Catalonia, the next state in Europe?

13 September 2012

Support for Catalan independence has more than doubled since 2005. [Image: Flickr/SBA73, used under the Creative Commons licence]
Support for Catalan independence has more than doubled since 2005. [Image: Flickr/SBA73, used under the Creative Commons licence]

On Tuesday 11 September, an estimated 1.5 million people joined a demonstration in Barcelona, marching under the slogan of 'Catalonia, the next state in Europe'.

I say 'marching', but 'attempting to march' might be closer to the mark, because the streets were so packed that most people finished up just a few metres from where they had started. Despite this claustrophobic situation, the demonstration apparently concluded without one single incident.

11 September is Catalonia's national day, and mass celebrations are common. Until this year, the most famous example took place in 1977, when more than one million Catalans marched for regional autonomy shortly after the demise of the dictator Francisco Franco. Decades after achieving that autonomy their cry has changed - 'In-inde-independència' - and there is little doubt that it has been heard loud and clear.

Support for Catalan independence has more than doubled since 2005, thanks to a series of events that began with the frustration of Catalonia's attempts to substantially strengthen its autonomy, having to accept instead a watered-down version of its new Statute that even then was challenged in Spain's Constitutional court. Added to that disappointment is the effect of the global financial crisis on ordinary Catalans - who see their taxes disappearing into a Spanish black hole, never to return to Catalonia - and the election to power in Madrid of a party (the Partido Popular) that has strong centralising tendencies and encourages the anti-Catalan rhetoric of Spain's right-wing media.

Those Spaniards who have previously seen the Catalan independence movement as a fictional creation of its nationalist political parties now have to grapple with the fact that the demonstration was organised by a civil not a political group. It had the explicit aim of making reluctant Catalan leaders see that they need to stop equivocating about independence, because so many ordinary Catalans demand it. Needless to say, there are many Catalans who are not in fact in favour of independence, but the figures are interesting: a recent survey suggested 51 percent would vote 'yes' in a referendum, with the remainder split between 'no' and 'don't know' - suggesting that there are those who might allow themselves to be persuaded.

The question, though, is what happens next. The president of Catalonia's regional government, Artur Mas, did not join the demonstration out of respect for his institutional position, but he unequivocally supported it. Now he has said that he will officially receive a delegation from the organisers - the Catalan National Assembly - to discuss their demands in the light of the massive public display of support.

With Scotland now in the process of devising the questions for its own referendum on independence, the issue of secession has become a serious one for the European Union, which has finally admitted that any attempt by Catalonia to secede would have to be dealt with in a European context and not dismissed as just an internal matter for Spain.

The difference between the Catalan and Scottish cases is that successive British Prime Ministers have recognised Scotland's right to secede if its people choose to do so, whereas even the more progressive Spanish leaders have always staunchly defended the unity of Spain. The absolute refusal of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to recognise the Catalans' 'right to decide' is one of the main motivating forces behind their fierce sense of determination.

The Catalan National Assembly is calling for early elections in Catalonia to allow the creation of a pro-independence 'unity' government that would then attempt to hold a referendum. It would be surprising if matters moved quickly in that direction, and it is more likely that the issue will rumble on without resolution. Nevertheless, the events of 11 September 2012 are a clear indication that the matter has to be taken seriously by all concerned. 'Catalonia, the next state in Europe'? Probably not, but maybe.

Kathryn Crameri is an Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Latin American Studies. She is currently researching the reasons for the recent rise in support for independence in Catalonia.

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