The reasons behind Barcelona’s massive demonstration for Catalonia’s independence

Catalan nationalism has changed over the years. Most Catalan nationalists have now concluded that Spain will never accept a plurinational state, will not fully respect Catalan language and culture, will continue threatening Catalonia’s self-government, and will not accept a reduction in Catalonia’s fiscal contribution to the rest of Spain, which annually represents between 6.4% and 8.7% of the Catalan GDP. Catalan nationalists are now tired of negotiating these issues and have come to the conclusion that Spain will never accept a comfortable place for Catalonia within the Spanish state. Now, 51% of Catalans citizens would vote for the independence in a hypothetical referendum.

Participants in Barcelona's massive demonstration supporting Catalonia's independence taking a train at Giron (by ACN)
Participants in Barcelona's massive demonstration supporting Catalonia's independence taking a train at Giron (by ACN) / CNA / Gaspar Pericay Coll

CNA / Gaspar Pericay Coll

September 11, 2012 06:29 PM

Barcelona (ACN).- Why are so many Catalans calling for independence from Spain? The reasons are manifold and relate to cultural, historical, political and economic aspects. The support for Catalonia’s independence has significantly increased in the last few years, fuelled by the economic crisis but also by the Spanish nationalism with its attacks against the Catalan language and its attempts to recentralise Spain. In fact, there has been a change within Catalan nationalism: many Catalans are deeply disappointed with Spain, they are tired of justifying Catalonia’s national status and language, and they have now abandoned all hope that the rest of Spain will try to understand their claims and find a comfortable place for Catalonia within a plurinational Spanish state, from a political, cultural and economic perspective.

In fact, in general terms, Catalan nationalism has been seeking agreements with the Spanish nationalists for the last 150 years, trying to find a comfortable place for the Catalan nation within the Spanish state. Independence supporters existed, but most of the time they were a minority within Catalan nationalism. Now, according to the latest poll conducted by the Catalan Statistics Institute (CEO), 51% of Catalan citizens would vote for the independence in a hypothetical referendum. It is the highest figure ever.

The 4 main reasons behind the current drive for Catalonia’s independence

There are four main reasons: little respect for Catalan language and culture; Spain’s lack of recognition of its plurinational nature; the attempts to recentralise Spain and trim Catalonia’s self-government; and, Catalonia’s excessive fiscal contribution to pay for investments and services delivered in the rest of Spain, an amount that official studies made by the Spanish Finance Ministry stated it represents between 6.4% and 8.7% of Catalonia’s GDP annually (between €13.1 billion and €17.8 billion). Recent political movements by Spanish nationalists have demonstrated the first three reasons. The economic crisis has emphasised the unfairness of the fourth reason, since now Catalonia cannot pay for its basic services and has the largest debt among the Autonomies despite continuing to transfer the largest amount of money to the rest of Spain and being a net contributor to the European Union for decades. Furthermore, after the fiscal redistribution, Catalonia has worse public services than subsidised regions.

In this scenario, traditionally Catalan nationalists would have tried to negotiate with the Spanish nationalists and smooth over the situation. In fact, the new fiscal agreement that the Catalan Government is trying to push forward but that the Spanish Government refuses to negotiate still applies this logic. However, a large part of the Catalan population is extremely tired of these negotiations and has given up all hope of an agreement. The Spanish Government’s refusal to even discuss a new fiscal agreement between Catalonia and Spain, similar to what the Basque Country and Navarra already have, reaffirms the exasperation of many Catalan nationalists trying to reform Spain. Most of them have given up trying and have concluded that the only solution is independence.

Spanish nationalism has historically tried to homogenise Spain

Spanish nationalism has never accepted the existence of the Catalan nation and has tried throughout history to homogenise Spain by eliminating Catalonia’s national identity, mainly its language and self-government institutions. Most of the time during the last three centuries, the Catalan language was banned and all the political power was transferred to Madrid. In the last 35 years, since the death of Franco, the return of democracy and the partial decentralisation of Spain through the Autonomies, Catalonia recovered its self-government institutions and Catalan language is taught in schools. However, many Catalans feel that Spanish nationalism continues with its attempts to homogenise Spain, marginalise Catalan language and trim Catalonia’s self-government institutions.

