Being united or the sense of being united into one larger mass is a fundamental aspect of the human experience. Many of us derive a sense of security and belonging when we are united as a group of people. The squabbling petty kingdoms of centuries past have given way to the large united countries we see today. Yet they are those who assert their independence and who believe that they are better off alone. At a time when unity is more important ever, the stakes have rarely been higher.
Spain is currently facing the biggest political crisis in 40 years as the region of Catalonia threatens to break away and form its own nation. Catalonia is one the most economically prosperous regions with the jewel in its crown being Barcelona. It is proud of its long history, its own language, and its unique identity. Now, however, tensions between Catalonia and Madrid have flared up.
Because of its unique traits, it’s no surprise that many in Catalonia wish to assert their independence. Fuelled by memories of Franco’s dictatorship, when their heritage was suppressed, Catalonia hopes to break away from Spain and become its own nation. Yet Catalonia is under no danger of cultural suppression and there are many Catalans who consider themselves Spanish first. So why now?
The answer is somewhat complicated and can be traced back to the rise of Catalonian nationalism, the recent recession and the election of a socialist, left-wing, pro-independence party have a great deal to do with the matter. The pro-independence is about as old as Spain’s democracy, if not older. It has enjoyed freedoms in good times and oppression in hard times. The slowdown of its economy in the recession certainly played a part in independence movements as did other separatist movements gaining strength. Scotland’s referendum is a recent and prominent example.
Of course, from Madrid’s view, Catalonia’s demands strike them as ungracious. After all, they reason, Catalonia already has full autonomy. It has its own police force, its own parliament, its own education and health policy. It even has its own political parties that campaign for Catalonia’s issues. Much like Northern Ireland, Catalonia is considered capable of governing itself with only some adult supervision. Yet now, Catalonia wants full independence and threatens to break away from their own country.
The Spanish government, under its conservative leader, aimed to stop the independence movement gaining momentum and quite literally went on the attack. In the midst of the referendum that took place two weeks ago, the police censored websites, raiding polling stations and injured hundreds of voters. The courts had previously declared any move towards independence illegally and now the government has invoked article 155 which initiates direct rule from Madrid.
If Madrid was hoping to calm tensions, they failed miserably. Their heavy-handed reaction speaks of panic in government and will only stoke tensions and harden the resolve of pro-independence figures. Despite calls for calm and unity, Madrid risks being cast as the villain, if it hasn’t already. Negotiations are very unlikely, but the conservative government was never going to make concessions to the independence movement.
Spain’s fears are understandable in a sense. If Catalonia gains independence, Madrid fears that the Basque region will attempt to follow. Having managed to come to a truce with the Basque separatist/terrorist group E.T.A, Madrid is worried that old tensions will flare up with devastating consequences. It is also concerned at losing a tourist hotspot and economically prosperous region while ensuring that its political union remains intact.
But direct rule from the capital is risky, as Britain knows from its own experiences with Ireland. The EU will be unhappy that such a crisis has arisen at such a delicate time and is reluctant to involve itself in a regional dispute. Article 155, invoking direct rule, is a measure of last resort and has never been used before in Spain.
Both sides are asking what they’ve done to deserve this situation. Madrid holds the constitutional advantage and it holds most of the power. However, its heavy-handed response thus far and its attempt to rule directly will rankle, just as Catalonia’s attempt to break away will rankle with Madrid.
In the end, no one truly wins. The long-term results of this dispute will rumble on for generations. Spain’s reputation for democratic freedoms and tolerance has taken a major hit, from which it may not recover. Europe and the world can ill-afford to have one of the greatest examples of democracy in action re-enacts shades of its fascist past.
Democracy is a fragile thing. Spain’s answer to Catalonia’s defiance is an example of how fragile it can be.