Having lived in Catalonia for nearly 40 years, I feel I might be able to offer some insight into the current turbulent situation, albeit from the perspective of a semi-outsider who is mainly concerned about the impact this turmoil could have on our business.
A slice of context first: Up until the global economic crisis of 2008, the vast majority of Catalans were more or less content with the degree of political autonomy the region enjoyed. The Catalan government controlled many key ministries such as education and culture and the Catalan language had been restored to pre-Franco levels of use. In opinion polls only around 10% of Catalans supported pro-independence movements, despite the fact that Catalonia was a net contributor towards Spanish state finances.
The financial crash turned everything around. Hundreds of businesses went bankrupt, unemployment soared (especially among young people) and both the central government in Madrid and the Catalan regional government were forced to adopt unpopular austerity measures.
Suddenly the difference between the amount of money Catalonia contributed to the central government and the amount it received back, became a burning issue. If Catalonia could only keep more of the wealth it generated, the argument went, there would be less need for austerity, and the mountain of debt that the Catalan government had built up could also be reduced. (Parallels with the Brexiteer’s attitude to the EU are strikingly obvious.)
A wide spectrum of Catalan politicians ranging from centre-right Christian democrats to anti-system leftist extremists saw their opportunity to gain support by fanning the flames of popular resentment, pointing the finger of blame at the government in Madrid, and arguing that independence was the only solution. Their task was made easier by the countless corruption scandals that surfaced from Spain’s governing Partido Popular party and the lacklustre performance of its leader, Mariano Rajoy. Of course the Catalans had almost as many corruptions stories of their own to digest, especially from the now defunct centre-right Covergencia i Unió party, but that simply provided the left-leaning separatist parties in Catalonia with more ammunition to fight their own, local battles.
A proposed change to the Catalan Statue of Autonomy that would have recognised Catalonia as a nation within Spain, and which was initially approved by the Spanish parliament, was overruled by the Spanish constitutional court in 2010 at the behest of the PP. This was a slap in the face for many Catalans and added a large amount of fuel to the already smouldering fire.
In the last elections for the Catalan Government, those parties in favour of independence won a majority of seats, although not a majority of votes. Despite not having a clear, popular mandate, the multi-party coalition government decided to press ahead with a route map towards full independence. A key step in the process was to hold a referendum, which would ask the local population if they were favour of forming a new Catalan Republic or not. The Spanish constitution in its current form (a document negotiated in its day by representatives from all over Spain, including a number of eminent Catalan politicians) doesn’t allow for this sort of separatist referendum and predictably enough, the Spanish government asked the courts to declare the proposed referendum illegal.
For their own political reasons, neither the Spanish government nor the Catalan government decided that it was in their interests to seriously attempt to find any middle ground so, despite some largely ineffectual attempts by the Spanish government to prevent the referendum taking place, it went ahead as scheduled last Sunday, October 1st.
Around two million Catalans turned out to vote, many of them queuing stoically in the rain for hours on end. This represented around 42% of those eligible to vote. Most polling stations were left to get on with it, but the police who had been drafted into the region especially for the occasion, attempted to disrupt voting in a significant number of locations. Sickening images of policemen in full riot gear kicking and beating people who were trying to block their path, throwing would be voters down stairs, or pulling peaceful protestors along the ground by their hair, soon filled the world’s social media. What purpose this outrageous behaviour was supposed to serve is anyone’s guess, but it certainly backfired.
So while the turnout didn’t exactly give the Independence movement a clear and unambiguous mandate to push on with their ambitions, the brutish behaviour of the police has given them yet more emotionally charged reasons to proclaim the merits of their case.
Where will it all end? No-one yet knows, but the political chasm is wider than ever and neither side is showing any inclination to back down. The Catalan government is threatening to declare unilateral independence in the next few days; the Spanish government says it won’t give in to blackmail.
Catalans frequently describe their culture as being dominated by ‘seny’ which is akin to common sense or reason. A little more of that on all sides wouldn’t go amiss.
Personally, I feel a profound sense of sadness. It’s not quiet despair, but I don’t see too many reasons to feel optimistic either. Popularism merged with nationalism is rarely a pretty sight. And while I can empathise to an extent with the Catalans’ sense of grievance (especially after the horrific scenes from last Sunday), I can’t sympathise with the way that many of their politicians are attempting to deal with it.
A slim majority of the people who live in the region probably feel equally disillusioned with the way the political landscape is evolving. But this slim majority has been largely silent up to now. The protestors, the ones making nearly all the running, are the people who think that the answer to their problems lies along the separatist path. Many of my friends, colleagues, clients and neighbours are in this camp, which makes it rather hard for me to express a divergent opinion. But I’m not convinced that separatism will solve anything. On the contrary, I’m concerned that it could easily plunge the region into a deep and long lasting recession, which would make a difficult situation a whole lot worse.