On the 19th of September 2014, aboard a train on the outskirts of Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, I experienced the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum. I found myself among a group of Catalans whose feelings lay somewhere between dejection and optimism, arguing about the result that had reached the Iberian peninsula just a few hours before. It was clear that Catalonia had become, other than the rest of the United Kingdom, the region most interested in the issue of Scottish independence.
Catalonia has sought its own independence, or at least a referendum on this issue, for many years now. Spain’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy has argued that the country’s constitution prevents regions from making decisions that affect the whole country. The fact that Scotland was granted a legal referendum by the parliament of the United Kingdom gave hope to Catalans who desperately want the same opportunity to shape their future. Scotland voted against independence and, in the eyes of many Catalans, frivolously threw away the chance of a lifetime. Their hopes of achieving independence for Catalonia were smashed, for a day, at most.
Just over 365 days since Scotland voted No to independence, on Sunday 27 September 2015, Catalonia’s journey to independence reached a new milestone. The parliamentary election became something of a plebiscite over the question of independence. Indeed, the electorate were given the option of voting for a one-of-a-kind coalition called Junts pel Sí – Together for Yes – which comprises of the Catalan leader Artur Mas’s conservative Democratic Convergence of Catalonia; the Catalan Republican Left; and movements like the Assemblea Nacional Catalana.
In the 19th century, Catalonia became one of the most industrialised, and prosperous, regions in Spain, yet retained its cultural and historical consciousness. Nowadays, benefiting from tourist spots like Barcelona and the Costa Brava, Catalonia has become Spain’s wealthiest region. The federal government requires each region to make a contribution through taxation for the economic improvement of less developed territories like Andalusia, money which many Catalans would much rather invest in their own infrastructure.
The regional language, Catalan, has always been an important cultural factor. The dictator Francisco Franco imposed a ban on the language being taught in schools. The oppression by his regime of anything that was not “purely Spanish” and the prohibition of regional languages created a deep-rooted resentment that survived Franco’s death in 1975, and still lingers today. The financial crisis of 2008 led to unpopular spending cuts in healthcare, social services and education, which was enough to revive the secessionist movement under the slogan “Spain is robbing us”.
The Catalan National Day, Diada, which is celebrated on 11 September, has become a day associated with massive rallies in support of demands for more autonomy. Last year, after Prime Minister Rajoy had declared that a Catalan independence referendum would be illegal, over two million Catalans, led by the Assemblea Nacional Catalana, formed a human ‘V’, in the national colours of red and yellow, in the streets of Barcelona. The “V” stood for “vote”, referring to the Scottish independence referendum that had been granted by the UK parliament, as well as for “victory” over Spanish oppression. After several attempts to secure a vote on independence, and after a symbolic, unofficial, referendum in November 2014, in which 80 per cent of voters backed independence, Catalan president Artur Mas called an early election, the third in five years.
Turning the parliamentary election into a quasi-referendum, which gave people the option of endorsing independence, Artur Mas defended himself, saying: “If you can’t hold a real and specific referendum, if all your attempts have been blocked, you have to do something.” He added: “This is the only tool I have in my hands.” Raül Romeva, leading the Junts pel Sí campaign, said a declaration of independence, induced by a favourable election result, is justified because “[Spain] have beaten us with unjust laws and huge fines”.
Following their victory on Sunday, the Junts pel Sí’ movement is ready to set up a constitution and declare an independent state within 18 months. Raül Romeva believes that victory will force Madrid and Brussels “to listen”. EU officials, however, have made it clear that an independent Catalonia would face difficulties in re-entering the EU, as existing member states need to approve the accession of a new country – and it is very unlikely that Spain, and potentially other European nations, would recognise Catalonia as an independent country.
Last week, I spoke to a friend who actively campaigned for a Yes vote in Scotland last year. He told me that, when he finally found himself in front of the long-awaited ballot paper, he felt ridiculous. The question of independence, the choice between yes and no felt too simplistic. This is also true of the Catalan case; many people who have been campaigning on the streets for months and years were not just campaigning for independence. Unhappy about the relationship with Madrid, they have been fighting for the power to address important issues like unemployment and corruption.
The prospect of a better future might have arrived, but so has the uncertainty over how politicians can actually create a new state. Even after the triumph of Junts pel Sí , it is not clear what will happen next. The separatists have interpreted the result as a mandate for Catalonian independence, which will force Madrid to confront the issue at long last. The Spanish elections take place December, and the new national government, which might not be led by Mariano Rajoy, could opt for a more conciliatory approach with regard to the Catalan question. The result of the Catalan parliamentary election does, however, confirm that the balance of power has shifted irreversibly. In the words of Artur Mas:“In the streets we might influence, but in the ballots the decision is being taken.”
Tessy Troes is a fourth year music and maths student at the University of Glasgow, who likes to spend time in countries with independence movements, be it working in Serbia, studying in Scotland or spending her year abroad in Catalonia.