Catalonia's independence referendum set in motion a chain of events whose consequences will be felt across Spain for years. A few weeks after the vote, which took place Oct. 1, Madrid reacted to Catalonia's subsequent declaration of independence by dissolving the Catalan government, taking direct control of its institutions and calling an early regional election for Dec. 21. But Catalan society is so divided, and the political and emotional distance between Catalan nationalists and Spanish unionists so big, that the vote alone will not end the region's problems. The gulf that separates nationalists from unionists raises questions about Spain's future. The country that managed to build a democracy after the end of a dictatorship in the late 1970s now seems disoriented as it endures its biggest crisis in four decades.
Opposing Views of the Same Event
Catalans were divided between nationalists and unionists long before last month's referendum. The events of Oct. 1 only generated more controversy. The nationalists argue that the vote, which happened against all odds, confirmed Catalonia's desire for independence. They also see the police crackdown on voters as evidence of Spain's hostility toward Catalonia. The Spanish government and unionist voters, on the other hand, argue that the referendum was illegal, that it lacked a proper electoral roll and a valid electoral commission. From their point of view, the vote confirmed only that Catalan leaders are willing to break the law to achieve their political goals.
Though the interpretations of what happened vary widely, there's no disputing the changes the vote produced. Before Oct. 1 a proud and defiant, albeit internally fragmented, secessionist government led Catalonia. The pro-independence flag known as the "estelada" hung from balconies across the region, while the Spanish flag flew at just a few public buildings. Only the pro-independence organizations seemed capable of calling millions of Catalans to the streets to hold the largest demonstrations Europe has experienced in a long time. The nationalists controlled the streets, along with the narrative of events, and they were the only ones with a clear strategy to sell their cause to the rest of the world.
By early November things had changed drastically. The Spanish administration had dismissed the Catalan government, and several former Catalan officials were in jail or taking refuge in Belgium. Spanish flags now competed with the esteladas on balconies and terraces, especially in Barcelona. Pro-Spanish groups had organized two large demonstrations, proving that they, too, could mobilize big crowds. It seemed as if Catalonia's "silent majority," as politicians and commentators called them, had finally woken up now that the region was facing the abyss. Outside Catalonia, a Spanish nationalism started to take hold as well. Merchants happily announced that sales of Spanish flags had skyrocketed in recent weeks as a result. But the growing nationalism also had a darker side. Conservative groups called for a boycott of Catalan products, and small far-right groups chanted fascist slogans at pro-unity demonstrations.
The one thing the referendum did not change was the tone of the political debate. For the most part, the dialogue remained civilized. Friends and families have bitter arguments about independence; nationalists and unionists use social media to insult and sometimes threaten each other; and people from both camps sporadically scuffle. Still, five years into the crisis, Catalonia has largely avoided violence. Secessionists understand that violence would harm their cause and do little to win them the support of the Catalan middle classes or the sympathy of the international community — lessons learned from the Basque separatist movement. The Spanish government, in turn, is aware that the use of force made Catalan separatists the winners of the public relations battle that played out on referendum day. Madrid's decision to pursue a brief intervention in Catalonia, followed by an early regional election, shows that the Spanish government wants to minimize the risk of social unrest. The problem for Madrid, however, is that this strategy will not be enough to calm things down in the region.
Different Strands of Nationalism
Catalan nationalism has existed for centuries, and the region has rebelled against Madrid several times over the past 400 years. Economic problems and corruption cases involving members of Spain's governing party strengthened separatist sentiments in recent years. So did the Spanish Constitutional Court's decision in 2010 to ban parts of Catalonia's statute for autonomy after the national parliament approved it and Catalan voters ratified it in a referendum. Many Catalan leaders are also responsible for the situation, having promoted independence to divert voters' attention from unpopular spending cuts and their own corruption scandals. Catalan conservatives' decision to abandon their traditional quest for autonomy and focus instead on independence helped secessionist parties gain ground in the center-left and left, to the point that they now command the independence movement.
