Behind the Push for Catalonian Independence

Exclusive: Like many separatist movements, the push for Catalonian independence from Spain results from a mix of historic grievances, cultural pride and economic challenges, as war correspondent Don North describes.

By Don North

Before embarking for a visit to Barcelona, the hotbed of Catalonian independence, I was disappointed to find little historical analysis about the enigma of Catalan independence in the major U.S. news media. The U.S. news agencies that I follow presented little more than a daily chronicle of street demonstrations and the conflict between the supporters of Catalonian independence and the political leadership in the Spanish capital of Madrid. If there was much else, I missed it.

Three flags flying over a building in Barcelona: Federal Republic of Spain, Catalonia and European Union. (Photo credit{ Don North)

So, as a journalist interested in the history of both political and armed conflicts, I had to dig deeper into the complex dynamics of this secessionist movement as well as the broader dynamics of why regions within otherwise successful nation states seek to shatter those unions.

For Americans, there were the events that led up to the Southern secession of the Civil War. Having grown up in Canada, I had experienced two votes for the separation of French-speaking Quebec from the Dominion of Canada. Still, the reasons why separatist movements had such strong appeal – even when they ultimately failed – always mystified and intrigued me.

Looking for answers, I reread George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, which presented a first-hand view of the Spanish civil war of the late 1930s. It still left me as confused as Orwell seemed to be about the factions involved in the struggle.

Walking in the streets of Barcelona today it’s easy to forget the great political passions that once played out here in Orwell’s time. It was here in Barcelona on July 19, 1936, that the opening shots of the Spanish Civil war were heard. It was Barcelona’s revolutionary fervor that helped inspire volunteers from 50 countries across Europe and the Americas to join International Brigades to fight against Gen. Francisco Franco. There were an estimated 8,500 volunteers from neighboring France, 4,000 British, 2,800 Americans and 1,700 Canadians.

The surviving wounds of the war in Barcelona are mostly psychological with scant physical evidence. In the Placa Sant Filip Neri, shrapnel scars in the church walls from two bombs dropped by the Italian Fascist Air Force that killed 42 civilians can still be seen. Placa de George Orwell is a peaceful square in the city’s Gothic Quarter, where the only tangible reference to the writer can be found today.

The popular Bar Libertaria, whose walls are a celebration of Catalan anarchism, with original posters, photos and newspaper clippings from the civil war is a mecca for today’s independence supporters. The owner Sergio claims Catalonia’s brand of libertarian anarchism is alive and well, especially in response to unemployment, corruption and growing social inequality in Spain.

But the majority of flags flying over Barcelona or draped over balconies today are Catalonian, supporting independence.

Weak Nationalism

Historian Stanley Payne, a scholar of modern Spain and fascism at the University of Wisconsin, has offered logical historical reasons why Spain is today prone to the attraction of regional independence. In 1936, Franco’s army launched a crusade to save Spain from “foreign threats,” such as anarchism and communism, and drove the country into a bloody civil war in which up to one million people died and 500,000 were forced into exile.

Longtime Spanish dictator, Gen. Francisco Franco.

Following the war in 1939, Franco consolidated an authoritarian regime that remained in place until his death in 1975. Franco’s regime exalted a conception of Spanish nationalism built on the long-past achievements of imperial Spain and the “purification” of Spanish civilization with the expulsion of the Moors and Jews and the spread of Christianity.

As a consequence, the association of Spanish nationalism with the historically unpopular Franco makes national symbols like the flag highly suspect. As history Stanley Payne wrote in 1991, “Spanish nationalism is weaker than ever and has for all practical purposes disappeared.”

Today’s Spain lacks the intense nationalism that has surfaced in other European nations as part of a resurgent right-wing populism and rejection of supranational entities, such as the European Union.

Among Western nations Spain is a rare exception without a national agenda based on anti-immigrant themes. There is no equivalent in Spain of Marine Le Pen’s “make France more French” or Donald Trump’s “make America great again.”

But there is a dark side to this disappearance of Spanish nationalism: a surge of “subnationalism” in regions like Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Galicia. The success of democracy in the post-Franco period has allowed Spanish regions to assert long-repressed identities. In the case of Catalonia, that sentiment seems to have reached a breaking point.

On Oct. 1, Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million, held a referendum on whether to declare itself an independent country, drawing 42 percent of eligible voters to the polls and registering a 92 percent majority for independence. But only the separatists are taking the landslide vote as an accurate reflection of the will of the Catalan people, in part, because there was no independent verification of the tallies.

Madrid also declared the referendum illegal and took a heavy hand toward the vote.

