In the past three years, we’ve seen two separate votes for the independence of one nation from another political body.
First, in 2014, was the vote for Scottish independence from Great Britain, which failed to pass. Then, in 2016, came Brexit where Great Britain voted to withdraw from the European Union.
We might yet see a third vote for independence on October 1 of this year.
Catalonia is a province in northeast Spain that has, historically, been its own principality and alternately conquered and claimed by both France and Spain. Despite efforts to eradicate it, it has its own language. It has its own national identity. It has its own government officials. According to the most recent Spanish constitution, it has a certain level of autonomy from the Spanish government. And now it wants it to be free.
Perhaps “now” is a bit misleading. Catalonia has been chafing under Spanish rule for a long time, and the political independence movement formally began in 1922. The movement quickly gained a lot of ground and even got so far as political autonomy within the Spanish state before the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 and the dictator General Francisco Franco promptly abolished that autonomy in 1939.
The modern Catalan independence movement began in 2006 with Catalonia regaining renewed autonomy within the Spanish state. Since then, many high-profile Catalan officials have been pushing for independent statehood, and several symbolic referendums have been held on the topic, all of them returning strongly in favor of yes.
Because of this strong support, the province of Catalonia has scheduled a formal referendum on independence for October 1 of this year. And the Spanish government is not happy about it.
Spain has declared the referendum to be illegal. On Wednesday, September 20, Spanish Guardia Civil officers raided a dozen Catalan government offices and arrested 14 pro-independence officials. Also on Wednesday, the Spanish interior minister announced the cancellation of all leave for members of the Guardia Civil and national police who were tasked with preventing the referendum.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said, “These people actually are taking some Nazi attitudes because they are putting up posters with the faces of mayors who are resisting their call to participate in this charade.”
He went on to say, “A referendum isn’t the same as a democracy. Gen Franco organized two referendums.”
I confess to a certain amount of bemusement that calling people you disagree with Nazis is not a strictly American tactic, but I must disagree with Sr. Dastis. A referendum is exactly the same as democracy. My doubts about majority-rule governance aside, the people of Catalonia are trying to decide whether or not they want to be an independent state, peacefully, and Spain is interfering with the making of that decision. That is anti-democratic, not the referendum itself.
A Disaster in the Making
I understand why Spain would want to keep Catalonia. It’s highly industrialized and, despite its relatively small size, has the highest GDP of any of the Spanish provinces. I can see why they wouldn’t want to let that go, especially considering how much the Spanish economy is struggling. But criminalizing self-determination is not the way to keep ahold of Catalonia.
A referendum on Catalan independence isn’t even a guarantee of secession from Spain. Polls from two months ago showed 49.4 percent of Catalans were against independence. That said, the more tyrannical and oppressive the Spanish government behaves with the Catalans, the more likely they are to seek their independence from them.
Spain’s actions have already led to violent protests in Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital city. Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s president, has called the crackdown a violation of human rights. Members of the Italian governmen t have condemned the actions of Spain.
Indeed, this whole situation seems to be slipping entirely out of the Spanish government’s control. The result of all of this remains to be seen. I’ll be closely watching the situation to see how it all plays out.
A free and independent Catalonia would illustrate the point: it is possible for a territory to peacefully acquire independence and stay commercially integrated into the world economy. These bullying tactics by Spain are only pushing more and more Catalans toward wanting for independence.
Spain should take a lesson from Great Britain and let the Catalans have their referendum. The result might be surprising, and, even if it isn’t, people should be allowed to choose how they are governed.
Jennifer Maffessanti is an Editorial Assistant at FEE.