Social context and key success factors of Catalan independence movement

Source: La Vanguardia

This article, unpretentious, makes assumptions on the extraordinary success of Catalan independence movement, one of the foremost in Europe, giving also some tips to the other independence movements.

Historical framework

Catalonia has been one of the most dynamic areas of the Iberian Peninsula since the Middle Ages. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Catalan merchant fleet was one of the most important in Europe, thanks to the support of the crown of Aragon — interested in expanding his domain in Mediterranean Sea — and the favourable geographical location. The Reconquista was essential in the formation of the so-called Catalan Countries, since Islam retirement allowed the spread not only of Christianity, but also of Catalan culture in those territories.

The marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon changed only marginally the central role of Catalonia in the Iberian Peninsula, while their heirs with the help of Americas discovery — and consequent reduction in the role of the Mediterranean area — the need to concentrate powers and to standardise the cultures in order to preserve the integrity of the territory — abolishing the Crown of Aragon institutions and discouraging the use of the Catalan language — and the many wars in which it had to take part — that even caused the loss of Roussillon, still in France — contributed to its decline.

As with other countries in Europe, the national epic following the French Revolution was a chance for Catalan redemption. The liberal culture, despite the animosity towards France, found fertile ground, undermining Spanish equilibria, which had to remove some barriers to development, such as the monopoly of Castile in trade with the Americas.

So, the accumulation of capital resulting from the wine trade and the British goods boycott induced the Catalan Industrial Revolution, which was followed by a cultural revolution, with the revaluation of its identity which laid the foundations of today’s independence movement.

Spanish economic integration policies allowed Catalonia to develop “domestic trade” too, which became the economic heart of Spain, withstanding Franco’s repressive policies and running into a second economic boom with the return to democracy and openness to globalization.

Matter of selfishness or a need?

In 2014, Catalonia was the fourth economy of Spain, with a per capita GDP of 26,996 Euros, behind Autonomous Community of Madrid, Basque Country and Navarre. On the other hand, Catalonia is the most indebted Autonomous Community in an absolute sense, with its 65,784 Euros, but as a percentage of GDP is ranked third, with 33.50%, behind the Valencian Community, with 38.20%, and Castile La Mancha, with 34.50%.

Source: INE and Datosmacro data

Catalan independence movement is often accused of being based on selfish reasons and compared to the Italian party Lega Nord (Northern League). Leaving aside that the same criticisms are never directed against the equally rich Basque Country, the differences between the two movements are notable:

1. Lega Nord was born, by admission of one of its prominent members, Mario Borghezio, to camouflage xenophobia, right-wing social policies and, recently, Euroscepticism behind a fake independence movement. On the contrary, these ideologies are only marginal in Catalan independence movement;

2. Lega Nord defends the interests of territories that owe their wealth to Italian state, so it tends to maintain status quo. The so-called industrial triangle was born in the eighties of the nineteenth century thanks to state-owned enterprises. On the contrary, Spanish state was often an obstacle to Catalonia development and the only benefits received derived from general policies.

The last point is linked to the unfair taxation issue. It does not relate to income redistribution — it is obvious the less developed areas the greater need social policies and therefore the more spending in this regard, it would be ridiculous to contest this — but the economic policy choices of Spain that heavily penalize Catalonia.

A striking example is given by this map relating the state of the high-speed rail in Spain:

Spanish railways. Source: Explicant Independència

The centralizing policy of Spain involves the construction of a high-speed network around Madrid, depriving of links that might be useful to Catalan Countries, like the one between Barcelona and Valencia. And this is certainly not because Valencian Community is rich as Catalonia: all investments are functional to Madrid’s interests and the other areas’ needs that are not useful to Spain are simply ignored.

Success factors

The success factors of Catalan independence movement are mainly two: the presence of the academic world, especially social scientists, and a strong tendency to create social groups.

It is not a secret that at the top of the main institutions representing Catalan nationalism there are social scientists: just mention the former President of the Generalitat de Catalunya and head of Convergència Democratica de Catalunya (Democratic Convergence of Catalonia) party, Artur Mas i Gavarró, an economist with a long career as a technical consultant for the Catalan institutions, the President of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia), Oriol Junqueras i Vies, an economist and academic historian and the President of Assemblea Nacional Catalana (Catalan National Assembly) and Jordi Sánchez i Picanyol, an academic political scientist.

In addition, the academic world took part in the Catalan political life through social organizations. For istance, the President of the Solidaritat Catalana per la Independència (Catalan Solidarity for Independence), Alfons López Tena, a lawyer founder of the Societat Catalana d’Estudis Jurídics (Catalan Society for Legal Studies), aiming to study all the legal possibilities for independence, the founder of the association for the protection and standardization of Catalan language Plataforma per la Llengua (Platform for Language), Carme Forcadell i Lluís, an academic linguist, the President of the association in support of the national identity of the Catalan Countries Omnium Cultural, Joaquim Torra i Pla, said Quim, lawyer and writer, and the President of the Comissionat per a la Transició Nacional (National Transition Commission), Carles Viver Pi-Sunyer, an academic jurist.

