On June 23rd 2021, Catalonia reached a historical turning point in its pursuit of independence. Spanish President Pedro Sanchez decided, against the approval of most of Spain, to pardon nine Catalan independence leaders. Four years ago, these politicians were tried by the Supreme Court of Spain for a crime of sedition.
The organization of a referendum regarding the independence of Catalonia was considered as an unconstitutional act of rebellion. The trial included (amongst others) President of the Parliament of Catalonia Carme Forcadell; Vice President of Catalonia Oriol Junqueras and Minister of Justice Carles Mundo. But it did not include President Carles Puigdemont who fled to Belgium. Through this graceful action, Sanchez intends to start a reconciliation process between Catalonia and the rest of Spain.
Though for reconciliation to happen, Sanchez and the rest of Spain will have to address efficiently and realistically the deep divisions splitting the country apart. Indeed, while the majority of Catalonia still supports the project of separation, approximately 60% of Spain disapproved of the President’s decision. To many, Catalan independence leaders do not seek peace, but secession, and pardoning them would only further embolden them in promoting their project of separation.
The Catalan crisis wreaked havoc within Spanish politics and amongst the population. Catalonia has been demanding to become an independent state for years, but Moncloa has constantly refused and condemned this endeavor.
Therefore, can Sanchez realistically engage in a process of reconciliation when Catalonia still strives for its independence?
The illegal referendum: Democratic or rebellious act?
The autonomous community of Catalonia has been causing great discord in Spain for years, as it has become set to separate from the rest of the country. To make this project a reality, the parliament of Catalonia passed the Law on the Referendum on Self-determination of Catalonia in September 2017.
The idea of using a referendum, à la Brexit, to initiate a potential separation from the rest of Spain is far from new. In 2014, the government of Catalonia had already organized a referendum, despite a prohibition by the Constitutional Court of Spain. The use of a referendum perfectly epitomizes the desires of pro-independence Catalans: the result would constitute a direct expression of their will, without any higher institutions stifling their voices.
But it resulted, three years later, in the trial of three politicians: former president of the Catalan Government Artur Mas, former vice president Joana Ortega and former education minister of Catalonia Irene Rigay. The Supreme Court of Catalan Justice accused them of acts of civil disobedience and perversion of the course of justice, as the referendum had been organized without the official approval of Moncloa.
Yet, seven months after that trial, Catalonia had decided to organize its second independence referendum, dubbed “1-O“, as it was held on October 1st 2017. The goal remained the same: fastforward the process of separation of Catalonia from the rest of Spain. Here again, the High Court of Justice of Catalonia opposed the unofficial vote, resorting to mobilizing the Police and the Civil Guard to prevent it. As a result, many polling places could not open and made voting more difficult for the Catalan population.
A threat to the government of Moncloa
However, former President Carles Puigdemont took this referendum very seriously, and asserted that he planned on acting on the outcome of the referendum shortly after the results. He intended to declare the independence of Catalonia in front of the Catalan government on the 9th of October. Given the visible determination of the then-president of the Catalan government, King Felipe VI publicly condemned the acts and statements of Puidgemont.
The consequences of the referendum quickly manifested, as in 2018, 12 people involved in the organization of the referendum were held on trial by the Supreme Court of Spain. Though they were initially accused of rebellion, disobedience and misuse of public funds, the court dropped the rebellion charges. Nine of these independence leaders received a prison sentence of up to 13 years for the crime of sedition, and the three others were sentenced to pay a fine for a disobedience infraction.
The many issues with the referendum
But though it seems understandable that some Catalan politicians who long to see Catalonia as an independent state would choose to fastforward their project with a referendum, many have brought attention to the various dysfunctions.
First, the vote was supposed to be representative of the will of Catalonia as a whole. But due to police involvement, many people in Catalonia did not have access to polling places (as 92 were closed down by the police) and could not express their democratic voice on that matter. Likewise, the Catalan residents outside the autonomous community during the referendum could not vote. Additionally, a significant number of Catalan people refused to go vote, as they knew that the Spanish Government did not officially recognize the referendum.
Due to these irregularities, it becomes difficult to assert with certainty that the referendum was truly representative of the opinions of the Catalan people. Additionally, a previous referendum carried out in July showed that 49.1% of the Catalan population opposed the project of self-determination. Though the majority of the Catalan population did want to vote in a referendum, that does not mean that Catalonia is undivided on the issue of separation.
