Catalonia, the autonomous Spanish region, seventh most populous urban area in the European Union, and home of surrealist eccentric Salvador Dalí, is at odds with its ruling state. Or at least part of it is.
What’s the Deal with Catalonia?
The movement for independence has been ingrained in the Catalan political culture since the 19th century, and it developed the first pro-independence political party Estat Català, or Catalan State, in 1922. Pro-independence representation in seats of power has fluctuated over the past century, but the debate has reached a boiling point in recent years.
Incumbent Catalan President Carles Puigdemont is a devoted member of the Catalan European Democratic Party, characterized mainly by its unyielding support for Catalonia’s independence. In the past three years, Catalonia has held two separate (and according to the Spanish Constitutional Court, unconstitutional) independence referendums, and in each, the pro-secession vote dominated by an overwhelming margin. But in both cases, the voter turnout hovered around 42% which is largely underwhelming, even by American standards. This is can be explained by two reasons: Firstly, many opponents of Catalan nationalism refuse to participate in any referendum condemned by the national government. And secondly, the Spanish police engage in violent voter suppression to thwart the movement towards independence. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the numbers on both sides of the issue are likely to be vastly underreported. Thus the results could appropriately be interpreted as unreliable.
Nonetheless, the rickety coalition of parties constructed by the region’s leadership is set on independence and battening down the hatches for a rhetorical battle with the Spanish government. Days after the latest referendum, Puigdemont made an official declaration of independence; however, it came with a caveat. He revealed that the declaration will not become active for several weeks, and he was hasty to reach out to the national government with offers of negotiation. In response, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy issued an ominous ultimatum: Withdraw the declaration of Catalan independence, or Catalonia’s autonomy will be temporarily revoked. The Catalan government has not responded.
Is Secession Trending?
But to look at the bigger picture, a large, diverse nation is torn by a historically individualistic region that predictably yearns for outright independence. Does that sound familiar? Because it should.
Putting aside largely farcical independence movements such as California or Texas’s separation from the United States and far more intricate political minefields such as Taiwan or Palestine, the world might be diagnosed with a fever of secession. Scotland faced a similar situation in 2014. After considering many of the same political and socioeconomic factors that Catalonia is plagued with today, Scottish voters decided to remain apart of the United Kingdom by a ten point margin. Conversely, the UK voted to leave the European Union by a narrow three point margin just last year. Similar democratic, though not necessarily bloodless, departures include East Timor from Indonesia in 2002, Montenegro from Serbia in 2006, and South Sudan from the Republic of Sudan in 2011. However, not every goodbye is mutual. Some self-declared sovereign nations, including Kosovo, Northern Cyprus, and Western Sahara, are still very much in dispute with their former ruling states.
Is there a trend of independence? As political scientists put it, is there concrete evidence of a “contagion theory,” wherein one region with an independence movement inevitably infects others? Is the world ricocheting back from the Age of Imperialism, unintentionally but steadily dividing smaller and smaller among more homogeneous populations? Probably not. But as with Catalonia, caught in its whirlwind between the voters, the politicians and parties, and the competing governments, the final results have yet to be determined.