The right of a group of people with a common language, history, and culture to self-determination is the cornerstone that gave freedom and recognition to many new countries across the world. The right to self-determination is recognised by the United Nations, but it is at odds with the concept of sovereignty and territorial integrity of nation-states—also protected by the UN and international law. In most cases, the latter takes precedence over the right to self-determination. While there is something righteous and democratic about a group of people that want to control their own destinies, the high risk of instability and conflict arising from a secession is an equally frightening thought.
This contradiction between sovereignty and self-determination has prompted me to take a deeper look into the Catalan independence movement in Spain—one of the most active and covered movements in Europe—almost six years after the famous independence referendum took place.
Does the Catalan independence movement have what it takes to make Catalonia an independent republic?
As of this moment, there are likely hundreds of independence movements around the world that more or less fit the main criteria for becoming an independent country. According to most experts in international law, this includes having a people, a government, a territory, and lastly, the ability to communicate with other nations on the basis of sovereignty. Of course, the people should also feel a separate sense of belonging that diverges from the rest of the nation they are currently part of. This is usually characterised by a different language and a strong unique cultural identity.
Catalonia fulfils all these criteria as it has its own language (Catalan), culture, cuisine, and identity. It is also considered an economically important region for Spain since it accounted for nearly a quarter of all of Spain’s exports in 2022 having grown 17.9%. Yet, many companies and some of the region’s largest banks left for other parts of Spain due to the political tensions that arose from the 2017 Catalan independence referendum—declared illegal and unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court of Spain. The election was still carried out in 2017 despite its illegality. The result was a brutal police crackdown, in many instances leading to physical assaults against voters and protestors. Nevertheless, the votes were collected and it was an overwhelming victory—90% voted for an independent Catalonia. However, the celebration was short-lived, as Spain imposed direct rule over the region and arrested many key Catalan political figures on charges of sedition and misuse of public funds. They were pardoned and released from prison in 2021.
Yes, if speaking purely technically then Catalonia has what it takes to become an independent country. Still, if a referendum were to happen again and independence would be pushed through, the newfound republic would risk standing alone. For example, the EU has stated that the referendum was illegal since it did not comply with Spain’s constitution, reiterating that if Catalonia were to become independent it would become a non-EU member. Of course, they could reapply. Yet, Spain would likely veto it.
Opposition to an independent Catalonia
Internationally, the election had no legitimate standing. The turnout was low at only 43%, likely because many pro-union residents considered the election to be illegitimate and therefore just ignored it. Opinion polls showed a relatively even split between “yes” and “no” at the time before the referendum. After the referendum was held, hundreds of thousands of protestors marched through Barcelona to support remaining a part of Spain. Furthermore, the way the referendum was conducted did not uphold “basic voting regulations” according to opponents.
It is also notable that the modern region of Catalonia has never been an independent sovereign state. The territory of modern-day Catalonia was once a part of the Kingdom of Aragon and was united with the Kingdom of Castile through a royal marriage in the 15th century. This essentially created the borders of the Spain we know today following a war against the Emirate of Granada and ending the rule of the Islamic kingdom. This is no obstacle to independence and Catalonia’s distinct history goes back almost a thousand years. But for more than 500 years Catalonia has been an integral region of Spain, so it is also understandable that many want it to continue that way. Both outside and inside Catalonia.
There is also some legal opposition to Catalonia’s independence bid. Some experts believe that, unlike Kosovo, the Catalan people are not considered a repressed minority and are already enjoying relative autonomy. This would not give them the grounds for self-determination and Spain’s territorial integrity and its constitution would take precedence.
Still, why did so many Catalans desire independence? Well, in addition to the strong regional identity, many Catalans feel that they give more to Spain than they get back. Furthermore, they are not happy that Spain decided to change and undo parts of the 2006 Catalan statute of autonomy that would have granted the region more autonomy. The global financial crisis also left a great mark on Spain, and many Catalans believe they would be better off by themselves.
This was the situation in 2017, but what is happening now post-COVID and in a time of economic instability caused by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine?
The future of the independence movement
Political lecturer Ana Sofía Cardenal has said that pro-independence parties are at each other’s throats on the issue of how to best achieve independence, despite the parties gaining a combined 51% of the vote in Catalonia during the 2021 municipal elections. A 3.5% increase since the last regional elections. However, a poll carried out by the Catalan government polling agency (CEO) in July 2022, showed that only 40.9% support independence from Spain. The global geopolitical change and improved relations with the Spanish central government are largely behind the downward trend. Cardenal added: “In a world of pandemics, of war in Ukraine, of U.S.-China rivalry—that de-globalized world may not be so friendly, particularly toward a small country like Catalonia.”
Spain’s municipal election held on Sunday, May 28 showed how Catalans feel about independence today. An anti-independence party, The Socialists’ Party of Catalonia, has taken the lead with 23.7% of the vote. The main pro-independence parties, Together for Catalonia, the Republican Left of Catalonia, the Popular Unity Candidacy, and the Catalan European Democratic Party received a combined 41.9% of the votes—around 9% less than during the last municipal elections. This happened despite the UN’s Humans Rights Committee recently condemning Spain’s decision to remove former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont from his position in 2018, which may have boosted support for secessionist politicians. The party In Common We Can (En Comú Podem) received 8.9%. They support the right for Catalonia to choose their fate, yet only through a legal referendum recognised by Spain’s central government. All in all, this election was a clear loss for pro-independence Catalans.
Secession in the midst of a war in Europe would not be good for EU unity, which is at an all-time high. And in the current geopolitical and economic climate, it will likely take a long time before this topic actually arises again. This is further backed up by the decrease in support for pro-independence parties during the recent elections. Moreover, if the Catalan independence movement manages to gather support in the future, the legal contradiction remains.