“As I stroll through the city of Barcelona, I see the flashes of yellow all around- unaware of the controversial politics that this yellow ribbon proclaims.”
On 14 October 2019, the conviction of nine pro-independence leaders came from the Spanish, reigniting worldwide protest supporting the Catalan Independence movement. This sentencing, seen by some as “an act of vengeance, not of justice” (Catalan President Quim Torra), while others who are attempting to unify the country, like Spain’s acting president Pedro Sánchez defended the decision and emphasized “security, coexistence, and respect to democratic legality”.
But how did we get here? What are the underlying tensions of the 2017 referendum, and how did it escalate to what we’re seeing today?
To the outside world, Catalonia is often seen as another region of Spain, identifiable by its main city of Barcelona. But to Catalonians, they see their region as one of Spain’s wealthiest, bringing in 19% of the country’s GDP and more than a quarter of Spain’s foreign exports (“Could Catalonia Make Independence?”). To many Catalan nationalists, they claim “Madrid nos roba”, or “Madrid is robbing us”, emphasizing the uneven amount of taxes Catalonia pays versus what is spent on the region (Could Catalonia Make Independence?”).
Catalonia’s fight for independence also stems from the fear of assimilation and eventually absorption of their distinct culture. Catalan citizens pride themselves on their unique flag, history, language, and lifestyle, something often seen suppressed or even erased from the Spanish government.
While this unrest around independence is not new, the Spanish Constitutional Court ruling around the 2006 Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, a law passed in the Catalan community, approved by Spain’s parliament, and ratified via a Catalan referendum, laid the ground for bold strokes towards Catalan independence (Calamur). The seemingly harmless ruling on 28 June 2010 struck down 14 of the statute’s 223 articles, while also restraining another 27 articles.
This ruling, however, sparked immediate protests. Argelia Queralt Jiménez, a lecturer in constitutional law at the University of Barcelona, said the decision was “understood as an act of contempt against the will of the Catalan people expressed by its Parliament and a referendum”. The Court’s decision brought then president of Catalonia to call for an independence referendum in 2014, which passed with about 80% voting yes- but only 37-41% of voters came out for the referendum. Soon after, the Spanish Constitutional Court stepped in again to make the vote nonbinding.
A second referendum, which is the basis for the nine convictions seen on 14 October, was held 1 October 2017, despite strong steps from the Spanish government to stop the vote. While the 43% turnout is seen as a lack of interest or even opposition to the vote, the Spanish government’s crackdown is the main cause of this low turnout (Calamur). Despite these strong actions, 90% of those who voted supported the separation, and the separatist majority declared independence on 27 October. Shortly after, Spain utilized the “nuclear option” by approving the employment of Article 155, which gives the government the authority to directly rule Catalonia. Public officials were shoved out of power, giving way for their unsanctioned referendum to become their criminal liability.
These actions, charged as sedition (sedición) and misuse of public funds (to run the unsanctioned referendum), brought the nine public leaders to trial, in addition to the three officials who also received guilty verdicts for disobedience. They received no jail time but instead were served with a 60,000 euro fine (approximately 66,597 American dollars).
While these crimes seem to have received just convictions under the applicable laws, there is an undemocratic nature to laws that restrict Catalonia’s right to self-determination. While the concern for international precedent is viable and real, these concerns cannot preclude Catalan citizens from determining their own fate without intervention and intimidation.
For many the recent convictions of political officials are a breaking point, setting undemocratic precedent that may create fragmentation difficult to return from. Speaker of the parliament, Roger Torrent, speaks to this concern in a “letter to hundreds of politicians, parliament speakers, and international organizations, mostly in the EU”; Torrent argues that the ruling “establishes a very worrisome precedent”, as it “criminalizes” the exercise of Catalonia’s fundamental rights (“Parliament speaker warns ‘criminalization’”).
This encroachment on the citizens’ democratic rights speaks to the consistent pattern of government, particularly Constitutional Court, interference, which raises an important question on the level of sovereignty a regional power such as Catalonia has. In order for democracy to work effectively, their must be a general buy-in from citizens about their country’s ability to effectively run the government. Without this national unity, apathy or even distrust is sure to come. However, unity cannot be forced, and if Catalan citizens do strongly desire independence, is it within the confines of democracy to restrict them?
Acn. “Parliament Speaker Warns of ‘Criminalization’ of Fundamental Rights in Letter to World Leaders.” Catalan News, Catalan News, 24 Oct. 2019, https://www.catalannews.com/catalan-trial/item/parliament-speaker-warns-of-criminalization-of-fundamental-rights-in-letter-to-world-leaders.
Acn. “9 Pro-Independence Leaders Convicted to 9 to 13 Years in Jail for Sedition.” Catalan News, Catalan News, 14 Oct. 2019, https://www.catalannews.com/catalan-trial/item/9-pro-independence-leaders-convicted-to-9-to-13-years-in-jail-for-sedition.
Calamur, Krishnadev. “The Spanish Court Decision That Sparked the Catalan Independence Movement.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 4 Oct. 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/10/catalonia-referendum/541611/.
“Catalonia’s Bid for Independence from Spain Explained.” BBC News, BBC, 18 Oct. 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-29478415.
“Could Catalonia Make a Success of Independence?” BBC News, BBC, 22 Dec. 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-41474674.
Newton, Creede. “What Is Article 155 of the 1978 Spanish Constitution?” News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 27 Oct. 2017, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/10/article-155-spanish-constitution-171019100117592.html.