The rise of Catalonia: unravelling the debate on Catalan independence

The Catalan separatists' greatest achievement was perhaps to change the terms of the debate on independence, from an essentially legal question to a myriad of political, economic and social interrogations. Is 'independence' really the answer to all of these questions?

Catalan people protest against a proposed educational reform law that would put Castilian Spanish on an equal footing with regional languages in the Spanish school system. Demotix/Pau Barrena. All rights reserved.Catalan people protest against a proposed educational reform law that would put Castilian Spanish on an equal footing with regional languages in the Spanish school system. Demotix/Pau Barrena. All rights reserved.

The question about whether 'Catalonia has the right to become independent' has been recently transformed towards the more flexible 'What if Catalonia becomes independent?' The debate has been opened up and a question to be addressed initially by lawyers has turned these days into multiple questions to be posed to the people.

The Catalan elections of 25 November, called prematurely in a quandary to address independentist claims, accelerated this shift. Although the Catalan nationalists have better chances to carry out a referendum, there is also the blossoming of anti-Catalan-nationalist perspectives.

Interestingly, now Catalonia's independence is a question that pervades the media, society and the parliaments of Catalonia, Spain and the EU. Claims for independence go to the core of the European project, and the 'national question' in the cases of Belgium, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Catalonia cannot be ignored any more. Even if each of these cases has its own logic, it is clear that for the EU, an organisation that celebrates the erosion of national borders, nationalism has become the biggest taboo.

There are certain questions that remain unanswered. Fair enough, one might say, Europe has learnt from the bloodthirsty nationalism of its past. Yet, rather than nationalism being an irrational and backward-looking project, it can also be seen as a political debate that addresses self-determination, autonomy, culture, fiscal readjustment, redistribution of wealth and democracy. The European approach seems incapable of registering the richness in the heretofore 'evil' of nationalism.

‘Spain is one’ versus ‘Catalonia is not Spain’

In the last forty years, the debate over whether Catalonia could be separated from Spain was predominantly legalistic in character. The crucial question was whether 'Catalonia has the right to become independent' and it was answered by appealing to the Spanish Constitution, which defends ‘the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation.’

Although some Catalans wished to be independent, the shadow of the Constitution was ubiquitous. It was a silent debate, since the expression of nationalism - both centralist and peripheral - had acquired the footprint of irrationality and violence, from the Civil War and Franco's fascism to the terrorism of ETA.  Although this debate remained distant from the public, exactly what visions were being opposed in it?

Catalan nationalists affirm, in essence, that Catalonia could - and should - become independent because 'Catalonia is not Spain'. This means that Catalonia is a territorial, political and historical entity different from Spain, which only belongs to Spain circumstantially. Hence, if one assumes that Catalonia and Spain are two separate nations, of course Catalonia could become independent. It is a matter of self-determination, as recognised by the UN founding charter.

Antithetically, the Spanish nationalists claim that 'Spain is one'. This means, as an exact counterclaim to the Catalan view, that Spain is one territorial, political and historical entity. Catalonia, according to this view, is just a territorial subdivision of Spain, like the other sixteen autonomous regions. Spain is not a united kingdom, that is, a union of nations. The division of Spain is unimaginable, as 'Catalonia is Spain'. 

If ‘Catalonia is not Spain’ or ‘Spain is one’, what is Catalonia? 

In terms of history, the answer depends on whether one follows a Catalan or a Spanish collective perspective.  History, utterly contested, cannot tell us conclusively who speaks truth. But in case it could, in favour of the Catalans or the (rest of) Spaniards, why should the past dictate authority to the present? As Frank Furedi puts it, ‘the retreat into the past in order to find a self-justification reflects a desire to escape from the present and evade its challenges’. The contemporary challenge is the independence of Catalonia.

The debate has recently been opened up to address complex dilemmas in a sensitive European environment. It is not uncommon to find related discussions around economic and financial possibilities, institutional rearrangements, cultural legacies or reforms in education. From a pure legalist question of 'the right to independence' there has been an evolution towards 'what if Catalonia becomes independent?' Those who prefer the unity of Spain claim that Catalonia will remain outside the EU, that many multinationals will leave or that it will have to take on a fatal percentage of the Spanish national debt. This is a political argument about a future Catalonia, although of course it is distressing and gloomy.

Crucially, the debate has flourished and it has evolved into an acceptance of the Catalan independentist framing. There is a notorious difference between 'Catalonia is Spain' and 'Catalonia will not survive without Spain'. Now, Catalonia is accepted as a distinct entity, this is the new terminology. And its independence increasingly depends on the Catalans.

The pro-Spanish perspective (politically embodied by the People's Party - PP - and C’s) wishes to resist the acceptance of the debate’s new terminology. Both parties argue that instead of ‘the relation between Catalonia and Spain’, one should talk about ‘Catalonia and the rest of Spain, because Catalonia is part of Spain’. Precisely because they 'love' Catalonia, they defend Catalonia remaining within Spain.

To the challenge of separatism, both PP and C’s respond with political arguments, rather than legalist justifications. Although the respect for the Constitution continues to be their ultimate appeal, the anti-Catalan independentist perspective unwittingly accepts that Catalonia is a different political entity. When one accepts that Catalonia could not be Spain, the next step is to recognise that laws, rather than set in a stone forever, come and go.

The rise of Catalonia: towards a pluralist debate on Catalan independence

Why this shift? As Ernest Gellner famously stated, ‘nationalism invents the nations where they do not exist, but it needs some pre-existing differentiating marks to work on’. Catalan nationalism has created the nation. But more importantly, a stubborn Spanish nationalism which constantly treats Catalonia with contempt has generated a sense of unity among the Catalans. At the turn of the twenty-first century, nationalism in Catalonia rose, sharply exacerbated by the second consecutive government of the Spanish conservatives (PP). The Catalan nationalist and progressive ERC reached its peak in the Catalan Parliament in 2003, forming a two-term coalition in the Catalan Government. 

However, the tendency has been of increasing disillusionment for the Catalans, externalised in two colossal demonstrations. The Catalan Statute, which provided a more solid decentralisation, was severely reduced in 2010 when transferred to the Spanish Parliament and was declared illegal by the Constitutional Court of Spain. On the one hand, PP represents the unwillingness to recognise a difference within Spain. On the other, the federal system defended by the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) has not been able to integrate the Catalan demands for further decentralisation. PP and PSOE are increasingly viewed as 'the same' in Catalonia. When 'they' are the same, 'we' are different. Against a Spain that wishes to be 'one', the notion of Catalonia finds its raison d'être. Thus, Catalonia has become a different political entity, thanks to the means deployed by the very attempt to deny it.

Moreover, the economic crisis has led to the unanimous conclusion that Spain is not functioning. The need for change is a truism. Catalan president Artur Mas has proposed a referendum on independence as a solution to economic troubles. There is now a Catalan nationalist majority after the elections. But there is also the rise of Spanish nationalist voices that argue that Catalonia can be reformed without separation.

Independence, therefore, is one of many proposals to transform Catalonia and Spain. Independence is not about the ethnic Catalans, whoever they are, as some critics of independentism have suggested. It is nowadays a calculated option that has united those who demand economic prosperity with those who reclaim cultural recognition. In times of gloom, hopeful souls also imagine a prosperous Catalonia. Is independence the panacea for all the problems? Certainly not, but this is a question that had never been raised before. Now the Catalans wonder about their Catalonia, and this is the debate that will follow.

About the author

Pol Bargues is a visiting lecturer at the University of Westminster. He works on nations and nationalism in discourses of statebuilding.