In the northeastern corner of Spain, Sept. 11 has a different meaning than elsewhere in the world. It marks the “Diada,” the national day of Catalonia, dating back to 1714 when Catalan forces in Barcelona surrendered to conquering Spanish and French armies. Last week, as has been the case in recent years, hundreds of thousands of people marched in Barcelona and Catalonia’s other main cities on Sept. 11, waving the Estelada – the flag of Catalan separatism – and renewing calls for a Catalonia free from Madrid’s rule.
The region’s emboldened independence movement is pressing ahead, despite the unflinching opposition of the Spanish government. Catalan politicians hope to stage an official referendum on independence in 2017, which would follow years of mobilization, protests and symbolic plebiscites.
“The fact that Catalonia decides whether we want to be a state or not is inevitable,” Catalonia’s unofficial foreign minister, Raul Romeva, told WorldViews in an interview last week. “There is a democratic demand for doing this.”
The Catalan desire for statehood is an old one, but it gained traction amid years of economic crisis and political dysfunction in Spain. The region accounts for a fifth of Spain’s GDP and has a population of around 7.5 million–making it comparable to European Union member states like Austria or Bulgaria. A coalition of pro-secession parties now leads the Catalan government and has made the move toward a referendum on independence a crucial part of its platform.
Last week, the Catalan president, Carles Puidgemont, indicated that if the Spanish government did not allow an official referendum next year, Catalonia would stage its own “constituent elections.” He and his colleagues insist, though, that they would prefer not to take unilateral and potentially destabilizing measures. In Madrid, two general elections within the past year have failed to produce a government, leaving a caretaker administration in charge that has no mandate to negotiate over Catalonia’s future.
“We are sitting at the table, saying that we want to do this and negotiate with the Spanish government,” said Romeva. “But on the other side of the table there is no one.”
“The best case scenario,” he said, would be a “Scottish” one, referring to the process that took place in Britain where Scotland was allowed to stage an independence referendum in 2014. The “Yes” camp there narrowly lost though its champion, the Scottish National Party, now harbors ambitions for a second referendum.
An official referendum in Catalonia would not be a fait accompli for independence. A July 2016 poll in Spanish newspaper El Pais found that fewer than 50 percent of Catalans support independence. The pro-secession parties — as well as a majority of the Catalan public — are simply calling for Catalonia’s to right to decide its political future.
That seems to be a non-starter in Madrid, where conservative politicians and senior leaders have sounded dark warnings over the prospect of Catalonian statehood. The lack of progress has also dimmed enthusiasm in Catalonia, where some observers say the independence movement is losing steam. Last week’s Sept. 11 demonstrations were smaller than those of the year prior.
Spain’s intransigence frustrates Catalan officials, who style their aspirations in lofty, global, cosmopolitan terms.
“Sovereignty is something that is evolving,” said Romeva, gesturing to a future where an independent Catalonia would sit among the numerous interdependent states of the European Union. “What we are asking is that Catalonia become a state of the 21st century, which has nothing to do with the states of the 19th or 20th century.”
It’s a sentiment that carries a fair amount of dissonance in the present moment, given Britain’s vote to leave the European Union this summer and the rise of ultra-nationalist, populist parties across the continent.
Romeva points to the multicultural backdrop of Catalonian nationalism, given that 37 percent of the region’s population was born outside of Catalonia, including Romeva himself. He also argues that Catalonia would take a more progressive view toward refugees, in keeping with the controversial intent of policymakers in Brussels to force E.U. member states to take in a quota of refugees — proposals that have so far been rebuffed by a host of right-wing governments.
The Catalan government has on its own already made provisions for hundreds of refugees, and has plans to take in 4,500 more by next year.
“Catalonia is in itself a reality that is multicultural. It has always been a land of transit and arrival,” Romeva said of his Mediterranean homeland. “Refugees and migrants are very much in the DNA of Catalan culture and society. And that is what we understand the world today is.”
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