Catalonian Independence: What you need to know

Shea Evans gives an update on the Catalan struggle for independence.

You may have heard about Catalonia (or Catalunya) in the news recently. If you haven’t, it’s a pretty big deal. Catalonia is an autonomous region in the north-east of Spain, and one of 17 such regions which combine to form the patchwork of the Spanish country. Each of Spain’s autonomous regions are governed by their own parliament, with each autonomous parliament being headed by its own president. The government of Catalonia, led by President Carles Puigdemont, held an independence referendum on the 1st of October. The referendum has proved highly controversial and was immediately deemed illegal by the Spanish federal government, but the overwhelming majority of Catalan people appear to have voted in favour of secession.

As the most productive region of Spain, the implications of a breakaway independent Catalonia are massive. With a gross regional product of just over 200 Billion euros, the Catalan economy is comparable with the country of Portugal. For Spain, losing this economic power-house means waving goodbye to a fifth of its 1.1 trillion euro GDP. Catalonia, with 16 percent of Spain’s population, generates 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Catalan independence supporters feel that the Spanish government is ripping them off, and one can understand why. The region pays about ten billion euros more in tax than it receives in federal spending, or about 5 percent of its GRP. Many believe that striking out on their own as an independent nation would allow a sovereign Catalonia to retain finances that are currently distributed to poorer regions of Spain.

There are also significant cultural and historical factors at play in Catalonia’s bid for independence. People from Catalonia speak Catalan, which is similar but distinct from Spanish, and see themselves as a separate people with unique traditions, festivals, and holidays.

Catalonia has historically always been an entity in its own right and able to govern itself, and Catalan is recognised by the Spanish constitution as being a distinct nationality.

The region existed comfortably on its own before it became part of Spain. In 1469 King Ferdinand II of Aragon (a kingdom that included the country of Catalonia) married Queen Isabella I of Castile, and through their union formed the Spain we know today. Catalan people feel that they are part of Spain without choice, and demand the right to self-determination.

The treatment of Catalan people under Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975, has been likened to cultural genocide. This period saw the suppression of all things Catalonian, and Catalan language and literature were banned. During this time the region’s autonomous rights were revoked, prisons swelled with political prisoners, and 4000 Catalan people were executed.

Most Catalans today unite over this history and demand full independence, but not all are convinced that Catalonia could stand on its own.

Some feel that any financial gain made through independence would be ironed out in the process of setting up a new country. To split from Spain means paying for a lot, a new border, new education systems, a new army, re-writing signs, and perhaps even a new currency.

An independent Catalan state would almost definitely seek admission into the European Union where, as a member, it would receive financial aid. However, EU membership must be agreed upon unanimously by all current member states, and the likelihood that Spain would support such a bid is very low.

The recently held independence referendum has also been questioned in terms of legality and legitimacy, with claims of vote rigging and unconstitutionality being made by the Spanish government.

One opinion is that the reason only 8% of voters rejected independence is that most ‘No’ supporters also believe the referendum to be illegal, meaning that they remained loyal to Spain and did not vote at all.

Pictures are also circulating online that appear to show people voting up to four times, and of people from outside Catalonia coming in to vote.

Some Spanish media outlets have also drawn attention to footage of ballot boxes, supposedly taken before polling stations opened, that are already full of votes.

This, along with videos of large groups of people casting multiple votes in a free-for-all without ID, has led many to conclude that the entire referendum is illegitimate.

The response of the Spanish government to this attempt at independence has been swift and violent. Footage taken of Spanish riot police dealing brutally with voters and protestors has sent shockwaves around the world, and served to fan the flames of an already blazing controversy.

Police in such videos, wearing black riot gear, are seen throwing people down staircases, stomping onto protestors, dragging them by their hair, and tossing their belongings away. Vicious kicks are administered to unarmed and passive protestors who are held down by other officers, and screaming citizens run bloodied from the chaos.

Some scenes that have been captured depict police assaulting unarmed Catalans with batons, striking down hard on the heads of anybody within reach, including the elderly. Rubber bullets have also been fired into crowds, which have the capacity in some circumstances to be fatal. Almost 850 civilians have been treated in hospital for injuries sustained during the clashes.

Carles Puigdemont has called for the EU to investigate the Spanish government for human rights violations, saying “Today the Spanish state wrote another shameful page in its history with Catalonia.”

Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, has stated that the police acted with “firmness and serenity” in their response to voters and protestors.

He also had a message for Spain, and the rest of the world, “today, all the Spaniards have seen that our state rule of law keeps its strength and reality, and restricts those who wish to subvert the state of law.”

These divisive times threaten to tear Spain apart, and there are many unanswered questions hovering around the whole issue. Could an independent Catalonia survive on its own, or would it collapse under the added weight and responsibility of being a sovereign nation? And if it flourished, would that inspire other regions of Spain to attempt the same? People of the Spanish Basque country, for example, have a very recent history of violent struggles for independence. Could this perceived Catalan rebellion, and the police response to it, inspire them to take up arms once again?

Either way, the future is uncertain, and one can only pray that peace and justice are soon restored to the Spanish sector of the Iberian Peninsula. Only time will tell us whether Spain and Catalonia will remain married or experience a bloody divorce, but it will tell us very soon. The Catalan president is expected to announce independence this week, which will no doubt spark further clashes. So keep your eyes open, big things are unfolding in the world.

Feature image: SBA73 via Flickr. No changes made