Does Catalonia really want independence?

8 September 2020

4:00 PM

8 September 2020

4:00 PM

In 1714, after a long siege, Spain managed to regain control of Barcelona after the War of Spanish Succession. Catalan nationalists point to the day Barcelona fell, 11 September 1714, as the point when Madrid began to strip their homeland of its ancient privileges, and three centuries of subjugation and repression began.

To remind everyone of the importance of the year 1714, Barcelona fans chant in favour of independence for Catalonia when the Camp Nou football stadium clock shows that 17 minutes and 14 seconds of a match have passed. Meanwhile the day itself, 11 September, is commemorated every year as La Diada (‘The Day’), Catalonia’s national day.

In most of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, annual fiestas celebrate something positive, a victory or triumph of some kind. But in Catalonia it’s an annual reminder of defeat, of an ancient grievance never to be forgiven or forgotten.

This year’s La Diada, overshadowed by Covid-19, is likely to be far more subdued. But on previous occasions, the central government in Madrid has watched the event with trepidation as hundreds of thousands of Catalans give full voice to their aspiration to separate from Spain and become a new country.

But deep down, does Catalonia really want that? Or are all those calls for independence just an irresistibly satisfying way of annoying Madrid?

In terms of getting under the skin of Spain’s central government, the illegal referendum on independence held on 1 October 2017 was a huge success. Back then, Mariano Rajoy was Prime Minister of Spain; he could be relied on for a clumsy, heavy-handed response that would confer victimhood on the independence voters, and he duly obliged. The world was shocked by images of Spanish police trying to halt the referendum by wielding batons and firing rubber bullets, and of protesters being kicked and dragged across the ground.

The democratic credentials of the Catalan secessionists leave something to be desired, however. Only pro-independence voters bothered to turn out to the illegal Catalan referendum, and even Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan regional president at the time, didn’t seem to think the inevitable majority in favour of secession proved much. He duly made the declaration of independence, but immediately halted its implementation. The speaker of the Catalan parliament later told Spain’s supreme court that the proclamation had only ever been symbolic.

Symbols rather than serious debate have always tended to dominate this dispute. In the months leading up to the referendum, the argument centred not on the case for and against independence but instead on whether holding a referendum was legally possible. The Catalan secessionists pointed to their democratic right to vote, Madrid pointed to the rule of law and refused to contemplate giving the necessary approval.

It seems that a majority of Catalans want a legal referendum, but in the past polls have suggested that if they had one, it’s unlikely there would be a majority for independence. For most Catalans, the prospect of finding themselves outside the EU is apparently not to be countenanced – that’s not the kind of independence they want. And for a region proud of its prosperity and commercial nous, the economic consequences could be disastrous: the protests following the 2017 referendum led to the exodus of a number of Catalonia-based companies. To rub salt into the wound, many transferred to Madrid.

In the unlikely event that the powerful economic and political arguments failed, the awful prospect of Barcelona dropping out of the Spanish football league – thereby losing the chance to beat Real Madrid twice a year – is likely to seal the deal. In an indication of just how meaningless that declaration of independence was – and of the importance of not biting the hand that feeds you – Barça carried on playing in the Spanish league as if nothing had happened.

So why is Madrid reluctant to contemplate the constitutional changes that would allow a legal referendum that might, as they say, settle the issue for ‘at least a generation’? Although 16-year-olds would probably not be allowed to vote, the problem in part is that a Scotland-style referendum is still regarded as being too risky: you never know what people will do. The Brexit vote, widely regarded as a sort of national suicide in Spain (people still stop me in the street to commiserate), is often held up as an awful warning – a terrible example of what can happen when you consult the people rather than the experts.

Confident therefore that it will never be allowed, the Catalan secessionists run little risk as they continue to annoy Madrid by pressing for a legal referendum that deep down perhaps some of them don’t really want. Travelling, after all, has turned out to be a lot more fun than arriving.

On the positive side, the less confrontational Pedro Sánchez is now Prime Minister of Spain. Perhaps political dialogue will facilitate some sort of face-saving solution, especially now it’s clear that some things matter much more than flags and empty declarations of independence.

In the aftermath of this health crisis, things will look very different in Catalonia and the rest of Spain; no one knows where that will leave the independence issue. But meanwhile, three centuries after the War of Spanish Succession, there seems no more prospect of Catalonia breaking away to become an independent nation than there is of Gibraltar becoming Spanish again. In both cases the bickering will continue and Spain’s territory will remain the same.

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