Liam O’Hare (Common Weal writer and Radical Independence campaigner) reports on the movement for Catalan independence
In recent times, the winds of change have been sweeping Scotland and Catalonia. Disillusioned with big government, austerity economics and a lack of democracy, mass movements have emerged to demand radical change and self-determination. While the reasons fuelling the movements are similar, the respective paths of the two nations have recently diverged.
The movement in Scotland suffered a setback on September 18th when a majority of Scots rejected independence at the ballot box. However in Catalonia, despite several political obstacles and challenges, support for independence continues to grow. A tipping point is near to being reached and Catalonia could be about to defy the Spanish government in Madrid. But how did it arrive at this stage?
Out of touch
Catalonia has always possessed a strong sense of identity, rooted in language, culture and politics. This has often found them at odds with the Spanish state. During the Franco dictatorship, Catalan institutions were closed, the language was banned, and nationalists and dissidents faced imprisonment and death. A legacy of resentment and power imbalance has remained and Spanish Education Minister Jose Ignacio Wert has stirred up tensions with changes to the way language is taught in schools and talk of the “Hispanisation” of Catalan children. The fact that this has been a priority of the Spanish government at a time of economic crisis and deepening poverty highlights how out of touch Madrid is with popular sentiment.
Unemployment in Catalonia sits at 22.1%, whilst youth unemployment is over 40%. Since the economic crisis and the disastrous austerity policies inflicted across the country, demands for full autonomy have grown stronger in the region. The economic viability of an independent Catalonia remains largely unquestioned with it making up one fifth of Spain’s GDP and its citizens paying an extra 15 billion Euros a year in tax.
And similarly to Scotland, there is a demand for more democracy with the ruling Spanish People’s Party courting the support of only 2.1% of Catalans. However, despite all of this, the prospect of even holding a referendum in Catalonia still remains clouded in uncertainty.
Less than a month after the Scottish vote, Catalan President Artur Mas, caved in to pressure and legal threats from the Spanish government in Madrid when he cancelled the proposed referendum for November 9th. Instead an non-binding public consultation will take place.
The centre-right Convergence and Union (CiU) governing coalition that Mas leads have only recently swung round to support for Catalan independence due to the force of popular opinion on the issue. Indeed, with the impotence of the CiU evident from their referendum u-turn, the Catalan street remains the main driving force behind the independence movement.
Calls for early elections to the Catalan Parliament are growing louder. Oriol Junqueres, convenor of the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) has led these, commenting that; “the only solution is to hold a ‘plebiscite election’ with a united slate of pro-independence parties fighting a single-issue campaign. This will be the definitive poll on sovereignty.” If early elections are to take place, under one guise or another, indications are that the ERC are set to become the largest party in government.
Support for the radical left is also on the rise with the Popular Unity Candidates (CUP) expected to increase upon the three parliamentary seats that they currently hold and with Podemos also potentially entering the Catalan parliament for the first time.
This all points to an imminent crisis for the Spanish state. The corridors of power in Madrid will be haunted by the thought of the effect that Catalan secession will have in the Basque country and beyond.
By ruling the November 9th referendum as unconstitutional, the Spanish state has completely undermined basic principles of democracy and self-determination. It may have bought itself some time but it seems unlikely to stem the tidal wave of popular opinion in the nation. In fact, the opposite effect is more likely.
Spain will not let go of Catalonia easily, but soon they may be left with no choice. The vote on November 9th may only be consultative but if the turn out as expected is huge then it will serve as another crucial step on the way to independence. The Catalan narrative of self-determination, intertwined with opposition to austerity and demands for social justice is a powerful and familiar one.
In Scotland, the Yes campaign had the might of the British establishment on the run, but ultimately fell short. The baton has been handed over to Catalonia for now. They may just cross the line first.