On September 6, the government in Catalonia announced that it was going to hold a vote on October 1 to decide whether the region should secede from Spain and become a nation-state unto itself in the form of a republic. It also announced that should the people choose independence, the government would declare secession within 48 hours. Spain’s constitutional court declared the vote unconstitutional, and the central government in Madrid said that it would attempt to stop the vote. Neither side backed down. The Spanish government seized ballots and tried to shut down polling places, resulting in violence that left over 840 people injured. The vote still took place, with nearly 90 percent voting for independence. In response, pro-secession protests occurred throughout Spain and a general strike was called across Catalonia. Spain and the European Union have rejected Catalonia’s requests for mediation, and King Felipe VI has denounced the secession movement. Twelve observations on these events follow.

1. One cannot understand the present without knowing the past. The formation of the current Spanish state can be dated to 1469, when the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were united by the marriage of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. Under their leadership, the last Muslim rulers were expelled from Spain, Christopher Columbus was sent to the New World, and royal power was centralized at the expense of local nobility. Even so, Spain has always been a multi-ethnic state, composed of Basques, Catalans, Galicians, and others. In the 19th century, nationalist feelings among these groups grew. These aspirations took a back seat during the Cuban War of Independence, Phillipine Revolution, and Spanish-American War. Regions of Spain were granted greater autonomy in the Second Spanish Republic (1931-39), but this was brutally repressed during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship (1939-75), such that people were not even allowed to give their children Basque, Catalan, Galician names. After Franco’s death, Spain was turned into a semi-federal state with 17 autonomous communities, some of which have their own languages and cultures, as Catalonia does.

2. The Catalan independence movement cuts across ordinary political lines. Some people in Catalonia believe that independence would bring order to the region’s finances, or make taxes paid by Catalonians provide more benefit to Catalonians. Others are migrants who became involved with the Catalan movement and have no loyalty to the government in Madrid. Still others have particular political objectives that they believe to be easier to achieve on a smaller scale, such as an independent Catalonia rather than the entirety of Spain. In American terms, the parties which are in a temporary alliance to achieve independence run the gamut from the Constitution Party to the Green Party.

3. The harder one clenches one’s fist, the more sand slips through one’s fingers. For the Madrid government, responding with peaceful dismissal of the independence vote would have been more effective. Instead, they met peaceful efforts by Catalans with violence. In the words of a Spanish politician, “We have given them the pictures they want.” By forcefully opposing the self-determination of Catalans, the Spanish government is pushing swing voters toward the independence movement, as such actions raise the specter of Franco that is still remembered, particularly among older people. Furthermore, the creation of a new state is much easier if existing states recognize it, and images for foreign consumption of people trying to vote and being hit with truncheons and shot with rubber bullets for it will create pressure on other governments from their people to recognize Catalonian independence.

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