I had the great fortune, from 1992 to 2008, to visit Catalonia for one reason or another every two years on average. On occasions it was for research work (democracy in regions, multilingual systems and so on); once for a conference; once to visit the centres for “linguistic normalisation”; occasionally just on holiday. I stayed with families there, worked in offices there, lunched with friends there, and so on.
For all that, I am not remotely qualified to comment on the current situation there, even though I am in direct contact with residents and activists in and around Barcelona.
Nevertheless, I have to say that people who are even less qualified to comment are, for some reason usually linked to justifying their own political positions in their own home regions, choosing to do so. People are free to comment as they please, of course, but uninformed (or worse still misinformed) comment is becoming a serious problem of our age. We are not in fact imparting knowledge or ideas, but rather reinforcing misconceptions. This is not good.
It is not good not least because it leaves no room for moderation. On one hand, we have the straightforward argument (advanced broadly by the Spanish Right) that independence referendums are unconstitutional and thus illegal. On the other, we have the notion that “self-determination” is both absolute and a synonym for “freedom”.
At great risk of wading into uninformed waters, I will address that latter first. Catalonia has not remotely begun to prepare for independence. The process of forming an independent state there would make Brexit look like a cake walk. Basic issues, like the fact a significant minority of the population are not Catalan, are simply wished away. The reverse is also true – many of the culturally “Catalan lands” are not in Catalonia. Even staunch Catalans had in fact generally if uneasily talked up “sovereignty” rather than “independence”, implicitly understanding the former to mean an equal place for Catalan language and culture in a federal Spain rather than the creation of a new nation state – a much tidier outcome given that “Catalonia” and “Catalanismo” have obviously distinct boundaries. So people abroad arguing for “Catalan freedom” as if there was a longstanding and well planned desire in Catalonia for outright independence are merely casting their own prejudices on to Catalonia, without any real interest in the complexities of the region or indeed the interests of its people at all.
Of course, the same applies in reverse. Simply to declare an independence referendum “unconstitutional” is bizarre – by definition (with the noble recent exceptions of Canada and the UK) independence/separation will always be unconstitutional, as it is in itself an expression that the constitution is deemed to have failed. Despite the removal of some polling boxes and the violence at some stations, it seems around 38% of the Catalan electorate voted for independence – compare 37% who voted for Brexit in the UK! That fact can never be undone. Given the choice of remaining within Spain under the current constitutional arrangement (which does not give Catalans, as they see it, linguistic and cultural equality), or leaving it, a lot and indeed probably a majority of Catalans would rather leave.
The blame game is also unhelpful. The failure of the Catalan police to follow legal direction is extremely worrying, and should concern anyone considering trying to build a new sovereign nation-state there. The more globally obvious failure of the Spanish police to follow that direction without allowing and even resorting to violence leaving hundreds injured has caused Spain a serious reputational problem made only more serious by its government’s apparent failure to recognise it.
A solutions game would be more helpful. It remains fundamentally the case that neither side – broadly “Catalonia” (represented by the Catalan regional government) and “Spain” (represented by the Centre right minority government of Mariano Rajoy) – really wants Catalonia to have to leave Spain, but this would now be an inevitable consequence of inaction. Yet it is extremely dubious whether the current leaders on either side are willing to look at the requisite action as this would inevitably require compromise – something which, sadly in the modern world, is rarely politically popular.
How they pull back from the brink with the fingers hovering over the button remains unclear, and that is Catalonia’s tragedy. On this day of unity, let us just hope that this region of sublime high culture can find some clarity in the days and weeks ahead.