The secessionist narrative is based on three main ideas: The Spanish state is hostile to Catalonia, it threatens Catalonia's identity, and it steals from Catalonia. The fiscal argument is a matter of endless debate because although Catalonia is a net contributor to the Spanish state, other regions are, too. The argument that Spain is hostile to Catalonia and its cultural identity is similarly contentious. Catalan is widely spoken in the region's public administration. Furthermore, schools teach Catalan history and culture — a radical difference from life under Francisco Franco's dictatorship, which banned regional languages. Hardcore Spanish nationalists, in fact, often lament Madrid's decision to grant Catalonia control of its education system, which they see as a secessionist factory. To be sure, some Spanish government officials have spoken with disdain about Catalonia in recent months, and the images of police officers using force to prevent people from voting Oct. 1 didn't help. But these episodes are not elements of a specific plot against the region.
A running joke in Catalonia is that nobody has made a bigger effort to create secessionists than Spain's prime minister, Mariano Rajoy.
Catalonia's independence movement is active, but it is also heterogeneous. Broadly speaking, the people who have voted for secessionist parties in recent years fall into three main groups. The first includes people who want independence as soon as possible, at any price. They feel no cultural or emotional connection to Spain, a country they see as alien, distant and antagonistic. They consider Catalonian institutions more legitimate than their Spanish counterparts, and they think of Spain's judicial system as corrupt and subject to Madrid's political influence. They also tend to have negative views of southern Spanish regions, which in their view receive too much money from the state. This group is particularly strong in the Catalan hinterlands, where only Catalan is spoken and where fewer migrants from elsewhere in Spain reside.
The second group consists of people who see independence as an ideal, but don't think the region is ready for it. They are angry at the Spanish government for its reluctance to negotiate a legal referendum, and they blame Madrid's intransigence for the crisis. This group has some connections with the third one, made up of people who don't want independence but who vote for secessionist parties to protest against the Spanish government. For them the problem is not Spain per se, but the Spanish state and, in particular, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government. These two voting blocs eventually could return to more moderate positions if the Spanish government listened to them. A running joke in Catalonia is that nobody has done more for the secessionist cause than Rajoy.
A Fight With No Winners
Catalonia's communications apparatus is a well-oiled machine. Everything, from public radio and television to WhatsApp groups and public events, is used to propagate pro-independence views. Catalan nationalists also have a knack for promoting their cause abroad. For the past five years, pro-independence organizers have designed demonstrations to be colorful events that will draw the attention of TV broadcasters and captivate social media users around the world. Even Barcelona's soccer team plays a role in the publicity campaign: Its matches are a platform for pro-independence messages. In every game, for example, people start chanting in favor of independence when the clock reaches 17:14. (The time is a symbolic reminder of 1714, the year Barcelona fell to Bourbon troops.) Catalan officials are always eager to talk to international media to promote their platform, and the region has opened unofficial "embassies" in dozens of countries.
By contrast, Catalonia's unionists lacked a common voice until recently and, in many cases, decided to stay quiet on the subject of secession to avoid confrontation with the pro-independence camp. The Spanish government, meanwhile, has done little to win back the hearts and minds of moderate Catalans who have turned to independence only as a protest against a central government that seems uninterested in them. Madrid's strategy for dealing with the secessionist movement focuses primarily on the fact that independence is illegal. The central government has made no visible effort to present a narrative to counter that of the separatists. The approach seems to work elsewhere in Spain — in fact, the governing party, the Popular Party, is still the most popular political force in the country. Considering the region's political situation, however, applying the same tactic in Catalonia is risky. What the separatists want may be illegal under the current constitution, but that doesn't make their feelings any less real.
Six weeks after the independence referendum, the emotional and political distance between a much of Catalan society and the rest of Spain is as big as ever. Madrid can't afford to ignore the millions of Catalans who no longer feel at home in Spain. At the same time, the Catalan leadership is trapped in its own narrative; the snowball it has created is getting ever larger as it rolls out of control.
No matter which side wins the Dec. 21 regional election, the Catalan conflict will not end there. Should the secessionists win, as most polls suggest, they will have to decide whether to push ahead with independence at the cost of another, even more serious confrontation with the Spanish state, or disappoint a large portion of their electorate by pursuing a negotiation with Madrid. And should the unionist forces prevail, they will struggle to form a united front, since they have little in common with one another beyond their desire to remain in Spain. In an ideal scenario, the crisis would open the door for a deep debate about Spain's political and territorial model, much like the one that followed the end of Franco's dictatorship. Spain's transition to democracy gave politicians the opportunity to discuss the kind of country they wanted for the future. So far, though, no signs have emerged that a similar debate will take place between Madrid and Catalonia.