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Place of the Year nominee spotlight: Catalonia

The Catalan independence movement was frequently in the news in 2017, earning Catalonia its place among the nominees for Oxford University Press’s Place of the Year. While tensions seemed to come to a head this year, the independence movement has a long history of clashes with the Spanish government, beginning with the separatist movements of the mid-19th century.

In this excerpt from Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction, Klaus Dodds discusses the regional sense of identity among communities including the Catalans and Basque in Spain and explains how this sense of identity interacts with Spanish attempts at nation-building.

If regional expressions of identity and purpose complicate the relationship between political entities and expressions of national identity, subnational groupings seeking independence or greater autonomy from a central authority also question any simple assumptions that identities are territorially bounded. Countries such as Japan and Iceland, which are virtually ethnically homogeneous have had less experience of subnational groupings challenging territorial legitimacy and associated claims to national identity. Within Europe, communities such as the Catalan community in Spain and the Walloons in Belgium continue to provide reminders that expressions of national unity and purpose are circumscribed and sometimes violently contested by other groupings that resent claims to a national identity or vision. Nation building is a dynamic process and states such as Spain have alternated between trying to repress and to accommodate competing demands for particular territorial units and representations of identity therein. Over the last 40 years, Spanish governments based in Madrid have granted further autonomy to the Catalan and Basque communities, at the same time as military officials have been quoted as noting that the country would never allow those regions to break away from Spain.

Statue of Felipe III and Casa de la Panadería, Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain by Carlos Delgado. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This apparent determination to hold on to those territories has in part provoked groups such as ETA (Basque Homeland and Freedom in English) to pursue terror campaigns that have in the past included bombings and attacks on people and property in the Basque region and major cities such as Madrid. Created in July 1959, it sought to promote Basque nationalism alongside an anti-colonial message which called for the removal of Spain’s occupation. The Spanish leader General Franco was a fierce opponent and used paramilitary groups to attempt to crush ETA. This proved unsuccessful and ETA continued to operate after his death in 1975, notwithstanding various attempts to secure a ceasefire in the 1990s. Most importantly, the group was initially blamed for the Madrid bombing on 11 March 2004, which cost the lives of nearly 200 people. Islamic militant groups rather than ETA were the perpetrators of the Madrid bombings (called ‘11-M’ in Spain). The then People’s Party government led by Prime Minister Jose Aznar, who had approved the deployment of Spanish troops to Iraq, was heavily defeated at the national election three days later. Interestingly, a national government haunted by low popularity attempted to blame an organization operating within Spain for a bombing that many believed to be a direct consequence of Spain’s willingness to support the War on Terror.

While the challenge to the Spanish state posed by subregional nationalisms remains, the use of terror probably receded as a consequence of the March 2004 attacks on Madrid. As with other regional movements, found in Catalonia and Galicia, groups such as ETA play a part in mobilizing narratives of identity which run counter to national stories about Spain and Spanish identities. The separatists unsurprisingly either target property and symbols emblematic of the Spanish state and its ‘colonial occupation’ or vigorously promote practices and expressions of difference such as languages, regional flags, and maps.

Featured image credit: “independence-of-catalonia-flag-spain” by lexreusois. CC0 via Pixabay.

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