Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy recently invoked Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, further fanning the flames of discord between the country’s central government and the pro-independence factions in Catalonia. This push for independence does seem to fit the pattern of separatist movements that have taken hold over the past decade across the globe – indeed, the Catalonian crisis draws eerie comparisons with the situation taking place in Hong Kong.
The two regions can be characterised in similar ways, with elements like their own language and system of governance that cause them to diverge with the culture of their mainland: undeniably, for both, nationhood is inextricably bound up with the idea of self-identity.
Both regions have also seen escalating tension with their central governments that have resulted in increased interference in their daily affairs – Spain’s Article 155 will result in the dissolution of the local Catalan government, with the central government extending control over news broadcast, media, and the police force. And again, we see a central government insisting that they are – by way of this increased control – only trying to curb illegal actions, not encroaching upon personal freedoms.
Understandably, such actions have only led to more upset amongst pro-independence seekers; Joshua Keating of the New York Times writes, “the preservation of existing countries ought to guide our thinking less than the well-being of the people who live within them”. Indeed, if a majority believes their democratic freedoms are under attack, or that they are being mistreated by their central government, it is understandable that they should rally for separation – the important part is that it should be a majority that wholly believes this the better solution.
In some ways, the Spanish central government has made the same mistake as the Chinese mainland government: the images of rows of riot police symbolically perpetuate the idea that they are stymieing, suppressive forces, detached from the wants of the people – in Spain, the violence against protesters effectively portrayed the central government as an aggressive force. Such violence also legitimises independence movements from the point of view of those who participate in it; such bifurcation of sides precipitates the creation of an almost good versus evil dichotomy, and further fuels independence movements.
Rajoy seems to be antagonising himself: the use of force against peaceful protesters is unquestionably wrong, and thus does urge support for the separatists. It is important, therefore, to look at the extent of the legitimacy of this dichotomy, and the intricacies of this movement and its causes.
A question that arises within this discourse is whether or not it is okay for a region to have and want independence. Reasons that possibly justify a separation could include instances where significant maltreatment or bloodshed by the hand of the central government is involved, or in cases where both sides have had a proper discussion and a way forward has been agreed upon.
In either case, the overwhelming will of the people is the initiating, propellant force – a region overwhelmingly believes it is too fundamentally different from its mainland to continue to coexist. Such a decision involves a clear definition of self-identity, something that is an entirely complex definition. José Andrés wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post, in which he states: “I was both a proud Spaniard and a proud Catalan – a seamless and symbiotic dual identity I’ve carried with me my entire life.”
This appears to be the case with much of Catalonia: Andrés’s article cites polls that show that 46% of Catalans feel equally Spanish as they do Catalan, compared with a mere 19% who say they feel only Catalan. Self-identity is complex, and one cannot and should not draw lines around regions in this way – Andrés’s article shows that people have multiple identities, melding strong cultural roots with their place of residence.
If a clear, detached self-identity is what galvanises a yearning for nationhood, it is not surprising that voter turnout was only around 43% at Catalonia’s recent referendum. It becomes clear also that a majority of Catalans are in fact opposed to independence. Paul Romeva, a foreign affairs spokesman, argued that the people of the region voted for independence and that the Spanish government ought to accept that – if a majority do indeed want independence, then certainly the will of the people ought to be heard out. Yet the aforementioned figures suggest otherwise.
Further, considering the central Spanish government has the backing of the EU they are put in a much stronger position; Spain won’t ease its grip because Catalonia is valuable to Spain, and because of the overall fear of dissolution that is currently prevalent across the European Union. But perhaps most importantly, the threat of dismemberment triggers an emphatic tightening of grip – by the government, but also by the people: Spanish flag sales are at an all time high, and op-eds such as Andrés’s expose the majority fear of the political, economic, and social consequences of disbanding.
And, if most Catalans feel as Spanish as they do Catalan, such a split would cause an identity crisis for many. In this way, Rajoy’s method of stirring up tumult works well for the anti-independence movement, as it creates a divide within Catalonia: whilst it galvanises the portion that want independence, it also galvanises, in reaction to the chaos, the majority who oppose independence. It can’t be denied that such conflict awakens fresh nationalism, which is needed for Spain to stay intact.
Martín Caparrós for the New York Times wrote, “to start as a new but divided country would be a recipe for disaster” – it is thus vital that Catalonia’s silent majority become a vocal majority. In Hong Kong, a united self-identity and purpose, communicated by a vocal majority, is an important factor that propels action and rationality of decision. It is perhaps necessary for the majority in Catalonia to convey their identity as a mixed, multi-dimensional one, if for nothing more than the well being of the majority.