By Eve Willis
The 2017 referendum
Walk down any street in Barcelona today and you will see a Catalan flag or yellow ribbon draped across the balconies of many apartments. Amongst the sea of the distinctive red, yellow and blue stars, are the slogans and posters, remnants of last year’s heated political episode. They proudly declare in Catalan “Llibertat los presos polítics”, “Vota si” or “Republicà Catalana”. Contrastingly, you will notice the absence of Spanish flags.
It is impossible to escape the powerful sense of regional identity that permeates Catalonia. More than a year after the illegal referendum took place, has anything really changed in this region? And what does the future hold for Catalonia?
On October 1st, 2017, a referendum to determine if Catalonia should gain independence from Spain was organised by the Generalitat de Catalunya, but was declared illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court. The central government in Madrid sent a heavy police presence to Catalonia to suppress the vote. The results were 91% in favour of leaving Spain, with however only around 40% of the population casting their vote. The Catalan government argued that if it were not for the police presence and violence, which Amnesty International claimed to be an “excessive and unnecessary use of force”, the turnout would have been far greater.
On October 27th, 2017, the Catalonian Government unilaterally declared independence, leading the Spanish government to invoke Article 155 and assume direct power over some of Catalonia’s prerogatives, reducing the region’s autonomy. A year on, political prisoners remain in Spanish jails and Catalan society, both public and private, is deeply divided.
An age-old schism?
Spain is comprised of 17 semi-autonomous communities that constitute a unified state. However, Catalonia was once an ancient civilisation, with a distinct identity. Catalan separateness is thus nothing new. Then, at the turn of the 21st century, Catalan separatism flourished as both a reaction to globalisation and as a manifestation of the region’s unique historical and cultural legacy.
Spain between 1939 and 1975 was a fascist state ruled by General Francisco Franco. His policies towards the autonomous communities were directed at eliminating democratic freedoms and suppressing regional identities. As a consequence, the liberties enjoyed post-1975 by the communities led to the revival of strong and distinct regional identities. More recently, the 2006 and 2014 referenda resulted in Catalans professing their desire for more autonomy, such as privileging Catalan over Spanish in schools. However, little concessions were made by the central government.
What do the Catalan people actually think?
Speaking to young Catalans, it is obvious public opinion is deeply divided. Alba, a medicine student born and raised in Barcelona, says she feels “Catalan and not Spanish”. She then goes on to say: “I don’t hate Spain… we are just very different”. Listening to Alba, it becomes apparent that the independence movement is rooted in much more than merely economic or political factors, as it also emerges from a deep sense of cultural identity, of which space Catalonia inhabits in the world as a nation. Yet, her friend Macarena argues that she feels both Catalan and Spanish, stressing that for Catalonia to become independent would mean leaving the EU, “which I think no one wants”. Despite their disagreement, it seems that there is one thing they both resonate with: “We are exhausted”, Alba exclaims, “the people are tired and life has to continue”.
What does the future hold?
Today, the future remains very uncertain. President Sanchez decided to hold a Spanish Cabinet meeting in Barcelona on December 21st, which separatists fiercely protested. The weeks leading up to the meeting were of heightened tension. Adding to the hostility, Quim Torra, the current leader of the Catalan government, defended using the ‘Slovenian model’ to achieve Catalan independence, a model which is known for having involved numerous casualties. On both sides of Catalan independence, it therefore seems that there is little hope for a swift resolution.