The social sciences, studying human relations, also have a social function, that is guiding policy decisions. Although there are some shortcomings in the interference between science and politics, a guidance consists primarily of social scientists can spread the knowledge of complex issues, such as identity, economic discrimination, language standardization, at all levels, and guarantees, through the necessary knowledge and skills, that they are properly addressed. In a nutshell, Catalan independence movement works because it has the right leadership.

And if you are still not convinced, I remind you that the National Collective campaign, in support of the independence of Scotland during the 2014 referendum, was organized mainly by show business personalities who, despite being famous, failed to be convincing enough.

Relationships with the other Catalan countries and Occitania

Catalan identity issue is not as easy as it seems. Territory of the Autonomous Community of Catalonia does not match at the whole Catalan nation and it does not include only a nation.

The former question relates to the so-called Catalan Countries. This term comes from the writings of Joan Fuster, according to that all the countries that was part of the Crown of Aragon of Catalan language and culture are part of a unique Catalan nation. In addition to the homonymous Autonomous Community, also known as Principality, Roussillon, Andorra, the area east of Aragon, known as the Franja de Ponent (Western Strip), the Balearic Islands, Valencia and the Carche, in the autonomous community Murcia, are part of Catalan nation. For the same reasons, someone also include the city of Alghero, others see it as a simply Catalan linguistic area of Sardinia.

Catalan Countries. Source: Reagrupament International

The latter question relates to the Aran Valley, part of Occitan nation. Since 2014, the Catalonia officially has recognised the Aran Valley as part of Occitania and it has been committed to protect its identity.

Nevertheless, there are some tendency against the recognition of the Catalan Countries.

Blaverism is a school of thought typical of Valencia, born from the degeneration of the Valencian nationalism, which supports anti-Catalan, regionalist and pro-Spain thesis.

The term means, in a derogatory sense, to cling to the blue bar (blava, in Catalan) that distinguishes the flag of Valencia from the others with the bars of Aragon. Similarly, a blaverist clings to anything that might disprove the affinity between Valencia and Catalan nation, by opposing independence in favor of Spanish regionalism.

Sociologist Vicent Flor, who dedicated his doctoral thesis to the study of this phenomenon, defines Blaverism as “a fascist ideology and folklore, typical of uneducated, fanatical and very irrational people, if not deranged ones”. A phenomenon that was marginal until it was in direct opposition to Pancatalanism defined by studies of Joan Fuster, but is now part of the “identitarian subculture of Valencians”, thanks to populism with which it was carried by pro-Spain politicians.

The anti-Catalanism exists also in the Balearic Islands, in a less harsh and widespread form, and it is called Gonellism.

Referendum, elections and open questions

Within a year, Catalan independence movement got two hits: referendum and the regional elections.

A non-binding referendum held on November the 9th of last year, gaining 80.72% of votes in favor of independence, 10.11% of votes in favor of greater autonomy and 4.5% of votes in favor of status quo.

The international reaction to the referendum was mainly neutral, claiming that relations between Catalonia and Spain relate unique to them, although some countries, including the US, UK, Latvia and Lithuania, did not hide that they support self-determination of Catalonia, as for any nation without a state.

The latest regional elections in Catalonia had a strong symbolic value. Convergència Democratica de Catalunya and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya presented a unique pro-independence list, Junts pel Sí (United for Yes), with an electoral program certainly clear. In the event that this list obtained an absolute majority, it would begin a gradual process to declare independence from Spain within eighteen months. So, Junts pel Sí became the first party with 39.57%. The other pro-independence party competing, Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (Popular Unity Candidacy), claiming the independence of all the Catalan Countries, gained 8.2%.

In total, the two parties did not obtain the majority of votes, as encouraged by the promoters of Junts pel Sí, but stopped at 47.8%. Nevertheless, they got the majority of seats thanks to the majority premium.

Nevertheless, Artur Mas said that the pro-independence project promoted during the electoral campaign will go ahead in any case and invited the other parties to respect the election results.

At this point, two questions remain open:

1. What will the new Catalan state stand on the other Catalan countries? The worry is that the independence of Principality will create a further rift with Valencia, the Fringe and the islands, which will remain under Spanish occupation. Similarly, the Principality, simply, could not affect the unification of the nation and it would still leave them to their fate;

2. What will the new Catalan state stand on the Aran Valley? Receiving a special legal status from Catalonia will not vouch for independence from the new Catalan state.