But most importantly, Madrid perceived the referendum as a crime of rebellion. It did not get official authorization, and aimed to go against the Spanish Constitution. So, is the government impeding on Catalan people’s right to express their volition in a democratic way? Or is Catalonia breaking constitutional laws, and therefore encouraging a climate of rebellion?
Catalonia: A land seeking independence
History of Catalonia: a wavering autonomy
Catalonia has historically always sought to establish itself as an independent state. But the desire for total autonomy has never been limited to the Community of Catalonia: on the contrary, Spain has a long history of territorial division. The Basque Country, for instance, has also expressed a desire to part ways with the rest of Spain.
Like Catalonia, the Basque Country has always attempted to promote its regional culture and language rather than the dominant culture of Madrid. That regional pride has caused it to severely clash with the rest of Spain.
Indeed, the history of Spain is riddled with inner power struggles. The dominant culture of Madrid has regularly attempted to stifle the struggle for independence by implementing unifying and harmonizing changes.
Medieval era Catalonia
With the marriage of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon in 1469, the Crown of Castile and the Crown of Aragon became united. The latter designates the principality which used to encompass a portion of Eastern Spain, a small portion of Eastern France, the Balearic Islands, Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Malta, Southern Italy, and a portion of Greece. It contained three principalities: the Kingdom of Aragon, the Kingdom of Valencia and the Principality of Catalonia. These two latter kingdoms were ruled by Generalitats, which is still the case today, as Catalonia refers to itself has the “Govern de la Generalitat de Catalonia”.
The other Kingdom, the Crown of Castile, would later develop into the current Monarchy by progressively asserting its power over all the principalities of present-day Spain, and would operate under the most powerful Spanish rulers in history, namely the Hasburg dynasty and the Bourbons. It includes the cities of Madrid and Valladolid. Shortly after the union, both kingdoms kept their own laws and institutions, preserving their sovereignty and a certain balance of power.
The beginning of colonization
However, the expedition of Christopher Columbus to the Americas led to a shift in politics. When Spanish colonization started in 1492, Castile started having the dominant hand in politics. Amidst these political shifts, other conflicts like economic instability and peasant uprisings created the perfect storm for the Reapers’ War (1640 to 1652) to unfold. At the onset of the conflict, Catalonia declared itself a republic to further oppose the Monarchy. That political system was short-lived.
In the early 18th century, the Principality of Catalonia lost its political status due to the War of Spanish Succession. In the year of 1714, Castile succeeded in penetrating the walls of Catalonia, which made the surrender of the Principality of Catalonia inevitable. Following the end of the War, the King decided to engage in a process of unification of the territories of Spain with the Nueva Planta Decrees.
This new administrative model started the Catalan struggle for sovereignty, as it banned the Catalan institutions and its rights as a principality. The unification had huge consequences on the cultural influence of Catalonia. The government pushed aside the Catalan language and literature, at the expense of Castilian and the culture of Madrid.
The birth of Catalan Nationalism
But the unification could not stifle the Catalan endeavor to propagate its influence. Towards the end of the 19th century, it propelled itself into a center of industrialization. At the same time, a newfound nationalism appeared, spreading new political and social ideologies, such as anarchism. But during that time, the Catalan elite actually preferred to remain part of Spain, since it gave them a huge economic advantage.
Then came the 20th century, when Catalonia regained a certain level of autonomy. Indeed, the Second Spanish Republic decided to make Catalan one of the official languages of the Republic. Moreover, it established a system of self-governance in Catalonia. In the goal of modernizing the region, the nationalists of Catalonia established a Commonwealth of Catalonia. Through its cultural influence and its economic prowess, Catalonia became a beacon of prosperity in Spain.
However, when the dictatorship of Franco replaced the Republic, once again, Catalonia had to forsake its autonomy. The dictatorship weakened Catalonia economically.
What led to the referendum?
One of the leading factors in favor of Catalan independence would be the preservation of Catalan culture (for instance, the vibrant culture of Barcelona) and language. Many Spanish citizens do speak in their own dialect amongst their communities. However, Castilian remains the only official language of Spain. This means that Castillian prevails over all other dialects in almost every aspect of society: in politics, at school, on National TV… Could Catalan people view this as a threat to the cultural richness of Catalan culture? Or perhaps, a demonstration of power from the government of Moncloa?