Days before the referendum, the Guardia Civil arrested Catalan officials and seized 10 million ballots. National police blocked voters from entering polling stations. According to Catalan officials, altercations between police and the public caused injuries to 844 people.

The Catalan government claims Madrid’s aggressive tactics explain the relatively low turnout (although Madrid’s harsh reaction was also cited by some observers as a factor in the lopsided outcome in favor of independence).

A Historic Reflection

Fortunately for those of us struggling to understand the daily news reports from Spain, a timely new book has surfaced, The Struggle for Catalonia: Rebel Politics in Spain, by Raphael Minder, a Swiss journalist based in Madrid for the last ten years for The New York Times. The book attempts to explain what has brought Spain and Catalonia to the brink of divorce.

Picasso’s famous Spanish civil war painting, Guernica (1937), depicting the Fascists’ aerial bombardment of the town.

Minder asserts that despite Catalonia’s claim to a history and culture distinct from the rest of Spain, it is deeply connected. Indeed, Minder writes that it is difficult, if not impossible, to understand Catalan history as separate from Spanish history. After all, Catalonia was one of the main theatres of the civil war, home to some of the key losers in that conflict, such as the anarchist movement, trade unions and the communist party.

And in spite of Catalonia’s resistance to Franco — resulting largely from his elimination of all autonomy and harsh repression of Catalan culture, language and the flag — parts of Catalan society supported his fascist assault on democracy in1936. Franco’s lengthy rule was backed by the Catalan business community, rural oligarchs, and the Catholic Church. Further, Catalan nationalists have historically relied on compromise with Madrid to advance their agenda, casting it as an aspiration for local rule and not independence.

Raphael Minders book is based on interviews with 200 politicians, journalists and scholars, giving it a wide scope of the Catalonia crisis. Minder places the origins of the current conflict, not to ancient claims of Catalan nationhood, but rather to the provocations of a new generation of Catalan leaders who support independence and have little regard for the democratic institutions put in place after Franco. Also feeding the movement was Madrid’s overheated response to the Catalans’ desire for more control over their own affairs.

Madrid’s behavior amounts to a failure of leadership. It has allowed a dispute over Catalonia’s control of its fiscal affairs to grow into the most serious constitutional crisis that Spanish democracy has faced in the post-Franco era.

Madrid’s position toward Catalonia hardened considerably after 2011 when conservative Mariano Rajoy became Prime Minister. He immediately said his administration had no interest in accommodating Catalans’ request for greater autonomy.

In 2015, following Catalan regional elections, Catalonia’s new premier Carles Puigdemont, from Girona, Catalonia’s most independent province, escalated the crisis by announcing plans to create the Republic of Catalonia. During his swearing in, Puigdemont broke with precedent by refusing to pledge loyalty to the Spanish Constitution.

When the Catalan parliament authorized an independence referendum, Rajoy in Madrid, threatened to arrest the parliamentarians who voted for it. In spite of expressing regret over the Madrid-induced violence marring the attempted referendum, the political establishment in Madrid, including the opposition party, backed Prime Minister Rajoy. In a speech to the nation, King Filipe accused the separatists of “inadmissible disloyalty.”

A Painful Recession

It also was no accident that the Catalonia crisis deepened as Spain endured its most serious economic crisis in decades, following the international financial crash in 2008. The unemployment rate reached 27 percent, the highest in the European Union, and sharpened the sense among Catalonians of being economically exploited by the rest of Spain.

Street musicians in Barcelona. (Photo credit: Don North)

(The Occupy Movement was born in Spain with protesters camping out in public squares to protest the financial abuses that shattered the global economy, with the occupy tactic later spreading to other countries, including the United States.)

Other factors also fed the Catalonia’s interest in independence. The 2014 Scottish independence referendum, although rejected, inspired Catalans to demand a referendum from Madrid. They were also inspired by the Brexit vote in which a majority of British voters decided to exit the European Union.

(The Brexit vote resonated somewhat differently in Catalonia, where some secession supporters argued that continued incorporation in Spain was irrelevant because of the supranational E.U., which an independent Catalonia could join as a new state.)

Catalans also take extraordinary pride in their cultural, architectural and business achievements. Minders’s book hails Catalonia as one of Europe’s most culturally complex, economically prosperous, and politically liberal regions. In particular, his book praises Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital as one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan cities. In 2016, Barcelona attracted over eight million visitors, making it one of Europe’s top tourist attractions.

