On Sunday, Catalan voters cast 2.3 million ballots for the Catalonia referendum on independence. Officials said that 90 percent voted in favor. We discussed the events with Elizabeth Castro, an award-winning author and translator, to get an idea of why it matters and what happens now.
Foreign Policy Interrupted: Can you help put the Catalonia referendum into context? Why did the people want a referendum?
Elizabeth Castro: Catalans feel themselves to be a nation, with the right to self-determination. They have a thousand-year history, a strong culture, and a vibrant language.
The region’s relationship with Spain was always complicated and it began to show real signs of strain in 2000. That year, the regional government and the Spanish government hashed out an agreement to the Statute of Autonomy. Under this statute, the Generalitat of Catalonia (the authorities of Catalonia) is given powers that allow it to carry out the functions of self-government.
Despite the agreement, Spain’s current ruling party, the People’s Party, and its leader the current Spanish president Mariano Rajoy, campaigned hard against the statute, collecting millions of signatures and challenging it in Spain’s Constitutional Court. In response, Catalans began asking for a referendum on independence.
Between 2012 and 2017, Catalans held six massive demonstrations in favor of a referendum and organized thousands of conferences, published hundreds of books to mobilize and educate people about independence. In 2014, representatives from the Catalan government presented a plan to hold a referendum in the Spanish Congress but it was roundly defeated. Madrid’s flat out said that there could never be a discussion about independence.
Insisting on a completely democratic process, the current president of the Catalan region, Carles Puigdemont, pledged to hold an official, binding referendum to decide the question in as legitimate a manner as possible, on October 1 this year. The Spanish government worked to block the referendum by all means possible. More than two million people managed to vote on Oct 1.
FPI: The Spanish government maintains that the Catalan referendum was unconstitutional. Was it?
EC: In fact, the (Spanish) Constitutional Court has not yet ruled definitively on the referendum. The law has merely been suspended.
The Catalan referendum was based on the Referendum Law passed by a majority in the Catalan Parliament in 2014.
FPI: Why did the Spanish government overreact?
EC: The Spanish government does not want Catalonia to leave for both economic and emotional reasons. Catalonia provides 20% of Spain’s GDP (though it only comprises 16% of the population) and is responsible for 25% of Spain’s exports. Catalonia receive less than 14% of infrastructure spending.
There is also a strong emotional component. It makes the Spaniards feel badly, and also angry, that a majority of Catalans don’t want to form part of the Spanish state. Spanish unity is considered inviolable and is enshrined in the Spanish Constitution. Franco’s dying words to his hand-picked successor, the father of the current king, were about keeping Spain intact. In short, losing Catalonia is a huge blow to Spain’s pocketbook, but an even worse affront to Spain’s pride.
FPI: How do Spain and Catalonia move forward from this?
EC: Spain must recognize Catalonia’s right to have a voice, to decide its political future, in short, it’s right to self-determination. This is a grassroots, community-led, strictly non-violent movement that has elected a majority of the representatives in the Parliament on a platform that included Catalan independence. It is not a selfish movement (Catalans are famous for their solidarity with other peoples and will surely continue to be so with Spain’s peoples) nor a xenophobic one (Catalans have no ultra-right party in the Parliament, are welcoming to people from other countries and backgrounds, use their language as a cohesive force, and had the largest Welcome Refugees march in Europe).
FPI: If the Spanish government offered more self-rule – would there be a need for independence?
EC: If Spain had respected the self-rule that was already in place, if there hadn’t been a strong recentralization process going on already, if they hadn’t brought a suit against the Statute of Autonomy and attempted to chip away at Catalonia’s rights, if they had fulfilled their commitments to investment in infrastructure, if they had simply listened to Catalan grievances, there might not have been a need for independence. But that ship has sailed. After so many broken promises, and the full-on violence against Catalan voters on Sunday, there are very few people who trust Spain to be an honest interlocutor.