By Frederick Hemans | October 17, 2017
The violent police response to mass protests following a contested independence vote brought the issue of Catalonian Secession to the attention of many around the globe. While much and more has been written in the media about the different players and events, it is important to hear from voices directly affected by the political unrest in the region. I sat down with second-year GPS graduate student Yuri Corbera to hear directly the grievances against the central Spanish government, and an argument for an independent Catalan state.
F.P. Hemans: So overall, do you support independence for Catalonia, and if so, why?
Yuri Corbera: Yes, I support Catalan Independence. There are different perspectives as to why people are supporting or not supporting independence. One main reason is national identity, our languages and traditions, and our lifestyle. However, I don’t mean to say that I favor independence simply because we differ in culture and historically we were a separate nation in the past. There are strong economic arguments as well. Catalonia is currently approximately 25% of the Spanish GDP, and there is a huge fiscal deficit in the region.
F.H.: A Spanish fiscal deficit?
Y.C.: A fiscal deficit in the sense that Catalonia contributes so much to the Spanish state in comparison to the services returned. There are many cases of this across the globe, where rich parts contribute a disproportionate amount to the national GDP, like areas in Germany and the UK.
F.H.: And not to mention the state of California
Y.C.: Yes, exactly. But the case of Spain and Catalonia is different because there is a loss of almost 10% of the Catalonia GDP every year compared to output versus input from the state. The issues of identity and economics are the main drivers, but these are not new issues. Let me tell you something, the independence movement has always been there, but the percentage of support has not been as large as it is currently. The percentage has been growing over the past 7 years.
Y.C.: Catalonia is an Autonomous Community of Spain, which has this designations since Franco and has its own parliament and government. This is similar to the Basque community in another part of Spain. The Basque case may be much more well known around the world because its independence movement is associated with violence, whiles ours is not. Sadly, violence can create more global awareness and sometimes sympathy. This violence and repression goes back to the Franco regime, in Basque country but also Catalonia, where it was forbidden to speak the Catalan language in the streets, to wear to colors of the nation in the streets
F.H.: There is still a lot of residual effects of Franco’s regime, 40 plus years after his death?
Y.C.: Overall yes, the king today is the son of a Franco appointee, and the Partido Popular (Spanish People’s Party, the main right-wing party of Spain) is a party comprised of people with deep connections to the Franco government, descendants and otherwise.
The inflection point was in 2006, when the autonomous community of Catalonia voted on a new statuto, like a constitution. Spanish politicians like then president Zapatero and current Prime Minister Rajoy initially stated that they would support the new statuto. After many months of tough negotiations, there was a good agreement put in place in Catalonia. However, everything had to be ratified by the Spanish parliament. The parliament did not accept this, and cut much of the agreement made by the Catalonian government, and then what was remaining of the statuto went to the Spanish Constitutional Court, where it was further changed and altered. Basically, we ended up with almost the same constitution that was previously in place, which angered many in Catalonia and served as the main inflection point for the rise of the independence movement. This seems contrary to the democratic values in Europe and elsewhere.
There has been also too much influence and meddling from the Spanish government concerning issues with Catalan language, education, and the judiciary. They have been pushing the Catalan political parties and government towards independence for many years. Since this inflection point in 2006, every year millions of people have been protesting, peacefully, and asking for independence. As the movement gained power, there was a vote in 2014, a non-binding resolution, in which they also voted yes for independence. However, there was a low voter turnout, so the Catalonian parliament stated that they needed another vote, to take place this year (2017).
You must note that right now in Catalonia, the main political parties, on the right and left, are unified in their support of independence. This is unprecedented and shows that there is a unified push for independence.
F.H.: Moving on to the recent protests, why was there such a violent reaction by the Spanish Federal Police?
Y.C.: 2 weeks before the vote, the Spanish police have been tracking ballots, tracking the papers, even putting people in jail who are organizing the referendum. On the day of the referendum, they deployed almost 10,000 police officers to Catalonia to stop the vote, but they found huge amounts of people queuing to vote, peacefully, and then they began to use violence to try to disperse the crowds.
F.H.: So where do you see this situation heading now?
Y.C.: I see this going only two ways. One is that the Catalan government declares independence unilaterally, or engages in negotiations directly with the Spanish government (Author's note: since this interview Catalonian leader Carles Puigdemont has declared independence but suspended independence implementation, to try to negotiate directly with the Spanish government). The Spanish government could choose instead to dissolve the Catalan parliament and establish a new parliament under more direct Spanish control, but this is unlikely.
F.H.: How would you respond to the argument that Catalonia achieving independence sets a dangerous precedent, that parts of sovereign nations, especially economically powerful ones, can simply declare remove themselves and create an independent state if they have conflicts with the larger state?
Y.C.: If you are a democracy, your sovereignty is in your population. There is nothing more democratic than a referendum. If there are parts of the population that want independence, put it to a vote. You can look at the case of Scotland, a peaceful independence vote that was accepted by the UK. Quebec as well. There have been many cases in recent history, of peaceful referendums by distinct parts of a larger country. Nations and peoples have the right to self-determination, not to mention the right to peacefully demonstrate.
I believe that this situation is critical for Europe, perhaps even more so that Brexit. The European Union fears that they would lose Catalonia as a member, but this is not the case. I feel Catalonia is very committed to be a part of Europe and the EU. But there needs to be more support from Europe, to condemn the use of violence and suppression of rights of the people of Catalonia.
Catalonia is a complex region that in many effects may still be reeling from the cultural repression under Franco, and which they see a continuation of in the current politics of right-wing Prime Minister Rajoy. The arguments for people’s rights to self-government are long established in many places across the globe, but to what extent do we extend these rights to include secession from larger, possibly unpopular centralized governments? Would Catalonian independence lead to a more fractious Europe, splitting more nations and destabilizing much of the political and economic progress of the last thirty years. In this article, we aimed to present one specific view. It may serve as a reminder that as a globally focused school, the students sharing our classrooms from around the globe may feel the direct effects of global events, and can offer us unique perspectives into complex issues.
Frederick Hemans is a second year MIA student at UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, and is the Director of Content at JIPS. His area of study is on international environmental policy and global common resources.