In a reignition of centuries old tensions, the Catalan plan to hold an independence referendum on October 1st has provoked an aggressive response from the Spanish national government in Madrid. On Friday, the central government further escalated the situation by sending additional state police to block the referendum, to “act in case the illegal referendum is maintained,” according to the interior ministry.
Catalonia’s regional government has argued that these measures, along with a new ban on time off for police, are unnecessarily heavy-handed, creating a de-facto state of emergency, and a false impression of national crisis in response to a democratic referendum.
Catalonia has roots as an independent nation that go back more than 1000 years. Even since the formation of modern Spain in the 15th century, Catalonia has maintained a significant degree of self-rule. Modern tensions arguably began in 1714, after Catalonia allied with the British in the Spanish War of Succession, to avoid having a French King of Spain following the death of King Charles. Their side lost, after which Spain retaliated by ending Catalan self-rule and suppressing the Catalan language. After a short-lived revival in 1931, Catalan self-rule was forcibly ended once again after General Francisco Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War, with the execution of the Catalan president in 1940. Once again, Catalan language, culture, and identity were repressed until Franco’s death in 1975. The decades since then have seen a rebirth of Catalan culture and political autonomy within the nation of Spain.
In recent years, the issue has stirred controversy once again. An extended economic crisis has exacerbated tensions for Catalans, who argue that they contribute far more than they get back in terms of tax revenue. Though the numbers are disputed by Madrid, Catalans say they put in €62bn in taxes to the Spanish government, only getting back €45bn. Furthermore, in 2010, the Spanish constitutional court annulled parts of the 2006 Catalan statute of autonomy, which Catalans say reserved their right to greater autonomy than they enjoy today.
Now, the Spanish government argues that current plans for an independence vote in October 1st are unconstitutional, arguing there is no provision for a vote on self-determination in Spain’s 1978 constitution. In moves last week reminiscent of past suppression of Catalan self-rule, police arrested fourteen high-ranking officials, seized millions of ballot papers, and the national finance ministry took over regional finances to ensure public money would not be used to hold the vote. According to Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, writing Thursday in the Guardian, the central government has also sent the police to search newspapers, printing companies, and private mail services, and has banned political meetings, seized pro-referendum material, raided private homes, and threatened democratically elected politicians with imprisonment.
Puigdemont argues that the Spanish government has violated the EU charter of fundamental rights, saying “What is happening here in Catalonia would not happen anywhere else in the European Union.”
On Wednesday, roughly 40,000 people protested the raids.
Catalan leaders such as Puigdemont are still determined to hold the referendum on October 1st, in defiance of the central government. They have promised to declare independence within 48 hours of a “yes” vote.
According to polls, 70 percent of Catalans want the opportunity to vote in the referendum. Independence, however, is more contentious. One poll 2 months ago found that 49.4 percent of Catalans wanted to remain as part of Spain, while only 41.1 percent favored independence.
Therein lies the problem. The central government’s indifference to the clear Catalan desire to decide for themselves threatens to entrench existing opinions, and most likely to fuel support for independence. Without compromise, separatism in Catalonia is sure to enjoy a rise in popularity, as it has throughout history when faced with heavy-handed repression from the central government.
There is a legitimate case to be made against separatism, and according to polls, most Catalans themselves want to remain as part of Spain. But the central government should allow the democratic process to proceed, and opponents of succession should publicly make their case in an open and honest way. Doing otherwise risks pushing many more Catalans into the separatist camp – especially since a large majority of Catalans believe they should at least be able to hold the referendum. According to those same polls, nearly a third of Catalans oppose independence, yet believe in the referendum. For a country with a dark and fairly recent history of authoritarianism, surely the preservation of democratic ideals should in itself be considered a high priority.