Since I spent one year of my life living in Spain, of which 6 months in a village close to Barcelona, the videos and images of the violence during the Catalan Referendum last Sunday shocked me. While I have been following the development and, unfortunately, expected such an escalation, I noticed that for many people around me it came as a real surprise. That is why I’d like to explain briefly what the conflict is all about.
I have quite a few Spanish friends, both from Catalunya and the rest of Spain, so my Facebook timeline was, already before Sunday, and still is full of status updates, comments and news about the Catalan referendum. I have talked to some Catalan friends to understand what and why they (and others) voted.
Why vote yes at the Catalan referendum?
Most Catalan friends I follow or talked to voted in favor of the independence of Catalunya from Spain. Since the people in my network are usually far from being far-right or/and nationalists, I wondered why they would want to become independent from Spain. It turned out that everyone I talked to, and that counts for both yes and no voters, saw the voting as a form of protesting against the current Spanish government. Those in favor told me that they feel that “Catalunya deserves better”, that the Spanish government is corrupt and that Catalunya is the deprived child of the Spanish family. What do they mean with that?
The relationship between Catalunya and Madrid is extremely complicated, but I will try to keep it simple: In a nutshell, during the economic crisis the Spanish government cut a lot of funding in Catalunya, as well as it revoked certain rights it had given to the Catalan government. Catalans feel that they pay significantly more taxes to Madrid than they get back in investments in their infrastructure, school, economy, etc.
One friend explained me that before Catalans and the rest of Spanish civilians used to vote more or less similarly: The Spanish majority voted PP, the current governing party, while Catalans voted CiU. Both parties shared the same ideals, among others both were against a Catalan independence. However, after several affairs and scandals of corruption, the CiU lost power and decided to merge with two other parties in favor of the independence movement. During the last elections in 2016 both parties received about 13% of Catalan votes, loosing many voters to new parties. Long story short, Catalans do not feel represented by the Spanish government.
The bond between Catalunya and the rest of Spain has always been somehow artificial, a forced convenience marriage, as some would describe it. There has always been an independence movement and it will probably never stop existing. Obviously, the suppression of the Catalan language and culture during the Franco dictatorship (it was forbidden to talk Catalan) left its marks, too. After the death of Franco, Spain transitioned peacefully (?) into a democracy, without getting rid of “the bad guys” as we did in Germany with the Nazis. This still fuels the perception among Catalans that many Spanish people still look down on the Catalan culture. One of my friends said that Catalans are fed up with the fact that the Catalan language and culture is perceived as inferior. This is, of course, a personal impression and hard to understand as an outsider. But I find it, for example, quite striking that while Spain has 4 official languages, schools outside that particular area do not offer these languages at least as an elective.
Why vote no at the Catalan referendum?
I should stress that the Spanish constitutional court forbid the referendum, so the Catalan referendum was illegal and has no binding power. Still people showed up and risked the confrontation with the police in order to vote no. This might seem contradictory, but one of my friends explained me that his participation was an act of protest. Like him, many Catalans believe that a change is needed, but that it is still possible to find a different solution other than independence. A wide-spread opinion is that the Catalan independence would economically harm both Spain and Catalunya, especially if the new-born Catalan nation would not be able to become a member of the European Union. Secondly, keep in mind that many inhabitants have roots outside Catalunya. They moved from another part of the country to Catalunya, but their family still lives in their old home, and they see themselves as Spanish.
After the escalation last Sunday, which in my opinion was caused by the Spanish prime minister Rajoy’s strict actions and the resulting inappropriate violence against orderly citizens, however, more No voters will change sides and support the independence movement. I personally believe that ignoring the referendum and declaring the results as invalid would have been a much smarter move of action.
By sending police troops to Barcelona to prevent the Catalan referendum, Rajoy only achieved a stalemate, which cannot be solved anymore without help from outside. I think that the conflict deserves attention from the EU, because these kinds of conflicts are threatening the idea of a unified Europe. The friends I talked to all emphasized that the Catalan movement is a pro-European movement, but they as well highlighted that they hope that Europe finally intervenes and acts as a mediator to solve this conflict without picking a side beforehand. Likewise, I think that we as outsiders should not pick a side.
I have tried to explain the conflict of the Catalan referendum in an easy and objective way, without favoring one side. However, the issue is obviously a lot more complicated, so please correct me if I’m mistaken or oversimplify things.