Catalonia’s road towards secession has complex roots

The shocking sight of unrestrained police violence in Catalonia on Sunday has done profound damage to the international image of Spain. There has been no evidence of a world leader standing shoulder to shoulder with the Spanish prime minister over the policing tactics used to stop the Catalan independence referendum, which Spain had declared was illegal.

The origins of what happened are complex. The economic crisis has given impetus to forms of nationalist mobilisation with Scotland, Catalonia and Flanders experiencing secessionist pressures. The crisis that hit Spain from 2008 greatly challenged the relatively stable political order that emerged in the mid-1970s following the transition from the Franco dictatorship. Catalonia has been the epicentre of Spain’s territorial crisis. A historically rich region with a profound sense of national and cultural identity, Catalonia has embraced secession as the potential solution to an accumulation of grievances.

As recently as the mid-2000s, Catalan nationalism was described as non-secessionist. The Spanish state seemed to be on a journey towards an authentic federal order and was generally admired. Catalonia was seen within Europe and beyond as a role model for successful devolution. Catalan nationalism then sought to deepen and extend the regional powers obtained in the late 1970s, and the unwillingness to seek secession was rooted in the territory and overwhelmingly shared across the political spectrum.

Until the early 1990s, no member of the Catalan regional parliament was openly in favour of secession, and even in 1999 a party in favour of Catalan independence did not obtain even 10 per cent of the vote in the region’s elections. By 2000, Catalan society was little prone to political conflict, and tension in Spain on the national question remained focused on the Basque Country, which was gradually approaching a post-violent resolution. There was no reason to believe that within a few years Catalonia would embark on a political project that would sunder a longstanding culture of building and consolidating autonomy.

For much of the 20th century Barcelona was the economic capital of Spain. However, by the mid-1990s, Madrid had increasingly become the undisputed capital of Spain and Barcelona was no longer able to rival it. Thus, we can begin to trace the emergence of a Catalan existential crisis as its comparative importance in the Spanish political system began to decline. Simply put, Catalonia had lost its leading role in the political and economic development of Spain, which had been a central element to the narrative of political Catalanism since its emergence in the 1880s.

The conservative Popular party governments of 1996 to 2004 increasingly sought to halt the process of further devolution that had been made possible by the ambiguities of the constitutional and territorial settlement of the late 1970s. The Spanish model of devolution began to be first questioned by the centre, not the periphery. The attempt to deepen Catalan autonomy in legislation in 2006 was challenged by the Popular party and brought to the Spanish supreme court. Its judgment in June 2010 struck down key elements of the autonomy measures. This decision was announced as the economic crisis was already impacting on Catalonia, so economic discontent fed into political grievance.

From this point, Catalonia became an increasingly high-profile case, calling for political independence. Support for an independent Catalan state expanded from 13.6 per cent in 2005 to 41 per cent by July 2017. It was fuelled by resentment and frustration at the limitations of autonomy, by the wounds of historical memory and anger engendered by the economic crisis. Supporters of independence have been seeking ever since a mechanism to break with Spain, and it is here we can locate yesterday’s referendum attempt.

The referendum lacks legitimacy to be considered a true representation of public opinion. Some 90 per cent voted yes on a turnout of about 40 per cent. Leaving to one side the violent Spanish police action, the vote on had a large number of flaws, including being possible to vote in any open polling station, people were able to vote more than once and many polling stations were closed. The violent action of the Spanish police will give supporters of independence a new moral legitimacy. A unilateral declaration of independence by Catalonia has risen in likelihood.

If Catalonia unilaterally declares independence, Madrid is likely to suspend Catalan autonomy and we will enter a new terrain where acts of civil disobedience will increase. If Madrid shows it is unwilling to engage in serious negotiation, international pressure may be the mechanism to break the deadlock.

A week ago, Catalonia stood alone. Today, it is the Madrid government that finds itself in this position.

The writer is the author of ‘The Rise of Catalan Independence: Spain’s Territorial Crisis’