Can Europe Make It?

Why 2.3 million Catalans broke the law for their country

The parents and grandparents of the ‘no future’ generation have rallied behind what was once a movement of rebellious youth.

Laia Gordi
13 November 2014

Clara, 20, a university student, is one of nearly fifty thousand volunteers who made Sunday’s vote on Catalan independence possible. I meet her sitting behind a ballot box in a school-turned-polling station in Barcelona, a big smile on her face. “We will start from scratch, we’ll make sure young people don’t have to leave the country to look for a job,” she says without blinking. Clara believes that an independent Catalonia would be better for young people. “…we will have more say on many policies that effect us directly, and that the Spanish government is now managing badly, like the abortion law,” she explains. “But this is not about young people,” she adds, “this is for everyone today, and for future generations.”

On the 9th of November, Catalonia experienced a massive act of civil disobedience. Around 2.3 million people peacefully, happily and orderly queued and voted in a symbolic referendum, declared illegal by the Spanish government a month before. An expected big majority of voters, 80 per cent, opted for independence. Of the 37 per cent of the eligible population that turned out, 10 per cent of voters supported a Catalan State within a federal Spain and 4.5 per cent voted ‘No’ and opposed an independent or federal Catalonia.

Regardless of the result, the “participatory process” (as the Catalan government called it, avoiding the illegal previous plans and terms of “referendum” and “consultation”) was revolutionary. As the visionary professor Manuel Castells once wrote about the pro-independence movement in 2012, it was a ‘revolution’ because it challenged the power relation between the people and the state.


Clara, outside the polling station

So, how did we get here? After years of demonstrations involving millions of Catalans, President Artur Mas signed a law in late September that would allow a non-binding referendum in Catalonia. He had the support of 79 per cent of the Catalan Parliament. Two days later, the Spanish government called a special session of Congress for the same day and rushed their MPs to be there, who complained of not having been previously informed. They agreed to appeal to the Spanish Constitutional Court, which for the first time in its history spent seven hours, instead of months, on its decision to accept the appeal and suspend the Catalan law on a precautionary basis.

From that moment on, the Catalan and Spanish governments have been locked into an ongoing legal and rhetorical battle. Currently, the Spanish government is prosecuting Catalan president Mas and two other high representatives of the Catalan government, while considering taking legal action against functionaries who opened the schools-turned-voting stations. The Catalan government said it does not know who were the functionaries are who voluntary opened the schools, and takes full responsibility for their actions.


queuing to vote on the 9th of November

Joining forces with the ‘no hope’ generation

Today, the driving force behind the self-determination movement are Catalans in their fifties and above. They have taken up a cause that had once belonged to the young. After Francoism, Independentism was associated with young rebelliousness and the left wing, inherited from the anti-dictatorship movements. It was considered dated or ‘behind the times’ to demand independence, rather than settling for the devolution granted to Catalonia after the end of the dictatorship. For 25 uninterrupted years, the Catalonia regional government was in the hands of Convergence and Union (CiU): a conservative nationalist coalition that was pro-devolution, and today is pro-independence. “You’ll grow up,” became such a typical phrase for parents to say to their pro-independence sons and daughters, that it ended up in the lyrics of a famous Catalan ‘90s rock band.

The financial crisis, which has impoverished the accommodated middle class and hit Spanish youth particularly hard, has changed all this. Today, the parents and grandpas of an angry ‘no-future’ generation lead the Catalan self-determination movement, joining the young. As Roger Palà, a well-known Catalan journalist in his thirties, said once to me: “we were always pro-independence” and then, suddenly, “the aunties wore a Mohican.” Those who fought against Francoism, those who believed in the Spanish transition to democracy after Franco’s death in 1975, said ‘enough’.

Montserrat Guibernau, the author of several books on nationalism and nations without state, explains that “the political culture in Spain still carries a strong influence from the years of Francoism.” Her view is not uncommon. The obstinacy of the Spanish government in denying any meaningful response to the demands for greater autonomy for Catalonia is based on the argument that it challenges ‘Spanish unity’, which is a Francoism concept. With the advent of democracy in Spain, the people expected a fairer democratic and economic system. Guibernau has argued there is also a generational change: “younger generations educated in democratic Spain feel and are convinced that they are entitled to decide upon their political future, and this is new. They don’t understand how it is that young people can vote in Scotland and cannot vote in Catalonia.”

The price of Spanish ‘unity’

“When Catalonia becomes independent, we will all have ice-cream for dessert,” jokes a journalist in his thirties, who’s struggling to make a living in Barcelona. His young colleagues laugh and congratulate one of their peers who just signed a temporary contract with a foreign media company. “A contract!? So that still exists!” jokes one of them, who supplements his pay from journalism and funds from his last book with a waiter’s job. In October 2014, Catalonia had 19 per cent unemployment and Spain was at 23 per cent, while youth unemployment was at 46.9 per cent and 52 per cent respectively. On the night of the referendum, on the Spanish TV channel La Sexta, the Catalan songwriter and anti-Francoism icon Lluis Llach said that the same discontentment expressing itself in the new political party Podemos, has translated in Catalonia into pro-independence feeling.


Those who believed in the post-Franco transition to democracy have said ‘enough’

The economic crisis in Catalonia, historically an industrial and prosperous region of Spain, encouraged more people to understand the economic impact of accumulating an annual deficit of 8 per cent of Catalonia’s GDP (€16 billion) due to the Spanish tax system. The governing CiU, now pro-independence, has made harsh cuts to social services in Catalonia, affecting the most vulnerable in society. In 2012, the Catalan budget shrank by a staggering 20 per cent. The CiU paid for it that year, as the party lost 12 per cent of their seats, but managed to keep the government. CiU president Artur Mas justified these austerity measures by explaining that the Catalan government was under-budgeted and badly indebted, while the central government refused to review the funding scheme of the Autonomous Communities in Spain.

Gerard Padró, professor of economics at the London School of Economics, explains that “the citizens of Catalonia pay more [to the Spanish fiscal system], proportional to their income, which is fair, but they actually receive less [services] than in other regions in Spain. What this means, is that if you are a citizen of Catalonia and you have a baby, the government of Catalonia cannot afford, for instance, some vaccinations for your baby that are perfectly available for free in other regions of Spain.” This, Padró argues, translates into the stifling of the Catalan welfare system. On independence, he says, “it’s actually the big majority of the population that have a lot to gain; it’s the users of public services”. Underlining his point, he concludes: “They are paying, every day, a very high price for being Spanish citizens.”

What next?

Unsurprisingly, young people in grass-roots pro-independence organisations, rooted in the left and anti-Francoism activism, are pushing for the building of a new independent state with a strong welfare system. Meanwhile, the centre-left party Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the radical left party Popular Unity Candidates (CUP), both of which are pro-independence, are forcing CiU to take into consideration social policies when talking about a future Catalonia. According to recent polls, ERC, the main opposition, would win power if elections were held today.

In Sunday’s symbolic referendum, independence clearly won with 80.76 per cent of the ballots. However this result does not mean that the majority of Catalans want independence. The latest survey, published in late October, showed 45 per cent support for independence. It is not clear what will happen next. Yet many young people like Clara feel this is a unique opportunity to build a fairer democratic system, and a more equal economy, free of Francoist inheritance. The Spanish government says that the vote has no meaning. However, they can’t deny that 2.3 million people have participated in an illegal political act. That’s more than a third of Catalan voters. Their hunger for a voice must be considered.

All photos by Laia Gordi.

This article was originally published on Precarious Europe.

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