street performers and roaring motorbikes fade into the horizon.

This is Barcelona, a trendy Mediterranean metropolis known to overwhelm the senses of both visitors and residents alike. After living there for nearly a year, I found Barcelona to be the ideal expat heaven, with a rich tapestry of culture, language, and architecture all colliding together in a discord of beauty and chaos.

But amid its glittery façade, the storied history of Barcelona is embedded deep beneath its iconic landmarks, a history often reflected in the local street art. You can rarely turn a corner without seeing the colorful aftermath of political frustration splashed upon its city walls.

img_5838-1-1Photo: Patricia Galiana, Barcelona-based freelance journalist for The California Review

Spain’s unity crisis is always on full display in Barcelona, the capital of the contested region of Catalonia. From Modernista mansions to neighborhood bars, every structure is dripping with Catalan pride; the Spanish national flag is noticeably absent.

Catalonia was once an autonomous principality with its own set of laws and customs. Its language, Catalan, is a unique tongue born from the crude Latin of the Romans who first colonized the Tarragonna region. Following its capture by Spanish troops in 1714, Catalonia’s autonomy was dissolved, and Spanish became the official language of the kingdom.

For the past two centuries, Catalan nationalism has continued to gain momentum and grow support. In 1931, Catalonia was able to secure a high degree of autonomy, but lost its newfound freedom to Francisco Franco’s forces nearing the end of the Spanish Civil War.

Violent suppression under the Franco regime materialized in the form of book burning, the renaming of streets and towns, the banning of the Catalan language in schools and media outlets, and the imprisonment and execution of Catalan dissidents.

Catalonia has again emerged as Spain’s most prosperous and diverse region, culminating in Barcelona’s hosting of the 1992 Olympic Games. Though the Spanish government has given Catalonia extensive autonomy, separatist fervor has only continued to grow, with secessionists organizing unsuccessful independence referendums in 2010 and 2014, with history eventually repeating itself in the fall of 2017.

The October referendum, spearheaded by Catalan president Charles Puigdemont, resulted in a 90 percent vote for secession. Voter turnout was reported to be 42 percent, which means that even though the vote was overwhelmingly pro-independence, the referendum may not have reflected the views of the entire electorate.

img_6267-1-1Photo: Patricia Galiana, Barcelona-based freelance journalist for The California Review

The Spanish government declared the referendum illegal and suppressed turnout by deploying police in full Robocop-esque riot gear to raid polling stations, confiscate ballots, and fire non-lethal rounds at protesters—all in a concerted effort to undermine the vote.

Following this incident, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy enacted Article 155 of the constitution, declaring that Catalonia did not fulfill its obligations under Spanish law and thus, may be subjected to direct rule by the central government.

A Spanish court then issued a European Arrest Warrant for Puigdemont on charges of treason, rebellion, and mismanagement of public funds.  Puigdemont has since been living in self-imposed exile in Belgium and maintains that despite his political woes, he is still the true Catalan president and continues to urge his constituents to rally together and reject orders of Article 155.

With Spain jailing other pro-separatist leaders, Puidegemont recently acknowledged that it would be impossible for him to physically return to Catalonia. Instead, the ousted leader declared that if re-elected, he would perform his duties virtually, via video conferencing such as Skype. I must admit I do admire that infamous Catalan stubbornness.

But, because of all the political grandstanding by leaders in Madrid and Barcelona, narratives on both sides have been twisted, oversimplified, and harnessed for political agendas. While I vehemently condemn Rajoy’s obtuse overreaction in his suspension of Catalan autonomy, the referendum was a mass act of civil disobedience orchestrated by the regional government and driven by clandestine commissions, encrypted communications, and not to mention, decades of unrelenting nationalism.

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, recently called nationalism “a poison that prevents Europe from working together.” While his analysis is simplistic and a bit self-serving, what determines a nationalist movement’s success or failure depends on the measures taken to achieve independence and the legacy it leaves behind.img_5745-1-1Photo: Patricia Galiana, Barcelona-based freelance journalist for The California Review

Nationhood and autonomy are issues that transcend human history, at times helping unify in the face of oppression, and at times dividing by asserting superiority over “the other.” The self-determination of peoples has long been romanticized and these days, independence movements have garnered blind support from people who are quick to categorize them as mere cases of good vs. evil. The visceral imagery of “David vs. Goliath” sells, and Catalan leaders have been successful at using this tactic to discredit contemporary Spanish democracy, going so far as to equate their struggle for home rule to Nelson Mandela’s fight against apartheid in past years.

However, Catalonia is currently granted more autonomy than many other semi-autonomous regions in Europe, including Scotland and Bavaria. The Spanish constitution created a unified central government, but also allowed a large degree of autonomy for its disparate regions. While power was distributed asymmetrically between these communities, the arrangement was one that best responded to the country’s unique attributes.

Catalonia enjoys the benefits of being part of Spain, but is allowed to have its own flag, language, and regional government that oversees education, healthcare, and (some) infrastructure projects. But despite these freedoms, pro-independence supporters claim that Catalonia delivers more financial support to Spain than it receives from the central government in Madrid, and that in turn, has impeded possibilities for growth and development.

While they’re correct in their assessment, especially considering that Catalonia makes up 16 percent of the Spanish population and contributes around 20 percent of its total GDP to the Spanish economy, no clear consensus for Catalan self-governance has been established thus far. So, how can they be so sure that seceding from Spain won’t do more harm than good if they don’t even have any concrete post-split strategies in place yet? And the fact that Catalan leaders tend to overlook the economic consequences of separating is cause for concern.

After all, whether it’s a messy divorce or a contested piece of land, splitting up is expensive. Many economists theorize that the short-term impacts of the separation will be damaging for both Spain and Catalonia. Firstly, the establishment of a border would result in a loss of jobs, income, and capital for all Spanish citizens.  Those losses would be provoked by the barriers to trade and by the expenses needed to sustain a newly formed nation. Other economists predict that Catalonia could suffer a possible hit since 35.5 percent of Catalan exports are to the Spanish market.

Nonetheless, the fate of both nations ultimately hinges on the verdicts reached in post-secession negotiations on debt and the European Union (EU). It’s still unclear on whether or not Catalonia would acquire a certain percentage of Spain’s debt and if they would be mandated to pay off their own debt. Either scenario could prove to be unfavorable to a new Catalan state and could hinder the potential for economic expansion.

Additionally, the Catalan economy would face large transition costs if denied entry into the EU. This is a possibility being that EU membership is contingent on receiving a unanimous “yes” from other EU countries, including Spain and its allies. With so much uncertainty still looming, I have to question how legitimate and necessary Catalan aspirations for independence are.

These aspirations have translated into a dangerous “us vs. them” ethos between two cultures that are closely related and inherently compatible. There are differences, from Catalans’ fierce disapproval of Spanish bullfighting to the soccer rivalry between Barcelona and Madrid, but one would be hard-pressed to find any legitimate issues of irreconcilable cultural clash.

Catalonia has been an integral part of Spain since the country’s inception, and its independence would cause suffering not only to the people of Spain, but to the Catalans who seek their own state. The two share a complex history and culture that forever binds them together, whether they like it or not. Though unity should not be achieved by force, sovereignty should not be achieved by succumbing to identity politics. History has repeatedly taught us that no good can come from swinging the political pendulum too far to one side, and Catalonia’s independence movement is no exception.

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