In September 2013 I left for my Year Abroad in Barcelona with a case full of teabags and a vague idea about Catalan nationalism. Seven months on, I feel like something of an expert on the subject. Wherever you go in Barcelona you will see the Estelada flag, which is the symbol of Catalan independence, hanging from balconies. I think it’s safe to say that the political situation between Catalonia and the central Spanish government in Madrid is almost as tense as a match between the cities’ football teams.
However, and some people will disagree with me on this, the question of Catalan independence is slightly more significant than the famous El Clásico match. This is not the first time Catalonia has clashed with the rest of Spain as conflicts date as far back as 1714 and the Siege of Barcelona during the War of Spanish Succession. Aptly, 2014 marks the tercentenary of this event and on Sunday 9th November of this year there will be a referendum on whether Catalonia should become a state, and if that state should be independent from Spain.
Catalonia has been a part of Spain since the 15th century but the idea of a separate Catalan identity began to emerge in the 19th century. With the arrival of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931, Catalonia was given autonomy from Spain although this was soon revoked after General Francisco Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War in 1939. He led a dictatorship until his death until 1975 and during this time, Catalonia suffered. Franco prohibited the use of the Catalan language, even going so far as burning books that were written in Catalan. Franco’s victory also signalled the end of the Catalan government, the Generalitat, and its pre-war leader was killed on the dictator’s orders. However, following Franco’s death, the Generalitat was re-established, along with the use of the Catalan language in the public sphere, and the question of separation from the rest of Spain once again formed part of the region’s political agenda.
Catalonia currently have autonomy following a referendum in 2006. This means that the Generalitat now has power over certain judicial and fiscal matters, but it is still not enough to appease the region. There have been a series of referendums on independence throughout Catalonia since 2009, but these have been treated as evidence of public opinion, rather than binding political decisions. However, the referendum this November looks to be the beginning of the separation of Catalonia and Spain.
So why does Catalonia want to be independent?
When I first arrived here, I naively thought that it was mainly due to the language difference. Both Catalan and Castilian (normal Spanish) are spoken in Catalonia but the official language of the Generalitat is Catalan so I assumed that this was the reason for the referendum. However, after discussing the issue with locals and following the debate in the newspapers I have realised that, like most things in life, it comes down to money.
Currently, Catalonia accounts for over 20 percent of the GDP of Spain, and yet the region only receives 8 percent back from the Spanish government for public spending. Many people here think that it is unfair that Catalonia is forced to pay more taxes than any other regional community in Spain and they are not receiving a fair share of it. In the last 20 years, the number of tourists visiting Barcelona alone has tripled due to the region’s efforts to attract the foreign visitor. Is it really fair that the rest of Spain are cashing in on this success?
A recent survey showed that nearly 59.6 percent of the population of Catalonia want independence from the rest of Spain so it looks likely that the result of the referendum will be what the Generalitat are hoping for. The level of public support has been far higher than in Scotland and on the surface the future of an independent Catalonia looks promising.
So it’s looking good for Catalonia then?
Well, not really. The Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has announced that the referendum on 9th November will be seen as unconstitutional and will not guarantee Catalan independence. It’s understandable that the Spanish government want the beautiful region of Catalonia to remain part of their country but just imagine for a moment if the people of Scotland vote for independence from Great Britain and David Cameron says no. If relations between England and Scotland were bad before, they certainly would be after that.
Another problem the Catalan people face is whether the European Union would accept Catalonia as a member state. Arguably, in order to be a viable independent country they would need the support of the European Union and all the monetary and trade benefits that go with it. It seems that if they grant membership to an independent Scotland, there will be pressure on them to do the same for Catalonia.
Only time will tell if Catalonia can win their fight for independence. When I moved here I thought that they were mad to want to leave Spain. Now, after having spoken to the people who live here, I am not so sure.