Minder also gives great attention to how Barcelona’s identity is being transformed by “big money and international brands.” Until recently it seems Barcelona had managed to retain its local flavor while opening itself to the world. Its current transformation is felt most dramatically in its old city center, the Gothic Quarter, where hundreds-of-centuries-old businesses, such as book stores, bakeries and toy stores, have disappeared in the last few years due to rising rents.

Ironically, the Catalan independence movement faces its toughest resistance in Barcelona although secessionists have relied heavily on Barcelona’s size and importance to argue Catalonia would be a sustainable state. But the argument hasn’t captured the hearts and minds of a broad cross-section of Barcelona citizens.

The cosmopolitan city is a magnet for people from other parts of Spain as well as for immigrants. It’s home to the largest Muslim community in Spain and has sizable communities of Latin Americans. Many of these citizens are suspicious of what an independent Catalonia might hold for them and for Barcelona.

Business Uncertainty

Another obstacle to independence is Barcelona’s business community, which is unsure that Catalonia, with 16 percent of Spain’s population and accounting for 20 percent of Spain’s GDP, can survive on its own, especially given the E.U.’s negative reactions to the referendum. Such uncertainty is causing an exodus of businesses from Catalonia.

Catalonia flag hanging from a balcony in Barcelona. (Photo credit: Don North)

According to the newspaper El Pais, almost 700 businesses have left since the independence movement began. And since the referendum, Catalonia’s two largest banks have moved to other regions. It could well be that pressure from the business community rather than Madrid will break the Catalan separatist movement.

New elections in Spain have been scheduled for Dec. 21 amid calls for compromise echoing from Madrid to Barcelona. But Madrid’s display of violent force on the day of the Catalonia’s referendum, and the images that linger on social media of police shipped in from other regions beating up voters, dragging the elderly through the streets and firing rubber bullets into peaceful crowds have given the separatists the moral high ground and likely expanded support for independence. Further use of force by Madrid would be like throwing gasoline on a fire.

Jose Andres is a Spanish-American writer living in Barcelona whose dual identity as a Spaniard and a Catalan reflects the sad dilemma that many who care for both Spain and Catalonia face.

“In 1974 my family moved from the north of Spain to Catalonia, the land of opportunity.” Andres wrote, “ I fell in love with Catalonia’s food, language, songs, stories and unique traditions. In my heart, I was both a proud Spaniard and a proud Catalan—a seamless identity I’ve carried with me my entire life.”

Andres described the last few months as being caught between opposing forces: a hard-headed national government in Madrid keeping Catalans from their democratic right to vote, and a rogue group of misguided politicians leading Catalonia off a political and economic cliff.

“In between these two extremes is the true story of Spain and Catalonia, where I and millions of Spaniards find ourselves,” he wrote.

Andres explained that as a boy he learned an important word in Catalan; “seny.”

“It’s a word that means sanity, and espouses a world view governed by level-headedness and integrity,” he reflected “I’m afraid ‘seny’ has abandoned Catalonia in recent months. If we want to live in a civil society, we need to respect the laws of the land. I support the idea of a vote for Catalan independence, but not in the haphazard, unconstitutional way it’s been conducted in recent months.”

Andres believes that for Catalonia to ensure a stable future, the silent majority will need to find its voice and bring “seny” back to the heart of Catalan and Spanish society.

“That means voting for new leadership on December 21st, that will represent all Catalonians, not just those who will stop at nothing short of independence. It means supporting politicians who know how to build bridges, not just dig holes. ‘Seny’ is the foundation upon which Spain and Catelonia build their future.”

Since the abortive referendum, thousands of Spaniards have taken to the streets to demand national unity. From the movements slogan, “Parlem Hablemos” (let’s talk), to the Spanish flag waving on the streets of Barcelona, the desire for peace and reconciliation is evident.

On Oct. 10, the separatists suspended a unilateral declaration of independence to allow for negotiations with Madrid and the new elections on Dec. 21.

Don North is a veteran war correspondent who covered the Vietnam War and many other conflicts around the world. He is the author of Inappropriate Conduct,  the story of a World War II correspondent whose career was crushed by the intrigue he uncovered.

20 comments for “Behind the Push for Catalonian Independence

  1. Pinokkio
    December 7, 2017 at 08:54

    Was it the wish of the Catalonian people or just the wish of some exremists that took the Catalonian people hostage after they were elected??? Was it the wolf hidden is a sheepskin that wanted a new nation? As 42% of the people voted and 90% of these votes were a yes meaning 38.5% of the Catalonian people voted pro!! This is a minority!!
    If Mr. Puidgemont a.o. are right why do they flee then? Are these politcians hunted for their freedom of speech? I doubt it because first of all they are Spanish citizens. As they were first dismissed from their political functions and later on accused as rebellions!! So their political status and the protection by it was not existing. Nevertheless the islamofobe, extremists parties in Europe repeat it every day!!
    What this prime minister of Catalonia did was brainwashing his people in order to start a revolution.The most stupid the Spanish government did was to sent an extreme police force to the region and allowed to use force to avoid in order to break te rebellion!! Now the Catalonian politicians are seen as martyrs. That is the worsest scenario for the Spanish government!! What will the coming elections tell us???

