There is not much in this world that brings the heart to the throat such as a close miss in a crucial moment. An almost goal. A hand of god. Outstretched fingertips in the top right corner. A little too much bend, hitting naught but fresh air. Screams of passion turned to wails of despair. Hands in the air to hands in the hair. Near immortality.
I am of course, talking about football. And what bigger rivalry, what greater passion for cities are there, than Barcelona and Real Madrid? Two top teams, two top cities, two of the greatest players the world has ever seen in Messi and Ronaldo, splitting not only the country in two, but arguably all of the football world. Sit down Manchester, el fuego de España está aquí. But right now, is sport so important? There are bigger things afoot. The divisive events currently happening in Catalonia, the northeastern corner of Spain, have captured the attention of millions worldwide. It is not a new conflict, but they have decidedly taken a turn for the worst. After all, when was the last time a Western European government used force against its own people? When did this suddenly become a thing?
For the people of Catalonia, the seventh most populous area of Europe, this conflict is nothing new. In fact, it goes back nearly 800 years. In 1283, with the union of the Crown of Aragon and Barcelona, the first laws of Catalonia were put to paper. These were amended over the following centuries, cementing the status of Catalonia as a legally independent state. In fact, this legislation, one which advanced the rights of the citizens and diminished the power of the monarchy, brought to the establishment of one of the very first parliaments known to Europe, and the Catalonian Parliament as we know it today, presided over by President Carles Puigdemont, is the successor of this legal entity. One of the most important articles laid down in this first piece of legislation was that any change to the status of Catalonia was to come from inside Catalonia itself. It is this very idea of self-determination that is behind the secessionist movement in the modern era. We shall come back to this though, in our analysis of the current conflict.
It is important, in understanding the breadth of the emotion behind this conflict, to recognise that Spain, as a unified state, only formed in 1469 under the Catholics. There is an argument here, undoubtedly used by some Catalonians in their rhetoric, that Catalonia precedes Spain itself. A divisive and inflammatory opinion, to be sure, but possibly appropriate given the current context? We shall see.
This independence came to a sharp end 300 years later when, in one of the innumerable Spanish wars, Catalonia was defeated and all sense of autonomy was militarily removed. Again, this is an important distinction to make, since the change of Catalonia’s status did not come from inside their own government. And thus the seeds of resentment towards the Spanish were sown.
This brings us to the modern era. In the mid-19th century, a revival of Catalan language and traditions began to crop up. A sense of pride in the area, and the Catalan identity, began to take its hold. In 1922, this came to a head when the political party Estat Catala was formed, with the manifesto of reclaiming Catalan independence. Less than one decade later, they claimed a surprise victory in municipal elections and immediately made good on their promises put forward nine years before. However, these claims were negotiated down to autonomous rule without full independence. A case of ‘take what you can get’, an idea that has been followed through in recent decades. And so, Catalonia was making a comeback. That is, until General Francisco Franco came to power and abolished all autonomy in 1938 (a mere seven years after autonomy was granted after 200 years of Madrid rule). Just as the Catalan cause took a small step ahead, it was knocked right back. This remained the status quo until Franco’s death in 1975, when the political parties of the time focused again on autonomous rule. The Spanish Constitution of 1978 granted autonomy to the region, but full independence continued to be out of reach.
In more recent times, the issue of independence kicked up again in 2009 with symbolic referenda regarding the ‘problem’. In 2010, in defence of the promise of a new Statute of Autonomy from the incumbent Catalan government, mass protests were held across the region. This mentality has prevailed with yearly protests taking place, most recently with the events on October 1st, 2017. These are without a doubt the most controversial protests with violent government crackdown at an all-time high in the modern era, something that has been widely protested not only in the afflicted region, but across Europe and the Western world.
While the referendum was deemed incompatible with the Spanish Constitution, and in fact the Catalan Constitution itself, the reaction from Madrid was not a well-thought-out reaction and, rather than serving to uphold the law, it has only served to fan the flames of discontent. Hardly a way to bring the Catalonians to the table in this historically sensitive predicament. Fortunately, for all parties involved, de-escalations were quick, even though tension has remained in place thus far. Regardless of the illegality of the referendum, President Puigdemont was quick to claim independence for Catalonia – keeping in line with his stance against greater Spanish union. However, this was reversed just over a week later when Puigdemont instructed his Parliament to withhold the decision while talks were held with Spain. This is where we stand today, at the time of writing.
Where to from here? It cannot be said for sure. Part 2 of the series on the Catalonian Crisis will focus on what may or may not happen, and the potential ramifications thereof. Follow us at The Diplomat to stay updated.