The View from Catalonia

The Ins and Outs of the Independence Movement

People hold Catalan separatist flags during a gathering to mark the Calatalonia day "Diada" in Barcelona, September 11, 2014. Albert Gea / Courtesy Reuters

Over the past few years, the number of Catalans who wish for independence from Spain has skyrocketed. Until the early 2000s, a steady 10–15 percent supported independence; now, according to recent opinion polls, that percentage is closer to 50 (with 30 percent opposing and the rest either abstaining or offering no opinion). Support for independence does not wane even when those surveyed are told that it could result in exclusion from the European Union. And even those who don’t necessarily prefer a separate Catalonia agree that the question should be put to a vote: Four out of five Catalans favor holding a referendum, as do trade unions, most business associations, and hundreds of civil society organizations.

Many cite the global financial crisis as the proximate cause of Catalan discontent. From that point of view, the drive for independence is simply another manifestation of the populist movements sweeping across Europe. To be sure, the economic grievances that come from being a part of Spain may have persuaded many to support independence. But this is not their main motive. Instead, the desire to break away is a symptom of deep-rooted flaws in the configuration of the Spanish state.

For starters, Spaniards and Catalans disagree on the basic terms of the debate. Spain views itself as a pre-ordained historical enterprise, of which Catalonia is a mere appendage -- one of several parts of an unquestionable whole. Catalans, on the other hand, have always defined themselves as a nation, one with a long and successful run as an independent polity until it was absorbed by a more powerful state with substantially different cultural mores and structures of governance.

When Catalonia came under the rule of Spanish monarchs at the turn of the sixteenth century, an uneasy balance was established between the Catalan tradition of self-governance and the crown’s desire to wield absolute power over its possessions. What began as a political confederation among equals gave way to a gradual takeover of Catalonia by Spain. In 1714, as

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