This is my third fucking draft regarding this topic, and I’m really, really done with this shit. It’s my third draft because, while I haven’t been looking, the Spanish government managed – yet again – to go out of its way to do the most destructive thing it could possibly do under the circumstances. Because losing face would be so much more tragic than losing lives. Or something.
I feel compelled to write after all, because I have a friend from Madrid who urges me to see the other side. Not just any friend, of course, but a dear friend. A friend I would not want to lose. A friend whose attitude towards this situation I fail to understand completely, because I know her to be a good person, and I cannot reconcile how somebody who is supposed to be a good person could stand on the other side of this issue. Because there is one universal truth that cannot be ignored, best expressed in a German saying:
Reisende soll man nicht aufhalten.
It roughly translates as „travellers should not be stopped“. It means that if someone is going to leave, you will not convince them otherwise, not matter how hard you try. The traveller can be detained and incarcerated, but as soon as you let your guard down, they will try to break free. If they really want to go, no one and nothing can prevent it. It can go smoothly, like in Czechoslovakia, or not so smoothly, like in Yugoslavia. It can be a sound decision, or the simple result of centuries of resentment. And even if it is the latter, it might seem unfortunate, but that is irrelevant. In the last 25 years, nine new countries have come into existence. Some peacefully, most not. Some with sound reasoning and the economic power to stand alone, and some really not.
Again, looking over the list, everything is up for debate. Is this development economically sound? Are there historical precedents? Does it make sense at all? And sometimes the answers are no, no, and no. They are also completely irrelevant. They are asked mostly by those in power, because they want to hold on to said power. Even to this day, there are any number of white people telling us how much better Africa was off while under the ever so benevolent rule of European colonialists.
„But Catalonia is not a colony!“
I don’t know. How can you tell? Who did you ask? The Spanish? Please check your sources, some of them might be less than truthful. The fact is that Catalonia has suffered considerable ups and downs in its degree of independence. As part of the Kingdom of Catalonia and Aragon, so established after a spat with the Carolingian heir of France was ended in 1258, Catalonia enjoyed an almost entirely equitable relationship with the King of Aragon. The Catalan Courts (les Cortes Catalanes) practically invented democracy in Europe before even the Swiss could get around to it! As a Swiss person, I find that slightly discomfiting. While the civil war in the 1460s certainly created tension with the Aragonian crown, things did quiet down again – until Ferdinand II was married to Isabel la Católica, and it all went downhill.
For the first time, the crowns of Aragon and Castile were united. And with that unification – often considered the „dawn of Spain“ – ideas of centralisation were born. As a Swiss person, I find the very notion disastrous, of course, and as it turned out, so did the Catalans. While these efforts increased, Catalonia rebelled every so often, but the Spanish crown was largely an absentee landlord who let them do their thing in peace. It all finally went to shit when Charles II, last of the Spanish Habsburgs, died in 1700 without an heir. And while he had chosen Philip of the French house of Bourbon as his successor, Catalonia, along with the other houses that formed the Crown of Aragon, chose to back the Austrian Charles of the house of Habsburg. It was the fall of Barcelona on September 11th 1714 that ended the war and made Philip V the new King of Spain. Feeling betrayed by the Catalan Courts, he decided to end them. To this day, the Catalan national holiday is the 11th of September. So is Catalonia a colony? I don’t know. How do you define it? An argument can be made that the Catalans are a people who lost their autonomy to a foreign government. It doesn’t matter how badly (indigenous people outside of Europe) or how well (I don’t know, maybe Greenland?) they are treated, most colonies want to be rid of their foreign overlords.
„But that’s ancient history! No one cares!“
Not so fast. I did mention ups and downs. This was a down. There were ups there, too, most prominently during the short and glorious days of the Segunda Republica, from 1931 to 1939. This was the time of the first Statute of Autonomy, restoring the Catalan parliament, governing body, and, to some extent, the Courts. This brief respite ended with the Spanish Civil War, which we all know was won in 1939 by Hitler’s buddy, General Francisco Franco. Under Franco, who managed to hold on to his putrid power until his death in 1975, Catalonia’s language and culture were outlawed, in an effort to eradicate them. They shared this fate with Galicia (Galiza) and the Basque Country (Euskal Herria).
