Catalonia’s biggest threat is internal

Catalonia’s biggest threat is internal

On 29 October, hundreds of thousands of Catalans took to the streets of Barcelona to protest in support of Spanish unity. This was the second time that the ‘silent majority’ demonstrated the strength of Catalan unionism since the unconstitutional 1 October referendum. As the political crisis in Catalonia deepens, it appears that the ‘silent majority’ is becoming more conspicuous.

Spanish Catalonia?

Since the start of October, the Catalan independence supporters have dominated civil demonstrations in the region. Combined with their slogan of ‘‘one people together,’’ this has presented the image that Catalonia favours partition from Spain. However, the emerging strength of Catalan unionists reflects a more nuanced picture of Catalan identity.

For some Catalans, the independence issue is not simply Spain versus Catalonia. Rather, many of those who favour unity express both a Catalan and Spanish identity. At both demonstrations for Spanish unity, flags and banners appeared bearing Catalan, Spanish, and European symbols. Despite claims of dual identity, citizens were saliently siding with the authorities in Madrid who have discredited the October 1 referendum as undemocratic and unconstitutional.

Catalans’ European and Spanish identity are interrelated. If Catalonia separated from Spain, it would have to reapply for EU membership which Madrid would likely veto. An independent Catalonia would no longer have access to the single market, while it could also be forced to create its own currency. In addition, expats and foreign investment play an important role in the Catalan economy. Independence would likely force them to relocate. The risk of jeopardising the Catalan economy and its social implications are pivotal to the pro-unity stance of many moderates.

The migration of Spanish communities to the autonomous region over the last few decades has also contributed to the notion of dual identity. In the 1950s, Catalonia enjoyed economic development which focused around its industrial potential. This played a pivotal role in shaping the perception that Catalonia was the land of opportunity. Immigration played an important role in the development of the Catalan economy in the 1970s and today accounts for over a third of the Catalan population.

A Divided Province

As the political situation in Barcelona worsens, it appears that Catalan society is becoming more polarised. This was evident by the slogans and actions of many at the pro-Spain march on 29 October, attended by hundreds of thousands of Catalans. ‘Viva Espana’ was a common feature with protesters calling for their president to be put in prison. The indignation of Catalans towards their government was evidenced when a group of protesters verbally attacked the regional police, Mossos d’Esquadra, shouting ‘‘you’re not our police, you’re Puigdemont’s bodyguards. Get out.’’ Pro-independence clashes with the Guardia Civil and pro-Spanish scepticism of the Mossos is symbolic of how political tension has created divisions within Catalan society.

Political conflict often creates ‘sides’ and this can open the door for extremist elements to influence a situation. This was apparent in Madrid after the October 1 referendum when far-right protesters performed the fascist salute and sang ‘‘cara al sol,’’ a nationalist anthem that is synonymous with the Franco era. In Barcelona, the pro-unity demonstrations also featured a small minority of Catalans giving the Nazi salute while colliding with the police.

It also appears that the political actions of the Puigdemont government have ignited divisions that were already latent in Catalan society. This was exemplified by Catalan Josep Borell, former Socialist Minister of Spain and president of the European Parliament who is a strident critic of Puigdemont and the independence movement.

According to Borell, Catalonia is comprised of geographical, linguistic, and socio-economic diversity and the slogan ‘‘one people together’’ is erroneous and misrepresentative of the region. The secessionist-unionist divide is reflected in the urban-rural context. According to Borell, many people in the metropolitan regions of Catalonia favour unionism largely due to the large presence of non-Catalan migrants. In contrast, the rural setting doesn’t contain the same degree of multi-ethnicity and represents a hotbed for Catalan partition from Spain.

Moreover, Kiko Llaneras, electoral analyst, claims that the urban-rural divide in Catalonia would be conspicuous in an independence referendum. He stated that ‘‘those who are first generation arrivals in Catalonia favour unity’’, and this is backed up by data released by the Generalitat which suggests that only 12% of first generation arrivals would vote for independence.

Political uncertainty

The emerging division within Catalan society is growing as Carles Puigdemont left the province after being sacked as President on 27 October. In the meantime, Spain’s chief prosecutor has accused the president of rebellion, sedition, and misuse of funds and will press charges.

Catalonia is currently without a government and Madrid has announced that regional elections will take place on 21 December to elect a new one. According to a recent poll by El Mundo, support for independence declined to 33.5% while 58.3% wish for Catalonia to continue with its current status as an autonomous region. Over the coming months, it is likely that the polls will fluctuate as Catalonia approaches crucial elections.

Catalonia is experiencing its worst political situation in decades which has resulted in profound division within Catalan society. Rather than unifying Catalonia against Spain, Puigdemont’s political gamble for independence appears to have illuminated divisions in Catalonia along the lines of identity. Catalonia’s biggest threat is internal, and as more demonstrations ensue, it is likely that the conflict will deepen further.

Categories: Europe, Politics
Tags: Catalonia, Spain

About Author

Niall Walsh

Niall Walsh is a political risk analyst for GRI. He holds a BA in History and Spanish from University College Dublin and an MA in International Relations from Leiden University. His main focus concerns national and regional political risk in Latin America.