Anyone who does not have much knowledge about Catalonia would probably think that the issue would boil down to cultural preservation. This would make a lot of sense, since most do not see Catalan culture as the dominant culture of Spain. Indeed, Spanish, or Castilian, remains the country’s official language. This also goes for the government of Moncloa. Yet the Catalan language constitutes an aspect of the utmost importance for Catalonia. The history and cultural differences of Catalonia might also come second after the History of Madrid.
An issue of cultural preservation?
However, Catalonia is Spain’s wealthiest autonomous community. It also possesses a very high level of political agency, as it has its own government, parliament and police force. Catalonia makes all the decisions concerning education, health, security and social services. Regarding education, Catalonia enforces its own curricula and corpus in classrooms. The community also uses two official languages, Catalan and Castilian. Therefore, they clearly have the ability to preserve and promote their own culture and sovereignty within Spain. So, where does the issue really lie?
The issue, it seems, goes deeper than the survival of Catalan culture. Along with promoting their culture, pro-independence Catalans wish to see their community thrive away from the yoke of Moncloa. That, according to some, would allow them to reclaim their own political and economic power. Indeed, some believe that Catalonia should not have to share its wealth with the rest of Spain. Though others assert that Catalonia would not have accumulated this amount of economic power without the help of the government.
Either way, the fact that independence leaders received a sentence by the Supreme Court of Spain does reveal a lot about the situation. It shows that as an autonomous community, Catalonia will never surpass the power of Moncloa. That, unless a separation occurs.
The difficult issue of reconciliation
In the eyes of most Spanish citizens, Sanchez has done nothing but add fuel to the fire by extending a graceful hand towards the leaders of Catalonia. Indeed, a poll revealed that approximately 60% of Spanish people did not approve of the liberation of the nine leaders. That disapproval has also transpired in the Spanish government, as an overwhelming number of Congresspeople – Conservatives in particular – have criticized Sanchez for this decision.
Many anti-independence politicians have brought up the fact that none of the former prisoners seemed to regret their actions, since they exited the prison propping posters supporting the separation of Catalonia. Therefore, they fear that instead of creating a climate of reconciliation, they have actually emboldened independence leaders in their endeavour to secede from the rest of Spain. Furthermore, regardless of whether they could possibly function as an independent state, it is unlikely that pardoning the leaders would change the minds of pro-independence Catalans.
One thing remains certain: a significant part of Catalonia still wants to separate and become its own independent state. This aspect considered, what could really be Pedro Sanchez’s strategy?
It seems that Sanchez is seeking to pacify Catalonia. Pacify, and start a process of reconciliation to avoid the separation of Catalonia from Spain. His intention is for Spain, and Catalonia included, to turn over a new leaf, and move forward from divisiveness and animosity. That means that, for the President of the government, peace can only come if Catalonia abandons its desire to secede. This was further evidenced by a recent claim by the Spanish President, who asserted that the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party would “never ever” accept a Catalan independence referendum. With that statement, Sanchez defended his decision to pardon the separatists before Congress.
Significance of the Catalan issue in political anthropology
In a way, the issue of Catalonia reveals the chaotic nature of democracy. With every party striving to express their voice and volition, divisiveness becomes unavoidable. In Spain, the fight for independence in Catalonia is far from being the only issue tearing the country apart. Due to its violent past, the Basque Country also has a very difficult relationship with Madrid. But like for Catalonia, Moncloa has attempted to mend its relationship with the rest of Spain through yet another controversial decision.
In 2019, a former ETA member was transferred to a prison near the Basque Country. ETA is a terrorist organization which used to promote the separation of the Basque Country from Spain. This particular decision of the Ministry of Internal Affairs thus caused an uproar within Spain, as it seemed to betray the victims of ETA’s terrorism.
The divisiveness does not stop at the borders of Spain. In Europe, Brexit has shown the fragile nature of unions. In Northern Ireland, it reignited conflicts between the unionists and the loyalists. Moreover, many EU countries have expressed their desire to follow Britain’s example, as a part of their population wishes to retrieve their sovereignty.
For now, Spain has chosen the path of reconciliation. But this particular road will likely be fraught with difficulties and disputes.