This week saw the violent clashes between the Spanish Government and Catalonian secessionists over an independence referendum held on the 1st of October. With some news outlets reporting that 900 people have been injured in the violence, in which police sought to disrupt the vote, it’s hard to see this issue vanishing from the headlines any time soon. The referendum, which was deemed illegal by both the Constitutional Court of Spain and the European Commission, seeks to ask Catalonians whether they wish to secede from the Kingdom of Spain and is the fourth such vote since 2009’s unofficial vote.
Much like modern day Italy, Spain is a union of different peoples who speak a variety of different Iberic languages and celebrate different practices and customs. The Catalonian region, including the popular tourist and football city of Barcelona, has for many centuries enjoyed its own culture and language separate from the rest of Spain.
Catalonia was once its own entity, under the Crown of Aragon which stretched as far as Naples and had its capital in Barcelona. However, in 1469, a marriage between the King of Aragon, Ferdinand II and the Queen of Castille, Isabella I (who both would later fund Columbus’ voyage to the Americas), combined the crowns into a state that largely represents the present-day Kingdom of Spain.
In the early 20th Century, Barcelona saw a renaissance in the artistic and architectural space with the rise of brilliant and unique works by architects such as Antoni Gaudí, which still pull in crowds today from across the world to see, and enjoyed a heightened level of autonomy under the Bourbon kings.
In 1931, the Spanish Republic was proclaimed after the abdication and exile of Alphonso XIII and Barcelona embraced the leftist republic with open arms. So, it was, that during the subsequent Civil War (1936-1939), Catalonia was one of the Republic’s last and committed strongholds before it capitulated to Franco and the Nationalists.
The Franco years (1939-1975) were difficult for the Catalonians as the Nationalist Government enacted revenge for the region’s defiance through abolishing Catalonian autonomy and through suppressing and forbidding the Catalan language in public life and schools. However, Barcelona remained Spain’s second largest city after Madrid and enjoyed great levels of prosperity due to rapid industrialisation and its strategic position as a main port of call on the Mediterranean.
With the return of the Bourbon monarchy in 1975 after Franco’s death and transition to a constitutional monarchy under Juan Carlos I, Catalonia was granted a Statue of Autonomy in 1977 and its economy took off with increased tourism.
However, as the rest of the country buckled under the Euro Crisis and crippling debt, Catalonia flourished with its diverse economy and has become the wealthiest part of the country. After London and Paris, Barcelona is the third most visited city in Europe and boasts the largest economy within Spain, with a GDP of USD $255.2 billion. On the flip-side, it also boasts the largest debt of any other Spanish region.
Catalonian independence is reminiscent, however, of the Padania movement in Northern Italy. Well into the 80’s and 90’s, Northern Italy was hailed as “Europe’s richest country” with astounding levels of growth and industrial output. Many Northerners basked in the success and yet felt that their success was marred by their enormous subsidy of the much poorer and less industrialised South. This gave rise to La Lega Nord (or The Northern League) which was a regionalist party based on separating the Italian Republic in two, and creating a prosperous Northern Italy. They argued that Northern values were too different from the South. They spoke different languages, ate different foods, came from different ethnic backgrounds and at the 1994 Italian General Election, picked up sizeable 8.4% of the vote, giving them 117 seats in the Republic’s Chamber of Deputies.
However, as the Northern economy began to lag and that success turned into hardship, the party lost massive amounts of support to more Federalist parties which looked to preserve the Republic. La Lega Nord still has success in regional politics and nationally under its leader, Matteo Salvini, but has abandoned its secessionist rhetoric in favour of Euro-Scepticism and anti-immigration.
But. That’s not to say the Catalonian independence movement will be a flash in the pan. The violence and frankly unnecessary behaviour by Madrid will only stand to fan the flames and anger that the Catalonian people feel.
A big part of Catalonian displeasure with Madrid is the feeling that they are fighting a corrupt and selfish political system which has destroyed the nation’s economy and uses Catalonia’s success to prop themselves up. The Northern Italian separatists were never struck down by Rome and were treated more as a joke than a serious political threat to the order and strength of the Republic.
Madrid has made the fatal mistake of giving the Catalonians something to fight for.
The grossly authoritarian crackdown on the 1st of October shows that Madrid is scared. And Madrid should be scared. Very.
If Catalonia falls, so does Andalusia, so does Galicia, so does the Basque Country.
Will the Catalonians be able to peacefully separate from the Kingdom of Spain? Or will we find that the echoes of 1936 have returned to haunt Europe?
We can only hope it’s the former.