Catalonia’s Lesson in Intranational Power Dynamics
Among the more melodramatic political narratives in a year when the combustible American president set quite a high bar was the Catalan separation crisis. It had a seemingly intractable intranational showdown, a passionate debate about the intricacies of competing democratic imperatives and a fugitive Catalan leader charged with—in a modern European democracy— rebellion and sedition. Veteran Canadian diplomat Jeremy Kinsman dissects the backstory. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Tolstoy’s opening line of Anna Karenina applies equally to “families” of peoples, especially those affirming a separate national identity, “separatists.”
“Who are we?” is a question of our age. “Unhappy people,” is a partial answer for many. In some countries, notably Canada, diversity is celebrated. But in many others, fragmentation, polarization, and division indeed cause unhappiness, each in its own way.
The outcomes are not of only local interest. The 21st century’s identitybased nationalist surge is often fueled
by global migration and trans-national Islamophobia. Populist nationalists oppose immersion in the norms of liberal internationalism, the reality of globalization, and the sway over them of multilateral constructs such as the EU. Populist nationalist leaders of the U.S. and Russia assist the process by themselves turning away from cooperative internationalism, and actually cheering on fragmentation.
Break-away nationalists may draw from similar emotional and intoxicating narratives of victimhood, claiming their identity and cultural traditions are endangered. In making their case for self-determination, they commonly seek validation of independence scenarios through the populist device of a referendum.
Referenda are the nuclear weapons of democracies, winner-take-all reductions of complex issues into simplified binary choices, often presented in emotion-fired campaigns of false narratives, increasingly via social networks unfiltered for truth. They usually present their unhappy citizens with painful existential choices, as we know from our Canada-Quebec history.
Outcomes can carry grave consequences: the U.S. will surely be rid of Donald Trump sometime in the fairly near future, but those who chose Brexit by a 52—48 margin, with no idea what it would entail, will affect Britain for generations.
The most prominent separatistnationalist crise du jour is unfolding in Catalonia, a region of Spain whose population of 7.5 million has had an on-again, off-again history of relative autonomy among Spain’s 46 million people.
Typically, an age-old grievance is language suppression. Catalan had a distinguished and ancient history as a language of literature and administration, but after Catalonia supported the losing side in the Spanish War of Succession, Madrid in 1714 unified Spain under the Spanish language, and soon barred Catalan from schools. (Memories are long. Reverent Barcelona football fans rise in vengeful commemoration at the 14-minute marks of the first and second halves when paying Real Madrid.)
But over time, Catalonia won a role of influence and autonomy within Spain. Barcelona became a primary home of the sailing and trading fleets of the Spanish Empire and emerged as Spain’s manufacturing hub. However, the loss of Cuba after 300 years (and Puerto Rico and the Philippines) in the Spanish-American War in 1898 was a harsh blow that Catalonia blamed on incompetent rulers in Madrid, fueling an upsurge in Catalan nationalism.
Decades of instability followed. Centralizing right-wing governments vied with decentralizing left-wing opponents. In 1930, a popular insurrection established the Second Republic, whose Constitution formalized the autonomous status and language rights of both Catalonia and the Basque country.
Elections in 1936 vaulted into power a Popular Front government of socialists and communists that was immediately contested by the military under Franco, who launched under a fascist flag the notorious civil war that became an ominous foretelling of the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy. It caused half a million deaths and ended Spain’s fledgling democracy. The fall of Barcelona in early 1939 that signaled the end of the Spanish Civil War ended Catalonia’s short-lived autonomy. Cementing harsh authoritarian rule from Madrid, now-dictator Francisco Franco again banned the use of Catalan in schools and government administration.
After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain began its transit back to democracy and enshrined in the 1978 Constitution Catalan fiscal and language autonomy. It was overwhelmingly supported in Catalonia. The region began to attain the fastest growth rates in Europe.
In reaction to the sour history of state dictatorship, the Spanish government de-emphasized central rule and nationalism in general but failed to build in a healing process. Regional autonomists flourished. The Basque campaign for full independence soon turned violent, the terrorist organization ETA causing thousands of deaths over the next three decades.
In Catalonia, the growing appeal of Catalan nationalism was peaceful. Autonomist coalitions won repeated regional elections under Jordi Pujol, who served as regional president from 1980 to 2003. Pujol advocated a federal Spain rather than outright independence. He mentored Quebec sovereigntists in seeking international recognition of cultural autonomies, but distressed Parti Québécois hosts on a visit to Québec when he acknowledged that if Catalonia had Québec’s status within the Canadian federation, “There would be no talk of independence.”
Catalan self-confidence was boosted by the successful 1992 Olympic Games that projected Barcelona’s image as an open and vibrant world capital. The case for self-reliance was reinforced by the region’s economic security that contrasted with the severe hit the rest of Spain suffered from the 2008-09 recession.
So, the Catalan family looks out at the world with wary satisfaction—unlike regions in economic stress such as Wallonia or Corsica. Also, Catalonia seems immune to the European winds of anti-immigrant populist nationalism. “Being” Catalan is not a blood legacy but a qualification of residence and language; immigrants are welcome.
But Catalans have been dissatisfied with the heavy hand of Madrid beginning with the election in 1996 of the conservative and centralizing Peoples’ Party led by hardline businessman, José María Aznar.
Relief came in 2004, when Socialists under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero upset the right-wing’s tenure, adopting in 2006 a Statute of Autonomy that enlarged Catalonia’s autonomous
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and 700 mayors of Catalonia at the preparation meeting for a referendum on independence, September 16, 2017.