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The current conflict between Spain and Catalonia explained

Spain is a state split into autonomous communities, three of which—Catalonia, Galicia, and Basque Country—are denominated historic communities, having their own languages that coexist co-officially with Castilian, the official language of Spain. All the autonomous communities in Spain have their Statutes of Autonomy, the basic institutional legislation for an autonomous community, recognized by the Spanish Constitution of 1978. At the very least, this legislation encompasses the community’s designation, its territorial boundaries, the organization and location of the seat of its autonomous institutions, its assumed powers, and, if applicable, the principles governing its language regime.

Catalonia is a pluralistic and multicultural society. Catalans, as a group, strive to achieve and to maintain an ethnolinguistic identity by preserving their economic, historic, cultural, and demolinguistic (speakers of Catalan) status, dimensions that allow them to compare favorably with the Spanish national group.

What is happening?

Today we are witnessing a very strong ethnopolitical polarization between Catalonia and Spain. In recent years, the strong anti-Catalan action of the Partido Popular Español (Spanish People’s Party henceforth PP), an essentialist right-wing party in charge since 2011, ruling with an absolute majority from 2011 to 2015 and with a relative majority in the legislature initiated in 2016, has provoked a significant surge in Catalan national feeling. That is, the Spanish State do not accept the idea of a multinational and multicultural state. Spain from its stance as a unique and essentialist nation, is facing a Catalonia that claims recognition as a nation and a strong self-government. These demands have led to a strong polarization between the parties, to such an extent that the conflictive escalation has led Catalonia to consider secession.

Since the arrival of the Bourbons in the early eighteenth century, the Spanish elites have been building an organizational identity around a mystification based on “unity” and “common” language. This undertaking has had a powerful effect on the legitimation of Castilian Spanish’s supremacy over other languages, and the representation of cultural and linguistic diversity as an issue.

One of the repressive strategies carried out by the current state government on Catalonia has consisted of putting legislative obstacles to the development of the Catalan language. We must bear in mind that the challenge for the Catalan society is to maintain its own language with a high ethnolinguistic vitality for community life and, therefore, as one of the basic identifying signs of its society. Those who speak Catalan as their first language also express themselves with an absolute fluency and without any difficulties in Spanish, according to the 2015 report on the Catalan language. Despite its resurgence, the Catalan language survives in a strongly adverse sociodemographic context, regarding its recognition and the right to its use, suffering continuous impositions of other languages and regulatory pressures from the Spanish government which strongly oppose to its use. The Spanish State refuses to fully recognize the Catalan language as an official language of the State and of the European Union. This situation is unique in the European Union and among developed countries with a democratic tradition.

Why is it happening?

Spanish nationalism is used by the PP to obtain anti-Catalan votes in the rest of the country, while keeping the main opposition party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español-PSOE) split into two groups that support, respectively, the plurinationality and the national unity of Spain. Thus, the PP, because of its conviction, convenience, or political profitability, keeps an immovable position, with a strict application of the law and a rigid interpretation of the Spanish Constitution.

Cataluna in Spain by TUBS. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Spanish financial oligarchy operates in complete symbiosis with the State’s political power. The degree of cronyism and corruption is very high (estimated at 80,000 million euros per year), and it serves their own interests and the irregular financing of the PP. For these and other reasons, the Spanish deficit has been growing unchecked in recent years and has a direct impact on the Autonomous Communities, which have had their incomes cut.

The territorial debate in Spain against the Catalan demands certainly is a very profitable asset for the Spanish government of the PP. Their policies aimed at confronting the Spaniards with the Catalans and arousing negative emotions against the Catalan people help the PP to remain in power.

At what moment does the polarization between Spain and Catalonia break out?

The current ethnopolitical conflict has a clear origin: the 2010 ruling against the statute of autonomy. The statute that the Catalans had accepted in a referendum was appealed by the PP who took it to the Spanish Constitutional Court–and this Court cut it mercilessly. This cut meant great frustration and humiliation for the Catalans and has had enormous consequences.

For seven consecutive years until today Catalonia has officially requested to hold a referendum on self-determination, to be carried out with the agreement and support of Spain, and has never obtained any answer other than “No.” After many difficulties and obstacles, this consultative referendum was held in Catalonia without the agreement of the Spanish Government on 1 October 2017. The forceful actions taken by the Spanish government during the whole day was brutal: the state police that the Spanish government moved from Madrid and other points of Spain to Catalonia raided polling places and confronted crowds of voters. Despite the outrageous aggression on this day, the vote for independence won by a landslide.

How can the current conflict be moderated?

Intractable ethnopolitical conflicts such as the one can be moderated through communication between the parties, but this requires respect, recognition, and attention to the demands of the minority group. That is, it depends to a greater extent on the dominant group. And, due to the reasons explained, this attitude of dialogue is impossible with the current government who have pushed the minority group to extreme positions to defend their interests. Having pushed the political situation to extremes, the big economic powers realize that this situation can harm them (as the International Monetary Fund [IMF] has expressed itself in this regard) and have begun to step in.

Even so, at the moment, the Catalan people, after the overwhelming result of the referendum of 1 October, are still waiting for the Catalan government to carry out the secession and declare Catalonia independent from Spain, or to decide to delay its decision.

Let us hope in today’s highly interconnected and globalized world Catalonia can only maintain greater sovereignty integrated in a Europe that shares and defends common values and diversity.

Featured image credit: 2012 Catalan independence protest on September 11th by Kippelboy. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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