Taking into account the current democratic period in Spain, many political movements have tried to dilute Catalonia’s national identity. Firstly, while negotiating the Spanish Constitution, with most of the structures of Franco’s fascist and military dictatorship still in place, the Catalan national status was not fully recognised, neither the plurinational status of Spain. Instead the Constitution stated that “Spain is formed by nationalities and regions”. It was the first time that the term “nationality” was used in such way, and it was a clear reference to the Basque, Galician and Catalan nations, besides the Spanish nation, built around the old Castilla’s Kingdom.

A second attempt was with the creation of the Autonomous Communities. The Spanish Constitution did not foresee the creation of 17 Autonomous Communities. It automatically recognised the Basque and the Catalan, and it foresaw a special agreement for Navarra and Galicia. However, the rest “nationalities and regions” could eventually ask to become an Autonomous Community, but they could have also remained a territory directly run from Madrid. Andalusia pushed to get its own Autonomy and tensions begun. Finally, after the military coup of February 1981, the Spanish Government approved the creation of the 17 Autonomies. It recognised the specificity of the Basque Country and Navarra, able to raise their own taxes, but it included Catalonia with the rest, all sharing a common fiscal scheme. In political jargon, this was known as “café para todos” (translated as “coffee for all”), showing that despite not having asked to be an Autonomous Community some Spanish regions became one and Catalonia’s specificity was diluted into the “coffee for all” policy.

The first increase of independence supporters was in the early 2000s

However, the model was born immediately after Franco, and Catalan nationalism was hoping it would be able to negotiate a better arrangement in the future. This was the strategy in the 1980s and 1990s, trying to get more devolved powers from Madrid and building little by little strong self-government institutions and normalising the use of Catalan language within Catalonia. However, as Franco’s memories were starting to fade away, Spanish nationalism started to rise again. It was the time of the absolute majority of the People’s Party (PP) running the Spanish Government between 2000 and 2004. As an opposed reaction, the support for Catalan independence grew and the only party openly supporting Catalonia’s independence from Spain back then, the Left-Wing Catalan Independence Party (ERC), saw its electoral results double.

The Statute of Autonomy from 2006, an attempt to better fit Catalonia within Spain

As a reaction, Catalan nationalists, including those supporting independence and those defending Catalonia’s cultural and national specificities but not calling themselves “nationalists”, pushed for an institutional reform. This reform was a new Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia, which is the main law in Catalonia, a sort of Catalan Constitution defining Catalonia’s self-government institutions, their relation with Spain, and citizen rights and duties. Catalonia had a first Statute of Autonomy in 1932, in the Spanish Second Republic. It had a second one in 1979, negotiated just after Franco’s death and later affected by the Spanish Government’s “café para todos” policy approved in 1982. Therefore, the third Statute of Autonomy was the Catalan attempt to find this much sought comfortable place within the Spanish State, negotiated after 30 years of democracy, being within the European Union and NATO.

Spanish nationalism reacted against it

The new Statute of Autonomy was firstly negotiated in Catalonia between 2004 and 2005. It was approved by 89% of the MPs of the Catalan Parliament, all the parties except the People’s Party (PP). The Catalan proposal was then sent to Madrid to be negotiated at the Spanish Parliament. The proposal was badly received by the Spanish nationalists and also by most of the rest of Spanish citizens. Catalonia’s proposal had very little in the way of support from the rest of Spain. There were even boycott campaigns against Catalan products in the rest of Spain and the PP gathered signatures against the Catalan Statute of Autonomy.