  2. Bernia
    December 5, 2017 at 14:29

    Catalonia should join forces with California and form a new country: Catafornia

  3. Superman
    December 5, 2017 at 01:05

    How do you write an article about independence without bringing up centralized vs decentralized governments? This goes back to the Federalists vs the Anti Federalists and I know you were born in Canada but every person should learn exactly what those differences were which easily demonstrate that governments with central power results in a less democratic more unequal society. Spains central government has placed policies that adversely effect Catalonia and the result was a resounding vote of independence of 90%. Furthermore it demonstrates that western societies are not democratic what-so-ever. Can we say the same about the US? I don’t know why don’t you go ask the midwest which has been destroyed due to policies enacted in our society. Do I believe the midwest would vote to leave? Well lets look at the way they voted. Bernie Sanders trounced Clinton in the primaries and then Trump trounced Clinton on Nov. 8th. People always bring up racism but Clinton’s worst popular vote results came from the midwest that were a direct result of central government policies that have made those great places like the Dakota’s & Wyoming poor and destitute. Great history piece but little value on that society or this one.

  4. Bernia
    December 3, 2017 at 13:59

    As investment firms suck the life blood out of nation states one by one, employing marketing and mortgage schemes that are driving up land and housing costs, communities will fight back. Small businesses are being pushed out, like the book sellers along Las Ramblas in Barcelona, and this destroys communities.

  5. December 2, 2017 at 18:32

    Don North’s reputation as a solid historian, researcher and journalist in international hot spots is widely known after decades of top notch articles from around the globe. North’s ability to personalize what is at stake in Catalonia and its historical perspective since the time of the Spanish Civil War while maintaining objectivity makes this a must read for those interested in what’s going on in Spain these days.
    U.S. State Department and EU staffers would do well to heed the lessons learned from North’s on the spot research and reporting.

  6. Bob Beal
    December 2, 2017 at 12:57

    “The aim of the separatist parties is to create a new mini-state, or at least accrue the necessary degree of independence to establish direct relations with the global banks, transnational corporations and the EU. The goal is to consolidate Catalonia as a low tax, free trade area based on the stepped-up exploitation of the working class.”

    Catalan, Spanish workers face grave dangers from Madrid’s repression
    by Paul Mitchell and Chris Marsden, Nov. 2, 2017

  7. Emmanuel Moyana
    December 2, 2017 at 09:58

    The Scots wanted a referendum on independence and the United Kingdom allowed it to happen. The Catalonians want the same and why must they be denied the same?

  8. December 1, 2017 at 21:03

    Fix the link at the bottom of this article to inappropriate conduct, it goes to a different website, not related.

  9. Seer
    December 1, 2017 at 14:10

    One could also see this as another attempt of the rich breaking away from the poor.

    • Igor Slamoff
      December 1, 2017 at 18:23

      Right. See “Catalan nationalism isn’t the progressive cause you might think”
      The correct Catalan spelling is not “Place George Orwell”, but “Plaça George Orwell”.
      An interesting aspect of the Franco dictatorship is its anti-imperialism. Between about 1880 and 1930 Spain was increasingly penetrated by English and French capital. For example the Barcelona streetcars and waterworks were owned by British capitalists. Spanish Fascists like Franco yearned for national resurgence under a strong state that could keep foreign capitalists at bay. After his victory over the working class he set up a national health-care system. In that he resembled other European Fascists like the Greek dictator Metaxas, who thus gained a measure of popular legitimacy.

      • December 1, 2017 at 21:00

        …so according to this article “secessionists have attempted to give a sheen of democratic legitimacy to an essentially ethno-linguistic movement, conveniently sidestepping concerns over the rule of law.” …and those “laws” are made in Madrid where a corrupt government holds the reigns.

        “in terms of income, social status and influence the difference is stark. The Spanish-speaking population, immigrants or descendants of economic migrants who arrived in the 20th century, is, on average, less wealthy, less educated and less politically mobilised.”…and who encouraged all those immigrants to come to Catalonia?…they were lured by Franco’s fascist regime…and now Catalonians should just let these “economic immigrants” take over? Incidentally, many of those “Catalan elites” that the article refers to are in fact the recipients of Franco’s largesse to his fascist supporters(this was true in the Basque provinces as well).
        BTW, the Guardian is no longer a reliable source for news. The best reporters(including Glen Greenwald) bolted the paper and founded the OffGuardian.

