Catalonia and Spain

If the answer is independence, what was the question? Does is really make sense to demand sovereignty at a time when no-one knows where to find it? A new political phase has commenced in Spain.

Joan Subirats
21 September 2012

Every year on 11 September, Catalonia holds its National Day, commemorating the loss in 1714 of the right to self-government. This year, the occasion was particularly special. The streets were thronged by hundreds of thousands of people from all over Catalonia, demanding independence from under a sea of Catalan flags. Some put the figure between a million and 1.5 million people. What we know for sure is that there has never been such a huge gathering in this country of little more than seven million inhabitants. The call had come from a civil grouping of people with the title ‘National Assembly of Catalonia’ and no direct ties to political parties. As with 15M, the civilian platform of ‘los indignados’, this has gone far further than the political parties imagined it could. Most commentators and analysts believe that this demonstration of strength has irreversibly shifted Catalonia’s political fulcrum. The traditional system of power has tended to recognise Catalonia’s ability to self-govern while always keeping its distance from the idea of total sovereignty. In recent years the idea of independence from Spain has been gathering momentum, and this 11 September was proof beyond doubt that the political majority in the country is now in favour of sovereignty.

All of this is taking place in the midst of a crisis that has hit Spain particularly hard. And Catalonia is suffering too. With unemployment at over 20%, more than 50% of young people out of work and a public deficit at well over 20% of GDP, the latent feeling that Catalonia contributes disproportionately to the Spanish politics of redistribution, has risen to an unsustainable pitch. Catalonia ranks among the top regions in Spain for wealth creation, but after changes to the tax system between regions, Catalonia’s position has changed and it now contributes much more towards inter-regional solidarity than it receives. This has joined pre-existing cultural and political factors increasing the pressure for independence. Most notable among those factors are the lack of recognition of Catalonia as a country, attacks on Catalan as an official language and the rejection in 2010 of a new wording of Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy, meaning an almost-federal reading of the status quo. 

As the crisis puts a squeeze on public funds, identification with independentism — not just emotional and political identification but also now material and economic — has swelled significantly the numbers of citizens in favour of independence. In recent months, the discrediting of Spain’s institutional politics has been spectacular. The loss of sovereignty for democratic institutions is unprecedented. What’s more, the Partido Popular (PP) is using the situation to push the state back towards the centre, applying a thesis of ex-president Aznar and the Fundación FAES (a PP think-tank). During this period, the leaders of the CiU (a coalition of Catalan nationalist centre-right parties) in the Catalan government have been able to dilute their customary ambiguity — repeated agreements with the PP in Madrid and in Catalonia — with declarations that hint at sovereignty. The upshot of all this is that today, the large political and civil majority that previously gathered around the uncertain term of ‘political Catalanism’ has been drifting towards an ever clearer sovereignty. 

But if the answer is independence, what was the question? Does is really make sense to demand sovereignty at a time when no-one knows where to find it? We are entering a new and difficult phase. It is a phase that other countries have approached with more foresight and sensitivity. In Quebec, for instance, despite two referendums, nobody gets indignant when the subject is raised. In Scotland, committees from the British and Scottish parliaments are debating the question that will frame a referendum on a possible secession of Scotland. The European framework within which the Catalan independence bid sits is clear. No-one wants to cause havoc; but many questions remain.

It is obvious that, for the thousands upon thousands of protesters who marched on September 11, independence is understood as a solution to an endless list of highly varied questions and problems. In that sense, everything is still to discuss, still to become clear. Who will make political capital out of the undeniable success of 11 September? How will the institutional dialogue between Madrid and Brussels begin? How will the cross-section of independentism be combined with dilemmas of ideology and values such as work, education, health and housing? What sort of national model will emerge? Who are the winners and losers in all this? What is not in question is that a new political phase is under way in Catalonia and Spain. 

Translated by Ollie Brock

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