The beginning of October has seen the status quo in Europe challenged once again. The Catalan independence referendum saw 2.26m Catalans vote in what was deemed by the Spanish government and the European Union to be an illegal ballot. However, given the almost unilateral vote in favour of separation, it is perhaps unsurprising the Catalan government, led by Carles Puigdemont, has since pushed forward with its plans to secede from Spain. With threats of civil war and family divisions, one can’t help but wonder why Europe and the wider world seem to be on a crash course to fragmentation and extremism.
Although the rhetoric over the weeks following the voting may have appeared exaggerated with even the King, Felipe I accusing the Catalan government of having “eroded the harmony and coexistence within Catalan society” and stating they were trying to “break the unity of Spain and its national sovereignty,” the Catalan desire for separation has been festering for many years.
The region, which suffered under the Franco regime, has in recent times been the most prosperous of Spain’s provinces. However, many Catalans feel they have been punished with higher taxes and disproportionately low government spending. Figures released support this argument with 19% of Spain’s GDP being generated in Cataluña. It is also the most visited area in the country year on year, making it a vital part of Spain’s huge tourism industry. In contrast, a study published in 2014 showed the region was shortchanged by some €11 to €15 bn, yet the central government argued this was false, putting the figure much lower at €8.9 bn.
It is not just economically where differences between Barcelona and Madrid can be seen, but culturally too, the Catalans see themselves as very much estranged from the mainland. With their own language, parliament and customs, for many Catalans the next obvious step should be obtaining their own passport- their own separate sovereignty. Both young and old see the benefits of secession, but there is also technically a majority who did not vote in favour of separation. This silent majority, who did not turn out to vote at all, are proving a major stumbling block to Puigdemont’s government’s plans. Following the ballot it seems the non-voters are becoming more vocal in their views, many supporting a united Spain.
In the week following the referendum, events have been continually unfolding and there have been increasing cries to rally together and promote unity. Voting day saw huge demonstrations being held in many major cities across Spain, including Madrid with thousands coming out to the streets to call for discussion with protesters even holding signs saying “we are better than our leaders.” Sunday after the vote was perhaps even more dramatic, with an estimated 350,000 protesters marching in the Catalonian capital, Barcelona, shouting “together we are stronger.”
The situation is undoubtedly complex and evolving every day. Just days after the vote on the 4th of October, the head of the Catalonian police force (known as “Mossos d’Esquadra”) Josep Luis Trapero was summoned to undergo trial in Madrid for sedition charges. This is a controversial move, as there was widespread anger on both sides after an estimated 900 people were injured by police as they tried to cast their ballots on Sunday 1st.
The instability and continued friction is already having an effect on the economy. Big industries are concerned by the turmoil the vote has caused, and many are looking to relocate headquarters. Companies, including the banks La Caixa and Sabadell, have welcomed the Spanish cabinet’s move in Madrid to make it easier for them to relocate their hubs away from Barcelona and the disputed region to other parts of Spain.
Despite all the ensuing problems and anger, both leaders, Puigdemont and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, are maintaining their hard-line approaches, and discussion seems a long way off. Indeed, in a BBC interview, Rajoy stated he would do anything “within the law” to prevent Catalonia leaving Spain.
On saying this, the leaders are increasingly coming under fire themselves from the public, not only for their poor handling of the situation, but increasingly because of their apparent deafness to what their electorate actually want. The protest rallies over the weekend illustrated how angry many Spaniards are at the actions of their governments and further highlighted how raw the issue is around the country. One No voter interviewed by a news broadcaster claimed she was upset because, she “felt at home here in Cataluña, she didn’t want independence.” Indeed, with only 43% of those eligible actually casting their votes in the referendum, many of the non-voters are assumed to be in favour of staying in Spain after pro-unification parties called to boycott the occasion on October 1st .
All of this is culminating into an increasingly tangled political situation, the impact of which is threatening to scar the cultural and economic framework of Spain. No one seems to know quite what will happen next.
Could Spain learn something from the Baltic countries? Given Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have enjoyed fairly prosperous and safe periods of growth since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, one wonders if perhaps Cataluna could learn how to make a go of it alone. However, the Baltic States, particularly Latvia, have and still face the challenge of local ethnic Russian minorities, although the relationships have improved over the years. In Lithuania, 4.9 per cent of the total population is ethnically Russian, whilst the figures in Latvia and Estonia are much higher- 27.6 per cent and 24 per cent respectively. The cultural and linguistic divides coupled with the troubled history between the former Soviet Union and the Baltic regions, mean that a sparkle of enmity can be ignited.
Nonetheless, perhaps the Spanish government should look to the Baltics to see how to manage these ethnic divides more peacefully- maybe even going so far as to become friends with Cataluna once again.
Eleanor Rocio Hardy is pursuing a degree in Russian Studies and History from the University of Edinburgh and is currently spending a year abroad in Riga and St Petersburg.