Catalonia’s Independence Vote and the Resistance to Centralism

A Catalan separatist flag waves at a protest in Barcelona, Spain, October 2, 2017. (Reuters photo: Enrique Calvo)
Spain’s aggressive centralizing tactics fan the flames of regionalism.

If “No taxation without representation” was the motto of the American Revolution, “Madrid nos roba” is the motto of Catalonia’s independence movement. The saying, which translates to “Madrid robs us,” summarizes the view of many in the northeastern Spanish state that the central government has been abusing its taxation power: Ever since Spain’s financial collapse after 2008, Catalonia has been paying more to Madrid in taxes than it receives in federal funding. Such is the burden of an economic powerhouse in a nation beset by poverty, high unemployment, and dreams that socialism can solve its problems. It was with these thoughts in his mind, and “Madrid nos roba” on his lips, that then-Catalonian president Artur Mas declared in November 2015 that the process for Catalonian independence would begin.

On Sunday, the people of Catalonia defied an order from Madrid and voted in the climax of that process, an election to determine whether the people desire Catalonian independence. Catalonia’s president, Carles Puigdemont, who succeeded Mas in 2016, has since declared that 90 percent in the region voted in favor of independence. It’s probably unlikely that only 10 percent of the population would have voted to remain a part of Spain, especially considering the disruption caused by police forces sent by Madrid to the polling places, but if a majority of Catalans did vote for independence, that wouldn’t be surprising. The cause of Catalonian independence has been strengthening for a long time, and economic issues, including the imbalance in taxation, aren’t the only ones funneling the people to the polls. In fact, ever since it became a part of Spain, Catalonia has been struggling to break free, and yesterday’s election was just the latest — and possibly most dramatic — event in the region’s nearly 600-year fight for independence.

The story begins in 1469, when the marriage of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile prompted the unification of Spain. In the 1400s, the Aragon and Castile regions composed almost the entire Iberian Peninsula, save for the area that is now Portugal and the kingdoms of Navarre and Granada, both now parts of Spain. At first, regions of the Kingdom of Aragon, including Catalonia, were permitted to keep their individual customs, language, and laws, collectively called fueros, but as power became more centralized and true Spanish unification became more realistic, the fueros were one of the first elements of local identity to be abolished. When the Bourbons defeated the Hapsburg pretender to the Spanish throne and took control of Barcelona (the capital of Catalonia) in 1714, the Bourbon king, Philip V, punished the Aragon region for supporting the Hapsburgs by suspending its autonomy and eliminating its fueros, and its rights.

In 1922, Francesc Macià formed the Estat Català party to secure Catalonian independence, officially declaring the Catalan Republic following a municipal election in April 1931. Of course, Madrid opposed such a declaration, but eventually agreed to autonomous rule in 1932. Six years later, however, General Francisco Franco — the military dictator who would rule Spain for more than three decades — suspended Catalonia’s claim to autonomy during the Spanish Civil War.

Spain returned to democracy in 1975, and in its 1978 Constitution, it reestablished the autonomy of its regions. But attempts to recentralize power by eroding the fueros began once again, with what many Catalans believe was a suppression of the Catalan language, reigniting tensions between Madrid and Catalonia. In 2014, after a long, slow buildup of pro-independence parties within the Catalonian government, the parliament voted in favor of the Declaration of Sovereignty and of the Right to Decide of the Catalan People. The subsequent declaration of the Catalonian right to independence led to a challenge in Spain’s constitutional court, which ruled that while the people had a right to decide whether they wanted to be independent, a declaration of independence was illegitimate. After the Catalonian government held a vote in defiance of the court, in which 81 percent of the 37 percent who turned out voted for independence, the court ordered the arrest of the vote’s organizers. Finally, in November 2015, the Catalonian parliament passed a second referendum, declaring the beginning of the process that would determine whether Catalans wished to be independent of Spain.

On Sunday, Catalans voted as part of that referendum. And Madrid shipped soldiers and police into the region to disrupt the election. Videos surfaced of police dragging voters out of the polling places by their hair, discarding ballots, and arresting hundreds. The centralized Spanish government of today is repressing attempts at Catalonian independence as the Spanish government has in the past, but it is motivated not so much by a desire to centralize power as by fear of the economic impact of such a secession.

Catalonia is an economic powerhouse. Its 215.6-billion-euro economy — larger than that of most countries in the European Union and comparable to that of Portugal — accounts for more than one fifth of Spain’s overall GDP, and its exports account for more than one quarter of Spain’s total. Catalonia has 16 percent of Spain’s total population, and only 13.2 percent are unemployed, well below the national average. In 2015, Spain’s Tourist Expenditure Survey showed that Catalonia earned the most from tourism of all the nation’s regions. At 8.6 billion euros, tourism spending in Catalonia alone accounted for a quarter of Spain’s total. According to a June Forbes report, FC Barcelona, of Spain’s La Liga soccer league, is valued at $3.64 billion, the second-most-valuable soccer team in the world.

Attempts to increase centralized power inspire independence and encourage regional unity.

Catalonia’s dominance within Spain makes its independence that much more threatening, and functions as a lesson for other nations considering the aggressive tactics favored by Madrid. Suppressing local customs and language, imposing austerity measures, and redistributing wealth doesn’t solve problems; in fact, it gives the top earners more reason to flee. But on a deeper level, attempts to increase centralized power inspire independence and encourage regional unity. For 600 years, Madrid Cataluña ha robado not only of their money, but also of their sense of individualism. It has nursed a hatred of the central government so strong that it has inspired Catalans to throw off their Spanish identity and rally under their own flag. As one Catalan woman said, “I was always against independence. But what the Spanish state is doing made me change my mind.” In 600 years, Catalonia hasn’t changed much. But neither has Madrid.


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