Despite – or because of – Brexit, Catalans drive toward split with Spain

Part 16 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.'

Albert Gea/Reuters/File
Catalan pro-independence supporters hold a giant 'estelada' (Catalan separatist flag) during a demonstration on the 'Diada de Catalunya' (Catalunya's National Day) in Barcelona, Spain, September 11, 2015.

This summer marks 80 years since the outset of Spain’s civil war. Yet at an official commemoration in Barcelona’s Palau de la Musica marking the outbreak on July 18, 1936, a moving rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony swept the public sentiment forward, not backward.

“Independence!” the audience chanted amid applause. Catalan flags were unfurled across the music hall. Spectators and performers alike burst into the Catalan national hymn. None of it was scripted.

“[Independence fervor] emerges at emotional times,” says Daniel Bullich, a speechwriter for the pro-independence Catalan government who was in the audience. Mr. Bullich says the Spanish government, after all these years, has failed to reckon with the legacy of Francisco Franco's repression of Spain, and Catalonia in particular, in the 20th century.

The wounds of the civil war – during which Catalonia was a stronghold of resistance to General Franco, who brutally repressed the Catalan language and culture during a 40-year dictatorship – set fire to Catalan desire for self-determination. It also shaped their pro-European attitudes. For Catalans, the European bloc after World War II stood as an alternate pole of prosperity and, above all, peace.

But if today’s great shake-up of the European Union, via rising nationalism and Brexit, has caused a general rethink about the repercussions of rocking the status quo too hard, Catalan secessionists are not cowed. They are barreling forward with plans to create an independent state.

A poll taken by the Center for Opinion Studies in Catalonia after Brexit showed support for Catalan independence growing to 48 percent, compared to 42 percent for “no,” and according to major daily El Pais, the first time “yes” has taken the lead.

Albert Royo, secretary general of the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia who travels across Europe to advocate for the region’s right to vote on sovereignty, says that no one seeks a chaotic or weakened Europe, especially pro-European Catalans. But Brexit may force the EU to reveal its pragmatic side as it seeks to maintain a special relationship with Britain despite its decision to leave. “It is going to be another example of how it can … find flexible solutions to complex and difficult situations.”

And that, he says, would apply to the complexity that marks the Catalonian case.

Franco's legacy

The Estelada, the Catalan separatist flag, appears frequently in the neighborhood of Gràcia, an independence stronghold in Barcelona, hanging over balconies and outside windows. Biel Heredero, who gives tours of “Catalan independence” for Context Travel, leads visitors through the neighborhood's small squares and narrow streets, talking about everything from Catalonia’s distinct language to its tradition of creating human pyramids, called castells.

He says the tradition is going through a renaissance, and he wonders whether it has anything to do with the growth of the independence movement, which he sums up succinctly. “We want to be what we choose to be, not what we are forced to be,” he says.

The sentiment used to end there, at the desire for self-determination, which enjoys widespread support here. Catalonia, one of 17 autonomous communities of Spain, has grievances dating back at least to the 18th century, after defeat in the War of the Spanish Succession. It regained a degree of home rule in 1931 under Spain’s "second republic," only to see it all taken away again under Franco.

The failure to reckon with the Franco era and state atrocities during the Spanish Civil War, one of the bloodiest conflagrations of the 20th century, still burns.

“We are tired of being told to be quiet,” says Marisa Bendicho after the 80th commemoration, which will include a series of events this year. Her maternal grandfather died fighting with the Republicans and his body never found; her father’s side of the family was exiled to France.


After Spain’s transition to democracy, Catalonia and the rest of Spain’s regions were granted varying degrees of autonomy. And while separatist fervor was always greatest here and in the Basque Country, there wasn’t a mainstream desire to secede from Spain until 2010. That's when Spain’s constitutional court watered down powers Catalonia sought under a new autonomy statute, whose preamble defined the region as a "nation." It’s what Luis Moreno, a research professor at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), calls “reactive politics” against Madrid.

Dr. Moreno began polling on questions of identity in the mid-1980s because “exclusive identity” is a predictor of separatism. At that time, he says, only 9 percent of respondents said they felt “exclusively Catalan,” much lower than the rate of "Scottishness" sentiments in Scotland, where he also polled. Today, the percentage of those feeling "exclusively Catalan" has more than doubled.

