When people think of travelling to Spain, Barcelona is often their first port of call. They think of tapas, Gaudí, sangria and all things that epitomise Spanish culture.
Yet unbeknownst to many, Barcelona is not technically part of Spain. Walking through the alleyways in the antiquated suburb of El Born, Catalan culture is ever present. The infamous red and yellow striped Catalan flag hangs from a vast number of balconies. Some are brightly pigmented, others have discoloured with age and begun to fray – an all too fitting representation of the decades-long struggle for independence.
Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, a region which consists of four provinces; Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona. Some of the most famous Catalans in history include Antoni Gaudí (responsible for reeling in the majority of the tourists to Barcelona with his Sagrada Familia), and surrealist artists Salvador Dali and Joan Miró.
The Catalan Republic was established in 1931, yet its autonomy was short lived. The conclusion of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 resulted in Catalonia losing its independence, and proceeded to become part of Spain in what spawned decades of mounting tension. The repression of Catalan identity reached its peak under the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. During his rule, Franco banned speaking Catalonian, and all public activities associated with Catalan nationalism or identity.
Much progress has been made since the end of Franco’s rule, including the re-instalment of the Generalitat – Catalonia’s political government. Yet nevertheless, there continues to be a degree of prejudice against Catalans in Spain. In March this year, a university professor, Xavier Casanovas, was fined 601 euros for speaking Catalan to a Spanish police officer at passport control in Barcelona’s El Prat airport. The fine was issued on the basis that Casanovas “hindered their (police officers) work and delayed the normal flow of passengers.”
There are 11.5 million speakers of the Catalan language. The colossal amount of tourism in Barcelona currently makes Catalonia Spain’s richest region. As of 2017, the tourism industry is responsible for 12 percent of Barcelona’s economy, which was less than two percent prior to the 1992 Olympic Games held in Barcelona. The Catalonian capital is essential to both the Spanish economy and culture. It is for this reason that the Spanish government remains reluctant to grant Catalonia independence from Spain.
In November 2014, an informal vote conducted by 40,000 volunteers surveyed more than two million of the 5.4 million eligible voters. Voters were asked whether they wanted Catalonia to be a state, and whether they wanted the respective state to be independent. The results showed that 80.72% of voters answered yes to both above questions. Although unofficial, the 2014 vote displays the predominant view of Catalans and their desire for independence.
The Catalan government intends to hold an independence referendum this October. Yet several weeks ago, the Spanish government announced its plan to block the referendum. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy recently stated that he will be launching an appeal in Spain’s highest court in attempt to block the Catalan Government’s plan. As the proposed referendum bill does not allow opposition parties in regional parliament to propose amendments, Rajoy says that the bill is illegal due to violating “the right to political participation under equal conditions.”Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy
The politics of Catalonia extends further than merely Spain. The EU plays an integral part with regards to the political climate in Spain and the Catalonia region. Further north of Europe, Scotland continues to fight for independence from the UK. While seemingly a different issue, Catalonia and Scotland share a degree of influence over one another within the EU. The Scottish National Party, which campaigns for Scottish independence, has continuously tried to liaise with Spanish politicians. This is due to Scotland’s concerns that Spain might block Scotland’s request to join the EU as an independent state. Influenced by the political situation in Scotland, Spain presumably wants to inhibit Catalonia lodging a similar request with the EU.
When considering the introduction of radical change to existing states and independence legislations, the significance of the EU becomes clear. At the end of May 2017, Spanish MEP Esteban González Pons critically declared that “the position of the EU institutions has always been very clear, and it is to point out that if a territory breaks away unilaterally from its member state it is automatically expelled from the EU.”
Yearly in Catalonia, more than two million people protest their right to vote for independence. The Catalan region consists of seven million people, which demonstrates the fundamental significance of these protests, due to their enormous turnouts.
The politics of Scotland and its influence on Catalonia are evident at these political rallies. During Catalan protests, Scottish flags are lifted to show solidarity between the two autonomous states. The same holds true for Scottish independence rallies. An upcoming independence referendum – if officially authorised to go ahead – would instigate both political and social change within Catalonia. The referendum could also serve as a predecessor to other autonomous states hoping to gain independence, like Scotland and Wales.
The Spanish government also opposes Catalonia’s independence as it believes to threaten Spain’s unity. Madrid’s central government has also threatened to cut Catalonia’s funding unless is ceases using the money to fund Catalonia’s secession referendum.
Current funding comes through the Fondo de Liquidez Autonómica, which the Madrid government created in 2012. Through the fund, Catalonia received approximately 63 billion euros, and an additional 3.6 billion euros this year. Many Catalonians believe they are already entitled to this money, because of the disproportionate tax rates the centralised Madrid government charges Catalonia.