By Humra Laeeq
Nowhere in pop culture is the political rivalry between mainland Spain and Catalonia more clearly expressed than between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, Spain’s top football clubs. Now, the rivalry is clearly far beyond football. The conflict, which has stretched 800 years of world history, witnessed a recent resurgence when Spanish Parliament on October 1 rejected Catalonia’s appeal for secession from the Republic of Spain. Hundreds were injured when the vote took a violent turn. While secessionist appeals aren’t an uncommon sight to witness today, what does determine their fate is in whose court we see the ball rolling—on what grounds is Catalonia fighting for Independence?
Catalonia: A state within a state
Catalonia is comprised of four provinces. Barcelona is its capital; it is where most of the population resides and remains Spain’s foremost economic and cultural hub and a popular European travel destination. The capital is rich in its urbanised and industrialised economy—chemical and food-processing and metalworking make it Spain’s economic powerhouse. The Catalan language enjoys national language status alongside Spanish. Catalonia also has its own cultural rituals and holidays and holds considerable political autonomy—all of which have led to an identity formation.
The historical formation of identity
The region of Catalonia had enjoyed political and economic autonomy long before Spain as a nation had formed. The first dissolution came in the mid-15th century when it lay under the reign of King Ferdinand of Aragon. With his marriage to Queen Isabelle of Castile, the adjacent kingdoms of Castile and Aragon merged, compromising the sovereignty of Catalonia. Catalans, for the first time, rebelled in what is called the Reapers’ War in 1640. The Treaty of Westphalia with France ended their short-term break from Spain. Through the three centuries since, Catalan culture, language, and identity have thrived despite being under the constant imposition of Spanish identity.
The Industrialist boom—economic and cultural revival
It was the turn of the 19th century when the world underwent radical changes in its economic structures that solidified power relations. Rapid industrialisation led to an economic boost within Catalonia, and the rise of a new emergent bourgeoisie signalled an upcoming cultural renaissance. The elite harked back to talking proudly of the region’s exoticism and of a love for history that flew with the Romanticism current gripping 19th century Europe. The struggle was to revive the tradition and an identity that Catalans hoped would counter the suppressive rule set in place by Philip V during the 18th century.
With Catalonia’s cultural revival was the popularisation of symbols associated with regional nationalism. The Catalan flag, the hymn of Els Segadors (The Reapers), the commemoration of Catalonia’s national day (11 September) and the celebration of Catalonia’s patron saint, St George, became widely celebrated with Catalan economic and cultural prosperity. Barcelona boomed as a popular hub, attracting hundreds of migrants across Spain. This combination of cultural and linguistic reawakening and industrial and commercial vigour provided the basis of the concept of Catalanism, a growing nationalist movement. The First Republic of Spain (1873-74) promised little accommodation for Catalans-recognised territorial ‘states’. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1875, the failure of the Republic fuelled the desire for greater autonomy.
Recent struggles for greater autonomy
The 20th century witnessed a series of ups and downs for Catalans. Relieved with slight autonomy in 1913, another blow followed in 1923 when Spanish dictator, Miguel Primo de Rivera, eliminated that autonomy. During the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, fascist dictator Francisco Franco once more viciously suppressed Catalonian culture. A recent rest arrived in 1977 after Franco’s death when Madrid granted Catalonia sovereignty. But the desire for complete independence never faded. In 2014, a non-binding vote on independence showed 80 percent support to leave Spain. The desire catapulted into more than 90 percent of the people who voted in the referendum on October 1 choosing independence. On the other side of the story are Spanish economic interests—Catalonia is a major contributor to the Spanish economy. According to CNN Money, Spain stands to lose about 20 percent of its economy if Catalonia splits.
With such a long and surviving history of fervent nationalism, Catalonia’s demand for secession seems highly unlikely to be subdued in an age of democracy. What we are looking at is not just a case of overwhelming support for Independence, but also a bottleneck of nationalism that will break barriers of violence and threat.
Featured Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
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