Independence and Catalunya

La Estelada - the Catalan Independence Flag

Catalunya and Spain are waking up this morning to a new Catalan government which, if it delivers on its electoral promises, will unilaterally declare independence from Spain within 18 months.

The campaign has been highly political, focusing on (justified) cultural problems with the Spanish state. Unfortunately, it has almost completely avoided any detailed, rational analysis of how independence will be achieved, and the consequences of that path. This is in part because the Spanish central government has forbidden any true referendum on independence, and has also used legal means to block funding for any local government activity that might conceivably be used to support any referendum in future.

There are huge practical barriers to independence, in terms the legality of any declaration of independence (particularly given the Spanish constitution), issues such as European membership, subsequent trade and economic effects (most of Catalunya’s trade is with the rest of Spain), and innumerable practical problems to do with the minutia of state operations such as pensions and residency rights that most people forget exist. I strongly doubt that anyone has a clear idea of what all this will mean in reality, not least the electorate.

The vote was very close, and due to a quirk of the electoral system, Catalunya has elected a majority government for independence with 48% of the vote. So while there is now a political commitment to declare independence, more than half of those who voted either reject or are ambivalent to the issue – had there been an actual referendum, the independence campaigners would have lost. Expect the resulting cloud of uncertain democratic legitimacy to be played on heavily by the central Spanish government as political battle commences.

This has also been a geographically divisive election, with much stronger support for independence in the North than from cosmopolitan Barcelona or the South.

At first glance, Pyrenean Catalunya is a tapestry of peacefully picturesque villages with wonderful old building and beautiful landscapes:

But looking around today in Rupit and Besalú  you could not fail to notice everywhere the Catalan Estelada (the independence flag). Towns such as these are the mainstay of the Catalan independence movement, and I do not think that we saw a single Spanish flag.

In Rupit, there was traditional dancing and music – the Catalan Sardanas. It is a disarmingly quaint and harmless scene, yet it is also a deeply symbolic reminder of the cultural and linguistic difference with Spain that powers the independence movement.

The current political situation in Catalunya is the direct result of this strong sense of local culture battling against a right-wing Spanish central goverment that appears actively hostile to it through ill-considered legislation such as that of the Wert educational reforms and an agenda that actively seeks to impose Spanish (Castilian) and centralised norms.

From the Catalan perspective, this is simply a continuation of an oppression that started 300 years ago and which failed to end with the fall of Franco.

Sardanas, Rupit, Catalunya

There will be a lot of people looking nervously at the consequences of todays elections, including many in other countries with similar nationalist movements.

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