Attacks on the Catalan language

In addition, the PP started to attack the Catalan language and school model. In fact, Spanish nationalism has benefited on many occasions from attacking Catalonia’s national identity and language. Despite that the Catalan school model has been praised as a good example of creating a bilingual community (mastering both Spanish and Catalan) by the European Commission and the UNESCO, the Spanish nationalists started to attack the model, sometimes with lies. The hostility has not stopped in all those years, and in fact in 2012 the Catalan school model, in place since 1983, has been severely threatened. Very few have been vocal about defending the Catalan language in the rest of Spain, not even intellectual figures or people who do not  consider themselves “Spanish nationalists”.

The Spanish State trimmed the Statute of Autonomy

Returning to the negotiations to reform the Catalan Statute of Autonomy, the Socialist Party (PSOE) which was running the Spanish Government at the time finally accepted to negotiate the proposal. The negotiations were long and were tiring for all Spanish citizens, Catalans included. Finally, the original Catalan proposal was trimmed and the Spanish Parliament approved Catalonia’s new Statute of Autonomy. In the new text, Catalonia was no longer recognised as a “nation” in its first article but it was mentioned in a mild way in a brief introduction with no legal weight. Furthermore, Catalans could not raise all their taxes as proposed originally. The text was then approved by a binding referendum by the Catalan people in 2006, but had already lost the support of the independence party (ERC), which campaigned for the “no”. However, the People’s Party (PP) appealed to the Constitutional Court over many articles. The Constitutional Court took 4 years to debate the appeal and finally it issued a sentence in late June 2010, in which the text approved by a referendum was severely trimmed. This was a step too far for many Catalan citizens, and it provoked the massive demonstration of July 10th 2010, in which more than a million citizens participated. In this demonstration many people were shouting for Catalan independence.

The crisis has unveiled the poor funding of Catalan services and infrastructures

In 2008, the Spanish Finance Ministry published the so-called fiscal balances, which reflect the contributions of the Autonomies Communities, with data from 2005, before the economic crisis. It was the first and only time the data was published, despite previous formal petitions from the Spanish Parliament and constant claims from the Catalan parties. The Spanish Government used two different principles, with different formulas each. The first principle was based on the cost/benefit, which was supposed to better reflect it at an individual level. Four different formulas were used. They showed that Catalonia was giving between 6.38% and 6.69% of its annual GDP to pay for services and investments made in other parts of Spain, excluding common services such as the Spanish army and ministries. This amount would represent between €13.1 and €13.5 billion nowadays. The second principle used was the monetary flow, which is the most commonly used principle while calculating statistics such as these. In the two formulas used, Catalonia was giving away between 8.69% and 8.70% of its GDP. The amount represents €17.8 billion. Studies made by the Catalan Government have concluded that in the last 20 years, Catalonia has been giving 8.5% of its GDP each year, which equates to approximately €17 billion per year using 2011 figures. Furthermore, after the fiscal redistribution, Catalonia was losing positions in the Spanish ranking of GDP per capita, even being below the average, while subsidised regions were above the average.

Catalonia gives away between 6.4% and 8.7% of its GDP each year

In 2011, the Catalan Government had a deficit of 3.7% of its GDP, some €7 billion. The deficit was reached despite significant budget cuts in public services, administration and investments. Catalonia started its budget cuts earlier than subsidised regions in Spain. Many Catalan taxpayers believe it is unfair they are contributing €17 billion to pay for the services in other communities while their services cannot even be paid for and the others are not making significant budget cuts. Therefore, Catalan nationalists are proposing to reduce Catalonia’s solidarity contribution to the rest of Spain, in order to not asphyxiate the Catalan economy and public services. The main trade unions and business associations in Catalonia support this claim. The rest of Spain seems not to listen to this claim and the Spanish Government is refusing to negotiate.

This, combined with the trimming of the Catalan Statue of 2010 and the attacks against Catalan language, mainly explains the 51% support of Catalonia’s independence and today’s massive demonstration. Many participants see this demonstration as the second part of that happening in July 2010. Then, the official claim was reaffirming Catalonia’s national status and asking for the self-determination right. This Tuesday’s demonstration directly asks for the independence.