The Chronicle of the Catalan Question

By Maria Giannakopoulou,

The right of a people to self-determination is a striking and of highest importance right in the domain of modern international law. Going back to history, we spot the first time of its reference during the Westphalian Era, when the first European states as known today begun taking shape and appeared determined to defend their sovereignty within precise borders. However, officially, self-determination as a term and global value was expressed by the American President Wilson on the February of 1918 being one of the 14 principles he announced. Legally speaking, the concept of self-determination was established in 1941 by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill within the framework of the 8 principal points of the UN Charter.

Throughout the course of history, the struggles for self-determination were the driving force behind the shrinking or even collapse of the largest states-empires.

In our era, there are still national groups who rally for separatism and declaration of their complete autonomy. Usually, when we try to look for those cases on the map we have the inclination to search in regions where there is a colonial past to blame or everlasting warmongering. 

Nevertheless, in our European neighbourhood there is such a case to be underlined. Known as the Catalan Question, It can be characterized as the oldest self-determination reality in European continent. Between 12-13 centuries Catalonia was thriving in the Mediterranean  as a nation and a political state under the realm of Aragon. After the unification of the Kingdom of Aragon and the Kingdom of Castile in 1469 Catalonia started losing importance as more emphasis had been given to the promotion of the political interests of the South. 

The alienation of Catalan identity has its roots back to the 16th century. The most remarkable moment of the history that can be mentioned was Catalan’s decision to join with the French side when Spain launched war against France in 1640. The result was the defeat of the Spanish army and its retreat from the region until 1652. The conflict has marked indelibly the Catalan memory as La Guerra dels Segados  to which the Catalan anthem is paying homage to.

Throughout the 1700s Spain remained a major player in the international chessboard struggling to retain most of its colonial territory. However, internal turbulence challenged once again the unity of the nation. Back at that time the most important event was the War of the Spanish succession. Once more Catalan resistance to the dominant wave of support towards the bourbon successor Philip of Anjou triggered unfavourable repercussions since Catalonia had its democratic institutions abolished and its language prohibited. Catalonia was not a political entity anymore but in social structure Catalan identity and values did not wear off while economically kept on flourishing under the Bourbon rule rendering it the main source of Spanish exports.

During the 19th century political instability kept on triggering a sense of Catalan insecurity , whose territory became the intersection point of the warfare between post-revolutionary France and Spain. Catalonia turned out to be the bone of contention between the Spanish crown and Napoleon Bonaparte. At the beginning of the 19th century the Peninsula War and the Spanish constitution of 1812 were two events of paramount importance for Catalonia. It is a big irony that eventually it was Napoleon and the French occupation of north Spanish territory  that stimulated the revival of Catalan nationalism.

At the beginning of 20th century the repression against Catalan identity escalated through the governance of the king of Spain being called as El Africano and the Prime Minister Primo de Rivera. What stayed in history as  Tragic Week “Semana Tragica” could perfectly represent an example of Spanish nationalism back at that moment. In a nutshell, during the last week of July 1909 Catalan socialist groups of workers faced violent confrontation with the Spanish army due to their refusal to enroll for participating In Second Rif War, Spain’s military-colonial activity in Morocco.

Moving forward in history to the Spanish Civil War, throughout El Caudillo’s dictatorship, values such as self-determination, autonomous rights and plurinationalism were intensely suppressed. The rule and the personality of Franscisco Franco has ignited heated controversy among the Spanish population. For the Spaniards Franco represents until today the man who tried to establish a homogenous and united Spain, while for other regional identities such as the Catalans and the Basques he remains notorious for the following reasons.

Firstly, Franco abolished the use of the language of regional identities in public life and also in bureaucracy by promoting the idea of “If you are Spanish, speak Spanish”. Catalan cultural suppression also involved the prohibition of other cultural expressions such as the Catalan folk dance, the Sardana. Catalans kept on preserving their language in personal life whereas at the same time they tolerated a massive discrimination from the authority. Secondly, liberalism and democratic values were significantly impaired by authoritarian rule and cynical reforms of military dictatorship. The northern part of Spain was where liberal forces maintained most of their influence during the Civil War. As a result, North’s loyalty to the Republican government engendered brutal repercussions towards the population.