When Franco finally kicked the bucket, Spain returned to democracy. Or so we thought. The Generalitat was re-established, and Catalan culture came back with a vengeance. Today, Catalonia is one of the wealthiest and best developed components of Spain. It is the most compatible with Europe. Catalonia is doing fine, they will tell you. However. Catalonia is still Spain, beholden to its central government, that under Rajoy is in full… er… centralist swing. And now, it turns out, the independence movement that I first encountered in 1995, when I lived in Barcelona, is also still there. What’s more, there is now an addition to the leftist movement, and that is the bourgeois movement. Turns out, the capitalists also want out. Yes, they’re still pigs, but now they’re pro-independence pigs. So yeah, there are despicable people on both sides. But the fact remains: the Catalan independence movement is not new. It began at the loss of their independence. Go figure.
Let us also be aware that the people who remember living in Franquist Spain are still alive. There is a living memory of the brutal oppression suffered at the hands of Fascist Spain. It’s only been forty years; it is neither forgiven nor forgotten.
The Referendum and the Central Government’s Reaction
Could Spain handle the referendum any worse than it does at present? It’s hard to imagine, short of court-martialling and executing the elected government of the Generalitat. And speaking of elected governments, let’s not forget that it took two rounds of elections to even establish the current Spanish government, which in itself was only possible because PSOE (Socialist Party) abstained from voting. Yes, that does say a lot about its legitimacy. Because legitimacy is an issue here. The referendum, you see, was „illegal“, according to the Spanish government. Now, I don’t know if „illegal“ is the correct word under the circumstances. From what I know – the required two-thirds majority in the Catalan government was not reached – the referendum was certainly illegitimate and absolutely not legally binding, but that’s simply not the same as „illegal“. Given the illegitimacy of the referendum, and the absence of any legal ground to stand on, the Spanish government could have simply ignored both the polling and the outcome. They could have ignored it, maybe smirked a little, and nothing would have happened. Nothing.
Instead, Spain deployed its military police, the Guardia Civil, to prevent the polling itself. We have all seen the pictures. The Guardia Civil is the bluntest of instruments. The „mala leche“, the bad blood between the parties, is well known. The violence was completely predictable. So predictable, in fact, that it was most probably not accidental. Yes, I am compelled to assume that the violence was deliberate. Feel free differ to in your opinion.
We, the people outside of Spain, have seen what happened. A great many of us are appalled. I am appalled. The most fundamental democratic right is the right to vote, to have your voice heard. The violation of this most fundamental democratic right is the hallmark of tyranny. Had this happened in Turkey, the leaders of all EU countries would have condemned the excess of brutality. As it stands, they remain silent, probably waiting to see how the pieces – or the people – fall. Regardless of the illegitimacy of the referendum, there is nothing that justifies this behaviour from a government that sees itself as a democracy.
Quo vadis, Iberia?
And now? Is there a way out? Of course there is. The example of Czechoslovakia shows us that there is a way of separating amicably – if separation is the goal. And if Catalonia wants to leave at all costs, it definitely will. At all costs. Personally, I’d rather not see a civil war.
My Personal Stakes
I am neither Spanish, nor Catalan, nor indeed Galician or Basque. I am merely a person who lived in Barcelona and learnt to love its language, its people, its food. I will not deny that I was politicised in the Basque Country, with everything that entails. I am also the daughter of an Arab, whose accounts of the conflict between his native Egypt and neighbouring Israel were surprisingly nuanced. I am a person who does not understand territorialism. I am a child of Africa who looks upon Colonialism in horror. I am a person who understands that, if someone wants to leave, they will, no matter the cost to life, limb, or economy.
And I am asking you, Spain: why do you hold on to Catalonia so tightly? What have you to gain? Why, Spain, do you hate Catalonia so much, that you will rather destroy it than let it go?