Catalonia Seeks Aid. European Union Grips Status Quo

On December 7th, an estimated 45,000 Catalans converged in Brussels, where ousted president, Carles Puigdemont spoke before being shuffled into a silver car, flanked by an ambulance and police unit. While the wind whipped rain in the faces of demonstrators, Catalans stood in peaceful solidarity, singing, waving flags, and chanting. Demonstrators came to Brussels to ask the EU for intervention in the current dispute with Spain over Catalan independence. After attempted discussion with Spain proved futile, Catalans ask the EU for help, that they are unlikely to receive. Why?

The EU is in survival mode, fighting to keep equilibrium with the rise of far-right-governments, and an “America first” ally across the Atlantic. But as the EU refuses intervention, Madrid responds with force, imprisonment and rhetoric that erodes democratic laws, and shared beliefs.

Madrid’s actions are part of a greater nationalist movement sweeping the world and may have collateral damage: the revival of regional nationalism seen in the surge of separatist movements such as the Catalan Independence Movement. While the situation in Spain is unique in its origins and structure, the spilt between culture and country is a theme throughout Europe.

Nationalism is not the only force behind secessionist movements; economic crisis, class inequality, fear of terrorism, immigration, and perceived government corruption all make tinder for the fire. But, if Spain is an indication, greater central nationalism exacerbates feelings of isolationism amongst differing cultural regions.

Support for Scottish independence quieted after a 2014 referendum favored remaining part of the United Kingdom, but after Brexit, separatist voices regained strength. As a revived British nationalism surfaces, a marginalized Scotland reconsiders secession. America is feeling the flex of its own separatist movements, with states bucking against an increasingly nationalist administration. After Trump’s refusal to sign the Pairs agreement, states responded with historic acts of autonomy. As the federal government becomes increasingly nationalistic, the union of states frays along cultural, economical, and political lines. Separatist Movements are not unique to Europe, and as increased populist nationalism revives regional nationalisms, we cannot ignore the Catalan question.

Shivering from the damp cold of Brussels, I caught sight of a Spanish and Catalan flag waving side by side. I asked Josep Fontanet of Lleida what it would take to reach a compromise. “Catalan people are upset about many things: corruption, money, broken democracy” he responded. “Now Spain is like fascists. They are violent. We put boxes to vote and they hit us with batons.” According to Catalan polls taken before the banned referendum, the majority wanted greater autonomy but not total secession.

Had Catalonia been granted the referendum as Scotland was in 2014, results may have been similar. Rather, Spain jailed parliament members and enacted direct rule. Less than fifty years after Franco, Spain’s violent response is a reminder of fascist rule. How did we get here?

Spain is an old civilization with a young democracy; after the fall of Franco, the Second Republic of Spain was established in 1978, with a collection of culturally diverse regions given varying degrees of self-determination. The 2006 Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia increased self-governance, expanding the use of the Catalan language, taxation and judicial independence.

Move to 2010, when Popular Party leader, Mariano Rajoy referred the 2006 statute to Spain’s Constitution Court. In a landmark ruling, the court struck down attempts to place the Catalan language before Spanish in the region, reigned in Catalonia’s fiscal powers and struck mention of the Catalan nation from the statute’s preamble. To the outsider, Catalans may look like bourgeois Spaniards who don’t want to share, but for a people with fresh fascist scars, the 2010 statute was an attack on cultural sovereignty.

Seven years later, Catalans gather in Brussels, wearing yellow and singing songs of freedom. With the regional election just weeks away, compromise seems unlikely. News outlets in Madrid and Catalonia report different versions of the day’s demonstration and while independent Spanish channels broadcasted the event, Catalonia’s TV3 broadcast was limited by supervision that TV3 newscaster David Bassa tweeted, “modulates the right to freedom of expression.” Growing Spanish nationalism fuels the fire for Catalan independence and while the EU grips the status quo, democracies fray and tensions heighten.

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