Can Catalan Independence Break on Through to Other Side?
With trials of imprisoned Catalan leaders planned later this year, the true believers for independence are convinced that momentum is on their side and new elections called in this context might just push independence over the magic figure of 50 percent.
For the seventh year in a row, the Catalan independence movement has once again demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for mobilization. Since 2011, every September 11 the movement has been able to bring around one million people onto the streets, usually of Barcelona. This is perhaps the single most important distinguishing characteristic of the push for Catalan sovereignty. There are few, if any, movements able to sustain such capacity for demonstration, year by year.
Yet paradoxically this annual commemoration is expressive of both the movement’s strengths and its weakness. The Catalan independence movement has built an optimistic narrative about the ease of separation from Spain. This optimistic story is celebratory and found full expression every September 11. Next year is always going to be the year of separation. Optimism was also evident in the belief that Catalonia could depart from Spain un-traumatically and would be welcomed with open arms as a new member state of the European Union. Finally, even though pro-sovereignty forces won parliamentary elections in Catalonia in 2015 with 47 percent of the vote, the movement told itself that this was enough.
This eternally optimistic narrative clashed with political reality on 1 October 2017. After another vast demonstration on September 11 preparation was underway for a referendum on independence which the Spanish authorities deemed illegal. The referendum-mobilization of October 1 produced a turnout of around two million (43 percent of voters) but global attention focussed on the often brutal Spanish police violence that marred that day.
Within days, the European Union made its position clear. It did not support Catalan secession but rather the unity of Spain. Two theses the movement told itself had proven to be gravely mistaken. Separation would not be easy, and the European Union had little or no sympathy. Yet the pro-independence government felt it could not stop the momentum and made a rhetorical declaration of independence on October 27, 2017. Within hours, members of the Catalan government fled the country or were arrested soon after. This phase was completed in late December 2017 with new elections held in Catalonia when, once again, Catalan independence obtained 47 percent of the vote.
Since December 2017, we can say that the movement for Catalan independence is emotionally grieving. The police violence of 1 October is constantly replayed on social media and Catalan television. More notable is the emotional grievance around the imprisonment of civic and political leaders by the Spanish authorities. These grievances are particularly intense because they demonstrate that the strategy pursued between 2012 and 2018 failed. In spite of repeated attempts at civil disobedience, momentum soon faded, and a mooted “Catalan Spring” came and went largely without incident. Yellow is now the color of social trauma, and most energy is centered around the marking of public space with yellow ribbons recalling the imprisoned leadership.
The movement is internally divided about how best to proceed. What we might call the realist wing of Catalan independence believes the movement must consolidate support. Without international support and with Spain refusing to countenance secession, the only option is to build upon the 47 percent. This realistic narrative is also seen as necessary because around half of Catalans have shown they are opposed to independence. Thus, the only way forward is to convince skeptical Catalans of the merits of secession.
However, the realist wing is rivaled by what we can call the true believers. At present, the true believers are more firmly in control of both the Catalan government and the broader movement. The true believers advocate doubling down on the strategy pursued till now, and that one last heave will produce the separation from Spain that failed in October 2017. Criticism of this approach is often framed as a betrayal of the cause and those injured by the Spanish police.
Paradoxically, the realist wing should be in the ascendant. Since June 2018, the Spanish government has been in new hands, the social democrats of the PSOE supported externally by the leftist Podemos. This Spanish government has been active in terms of recognizing grievances but has been unable to address the greatest grievance of all: the imprisonment of the pro-independence leadership. With trials of these leaders planned later this year, the true believers are convinced that momentum is on their side and new elections called in this context might just push independence over the magic figure of 50 percent. For the current Catalan government then, escalating the tension is seen as the only hope for Catalan independence to break on through to the other side and for Catalonia to become an independent state.