And as financial crisis struck in 2008, a new grievance was added to the list. Catalonia, which accounts for almost a fifth of Spain’s GDP and is the country’s gateway to the Mediterranean, said it was essentially getting milked for tax money by Madrid. “More and more people are feeling simply that they are not attached to the whole of the country,” he says.

More than 2 million people joined a massive march in Barcelona on Sept. 11, 2012, many of them new independentistas like David Íñiguez Gràcia. The historian at the University of Barcelona says he "always believed in the fraternity of Spain" until Madrid made him feel like a "second-class Spaniard." Catalans backed independence in a nonbinding vote held in 2014, and in local elections last year, they elected a pro-independence government that campaigned on the creation of a road map toward independence by next year.

Embracing Brussels while rejecting Madrid

But if Catalans want to break free from the rule of Spain, they have no desire to do the same from Brussels. Moreno says polling shows that independence support would grow to a majority if Catalonia were guaranteed a spot in the EU. Though a dislike for Spanish unity and love of European unity seem contradictory, that reflects what Moreno calls “cosmopolitan localism,” and is characteristic of secession movements across Europe that are buoyed by the prospect of remaining safely within a bigger union.

“We are willing, almost eager, to cede sovereignty to Brussels,” says Andreu Mas-Colell, the former Catalan minister of economy and knowledge in the regional government until January 2016, “because Brussels respects us and Madrid doesn’t.”

Madrid has long warned Catalonia that it holds the key to the EU due to its ability to veto Catalonian accession to the bloc. Dr. Mas-Colell says it is the most powerful argument that pro-unity candidates hold, but many here dismiss it as fear-mongering.

Now Brexit could force some answers on membership questions that Europe has preferred to avoid. If Scotland holds another referendum – this time to leave Britain and stay within the EU – after having voted to stay in September 2014, Catalonia could take a cue.

But Andrew Dowling, an expert on Catalan nationalism at Cardiff University, says he believes Catalonian leaders have mistakenly jumped on Brexit to kickstart their own cause. Though it has surged in recent years, desire for independence has not yet passed the 50 percent threshold, and may have reached a natural plateau in a complex society of immigrants with dual identities. “It is not going to be so clear cut,” he says.

And as Brexit has dampened the desire for other referendums on membership, according to polls, it could increase caution here. “I don’t like anything on the extremes,” says Ainhoa Perez, who was born in Barcelona and looks wearily at the nationalist zeal back home. “I’m Catalan,” she says, then quickly adds, “but claro [of course], I’m Spanish, too.”

'A diminishing middle ground'

At the end of July, the Catalan parliament voted on a resolution for its road map for independence; the Spanish constitutional court annulled it. “You have a diminishing middle ground” that could disappear even faster post-Brexit, says Klaus-Jürgen Nagel, a comparative politics professor at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. He argues that with myriad crises facing Europe, power is moving away from Brussels back to national capitals. That makes Spain stronger, which could in turn cause Catalans to dig in their heels.

European leaders have put no support behind the independence drive, a source of disappointment here. “When you see that the EU is, for instance, following quite closely what happens in Hungary or Poland [in terms of democratic backsliding], I can’t understand why it’s not following the situation in Spain and Catalonia,” says Mr. Royo.

Royo says European governments understand there is a “democratic, massive bottom-up reaction” to Madrid in Catalonia, and the problem won't “just disappear” if they do nothing. But he says that a weakened Europe is reluctant on the issue. "Because they see there is enough instability right now, this would be an extra focus of instability that they want to avoid."

But if no one makes a move, might Catalans find themselves sliding down an accidental path?

Mas-Colell, who founded the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics and specializes in the methodology of conflict, says he sees no resolution in the short term. But he does see room for adjustment on both sides to build trust. Spain has to recognize sovereignty as a legitimate option, he argues, while Catalonia should prove that it has a majority that backs independence before moving forward unilaterally, he says.

Though skeptical that it will happen, he says that if the day were to come when Spain defined itself as multinational, pro-independence sentiment would ease.

“I have not been historically an independentist. I even now have some difficulty filling my mouth with the term independence. I prefer to call myself a sovereigntist,” he says. “I deeply believe that Catalonia as a people have the right to determine their own future. Independence is conceptually a more accidental matter.”

This was part 16 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.' See all of the stories on the series homepage.

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