  10. les robinson
    December 1, 2017 at 04:31

    To understand Catalonia you need to delve deeper into history. The Catalan parliament is one of the oldest in Europe, existing long before Spain and, whilst Spain and France split Catalonia between them in 1689, the Spanish part of Catalonia did not really lose its identity until it was occupied by the Spanish army on 9/11/1714 (yes, Catalonia had its 9/11 long before America).

    Over the years since then Catalan culture and language has suffered a great deal of repression from the Spanish so, if Scotland (who had a peaceful union with the UK) can still have a large number of Scottish wanting independence, it comes as no surprise that so many Catalan want to regain their independence.

    • December 1, 2017 at 07:56

      Thanks for that bit of historical fact. I agree, but my comments above are still “awaiting moderation”.

    • December 1, 2017 at 14:07

      Yes, Ethnic groups frequently desire self determination.Self determination is generally considered a positive goal.

      • Mariam
        December 2, 2017 at 15:51

        The Catalans are in no way considered an ethnic group different from the rest of the Spaniards. They share the same DNA i.e they are indeed descendants of the Celtiberians. In the Iberian peninsula, there were several languages spoken, today only a few remain, such as Catalan, Gallego, Vasco, and Castellano (Spanish). To the exception of the Vasco, all the other languages are Romance languages, originating from the Latin.

        • December 2, 2017 at 22:18

          Yes Mariam, they are related by DNA and linguistically their language is similar to Spanish(and French), but why shouldn’t they have a choice if they want to be independent?

  11. Seer
    November 30, 2017 at 22:30

    Zach, I don’t believe it’s so much some behind-the-scenes push/scheme as it is just human nature to regroup. Animal spirits and all. There’s a sure feeling that things are NOT going to get better. This will tend to create fractures in what were at best tentative alliances in times of plenty.

    I highly recommend the BBC (and I don’t really like the BBC) documentary on Spain’s economic collapse. You can see how Spain was really only a pawn in the growth-grab world that was the global economic juggernaut spawned by “free money.” I don’t believe that Spain really ever has or will recover from the effects of Farnco.

  12. November 30, 2017 at 21:17

    Although i believe Don North has given a good backgrounder on the Catalonian conflict there are a couple of points I would take issue with:
    “There is no equivalent in Spain of Marine Le Pen’s “make France more French” or Donald Trump’s “make America great again.”
    I believe this is because fascism is still deeply embedded in Spain’s “democracy”. The difference between the PP and the PSOE(the two parties that have ruled post-Franco Spain) is essentially the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats in the U.S..(with the military Deep State overseeing them both). Podemos is a relatively new phenomenon which the main parties keep in check(as with the separatists).

    “I support the idea of a vote for Catalan independence, but not in the haphazard, unconstitutional way it’s been conducted in recent months.”(Jose Andres)…this is a bit like saying I support the emancipation of serfs but they should ask their feudal lords for permission. There is nothing in the Spanish constitution that would permit such a separation even though lip service is given to some parties that advocate independence(a kind of relief valve). Furthermore Catalonia and the Basque provinces represent about 80% of the industrial and commercial activity in Spain. Ideally, a loose Iberian federation would offer the most amicable settlement but the ruling parties in Madrid know that they would have the most to lose; corruption pervades even the royal family. The EU doesn’t care as long as the ECB gets paid off for the bad loans they made to the central government.It’s no wonder that Catalonia and the Basque provinces feel they are being used as an ATM machine for the rest of the country.

  13. Zachary Smith
    November 30, 2017 at 18:44

    Today’s Spain lacks the intense nationalism that has surfaced in other European nations as part of a resurgent right-wing populism and rejection of supranational entities, such as the European Union.

    I’ve no reason to doubt that statement, and wonder if it is the reason *somebody* sparked a break-Spain movement – it’s an ‘easy’ one. The UK is another nation which is getting nudges from *somebody* to break into pieces. Scotland and Wales both have nationalist movements, and Brexit is shaping up as a wedge to splinter that nation. Except for the religious issue, I think Northern Ireland would leave in an instant. The EU is the only bunch I can imagine with a motive to destroy nation-states, and they’re the ones I still suspect as the movers and shakers.

    The US helped destroy Yugoslavia, but I don’t see a motive for “us” in the rest of Europe. I’ll admit that view could be completely wrong.

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