Two years after the end of Francoism in 1977 the restoration of democratic institutions took place consequently the restoration of Catalan government, which had been expelled to France during the Franco era. 

During the last two decades of the 20th century the vision for independence reemerged thanks to the normalization of democratic procedures and civic institutions. Finally, the Catalan Parliament was capable enough of sowing the seed for the creation of the right conditions on the road to independence.

A survey carried out by the political party Podemos revealed that the proportion of pro-independence voters in Catalonia surged from 14% in 2006, to approximately 30% in 2011 after the cancellation of the Catalan Statute, to 47% in 2017.

Since then, the citizens have been called to the polls twice aiming at the consolidation of their holistic independence in 2014 and 2017. In 2017 the referendum organized by Carles Puigdemont was declared as illegal by the Spanish government on the basis of Article 2 of the Spanish Constitution according to which “The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible country of all Spaniards; it recognizes and guarantees the right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed, and the solidarity amongst them all.”

Despite the fact that notions such as autonomy and solidarity are emphasized in this particular passage, the attempt of independence caused its violent suppression by the Spanish militia, which rushed from all areas of the Spanish territory. Whether the referendum was legitimate or not, it goes without saying that the violence against the voters was definitely not in proportion to the public’s resistance. 

Εlizabeth from Spain told us:
“Τhe Catalan society has shown that it is clearly divided into two blocs, where the majority have expressed their desire to separate from Spain. I think that Spain’s diversity is what makes it so unique: we all have our own customs, histories and linguistic distinctions. What we really must ask ourselves: do the Catalans really understand the repercussions of independence? Who will win? Do the Catalans really want more a country to lead a new nation? My suggestion for a solution is to set an intention on everyone’s part: the federal government needs to engage in dialogue, and the regional government in Catalonia may need to be more modest, stop ‘reinventing’ and stop using its own history at the expense of the history of other people for political purposes. I stand by the possibility of reaching a consensus without having to secede from Spain.”

Europe’s reaction was moderate and characterized by a friendly approach towards the government of Madrid. Indeed, Brussels condemned publicly the use of force and called Madrid to prevent any further escalation of the crisis in the name of the unity and solidarity of the Spanish nation. It was crystal clear that Catalonia was deprived of allies, since the majority of the Concert of Europe seemed unwilling to support secessionist tendencies. The aforementioned position emerges from the fact that separatist claims constitute an internal issue of the State; not an object of debate in the framework of European governance.

Since then, the refusal shown by the two sides for a constructive dialogue has widened the gap even more both at the political and social level. Reluctance to cooperate is perhaps the most important pathology of the Spanish state apparatus. Madrid is unwilling to cede its sovereignty over the most economically booming region, while Catalans accuse Madrid of economic exploitation of its resources for the benefit of the south. On the one side, Spaniards maintain that money breeds Catalan vanity, whilst on the flip side of the coin Catalans support that Spain steals from them through exorbitant taxation and inadequate funding of the Catalan public services. Furthermore, the economic agreement of 1981 between the Basques and the central government contributes to the perpetuation of economic resentment on the part of Catalans.

All things considered, Catalan struggle for autonomy is an eternal value of Catalan soul, and it does not seem to be abating despite the vigorous denial from central authority. Even if the financial relations between Barcelona and Madrid are normalized and reorganized, no one can promise that there will be an ever-lasting compromise. Taking into consideration, the latest opinion stated by Spanish Prime Minister regarding the conflict over Kosovo’s independence during his bilateral meeting with the Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, “The territorial integrity of nations must be respected and international law must be respected’’ Spanish leadership has intensified its relentless attitude in any scenario of concessions towards other privileges.

Published by

Alexandros Sainidis

I am an International Relations Analyst and the creator of the blog Pecunia et Bellum. I have studied International, European and Area Studies at the Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens, Greece. I am a bilingual Russian speaker and I am currently learning Mandarin in order to gain a deeper understanding of the current International Affairs in Eurasia.

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