Dispatch

Catalonia Can’t Quit Madrid

But separatist parties hope upcoming elections will revitalize the independence movement.

Demonstrators silhouetted with the sun in the background wave Catalan pro-independence Estelada flags during a protest in Barcelona in 2019.
Demonstrators silhouetted with the sun in the background wave Catalan pro-independence Estelada flags during a protest in Barcelona in 2019.
Demonstrators wave Estelada flags in support of Catalan independence during a protest in Barcelona on Feb. 16, 2019. Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images

ALTAFULLA, Spain—Halfway up a lamppost on a residential street flutters a tattered gold-and-red-striped Estelada, the flag that has long been a proud statement of identity in Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia.

ALTAFULLA, Spain—Halfway up a lamppost on a residential street flutters a tattered gold-and-red-striped Estelada, the flag that has long been a proud statement of identity in Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia.

Now, though, for local retiree Mei Francisco, the Estelada’s faded colors serve only as a reminder of the declining fortunes of the Catalan independence movement. “It’s like this,” she said, before mimicking a deflating balloon.

A few years ago, that flag was one of many in the small Mediterranean coastal town, which lies between Tarragona and Barcelona, square in the Costa Daurada. Separatist parties ran the town council while activists marched to the Catalan flabiol and tambori—pipe and drum—in favor of independence in the run-up to Catalonia’s contested 2017 independence referendum, which sparked a constitutional crisis and a harsh crackdown by Spanish authorities.

Little trace of that movement now remains. Pro-independence parties are out of power, the flags have been reduced to a few solitary rags, and dreams of independence seem but a distant memory. “How could we be on our own?” said Maite Ferrer, a local resident and former independence voter. “We need to be part of something bigger these days—of Europe and Spain.”

Throughout Catalonia, support for separation from Spain has dwindled in the face of the failure of pro-independence politicians to secure their vision, along with a growing perception of a world that is growing more hostile to small nations. Just how far the separatist bubble has deflated, though, will be put to the test next weekend, when voters across Spain cast their ballots in municipal elections—a vote that could also show the direction Catalonia is headed before nationwide general elections in December.


A large crowd of protesters wave Spanish and Catalan flags during a demonstration called by Catalan Civil Society under the motto "Catalonia yes, Spain too" in Barcelona in 2017.
A large crowd of protesters wave Spanish and Catalan flags during a demonstration called by Catalan Civil Society under the motto "Catalonia yes, Spain too" in Barcelona in 2017.

Protesters wave Spanish and Catalan flags during a demonstration called by Catalan Civil Society under the motto “Catalonia yes, Spain too” in Barcelona on Oct. 12, 2017. The protest was a show of unity in the face of Catalan independence efforts, after the central government gave the region’s separatist leader a deadline to abandon his secession bid. Jorge Guerrero/AFP via Getty Images

“We promised something, and we couldn’t deliver,” said Antoni Castellà, the councilor for institutional relations at the Council of the Catalan Republic, leaving Catalans feeling “angry and disappointed.”

The council was set up in 2018 as Catalonia’s government in exile by the region’s former president, Carles Puigdemont, after he fled Spain for Belgium to avoid arrest for his central role in organizing the 2017 referendum. The council continues today as a Catalan pressure group in Brussels, arguing the independista cause in the European Union capital while awaiting a change of fortune back home, where Puigdemont still faces arrest if he were to return.

Politicians such as Puigdemont appeal to a Catalan identity stretching back to the Middle Ages, when the Crown of Aragon—a great sea power that included the Principality of Catalonia—rivaled the power of the Castilian monarchs in Madrid. Tensions with Madrid worsened after Aragon was united with Castile in 1479, culminating in Catalonia’s 1714 defeat in the War of the Spanish Succession, which ended its political independence.

In the 300 years since, Catalonia has retained a separate identity, culture, and language, no matter how many times Madrid has tried to quash them. In 1932, the Second Spanish Republic restored Catalonia to a degree of regional autonomy that its leaders had been advocating for, and already achieved to varying degrees, since the late 19th century.

However, with the republic’s defeat in the Spanish Civil War, Catalonia’s identity was ruthlessly suppressed under Gen. Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. After his death and the return of democracy in Spain, Catalonia received a statute of autonomy in 1979 and continued to be an influential force in Spanish politics, holding varying degrees of power at different times, depending on the makeup of the Spanish parliament. “When the Spanish government needed Catalan support, they’d give in to Catalan demands,” said Ana Sofía Cardenal, a politics lecturer at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC) in Barcelona.

In 2006, during the rule of a Socialist government in Madrid that was more sympathetic to Catalan rights, a new statute of autonomy, which would give Catalonia more cultural and political rights, was approved by both the Catalan and Spanish parliaments and by a referendum in the region. But the Spanish Constitutional Court gutted the statute in 2010 before it could be instituted, triggering a wave of mass protests and demands for independence, or at least el dret a decider—the right to self-determination—that built in subsequent years.

By 2012, a poll by the Catalan government-run Center for Opinion Studies (CEO) showed support for independence had grown to 57 percent. This momentum also drove Catalan political parties on both the left and right into an unprecedented coalition for independence.

“There seemed to be an inevitability about independence back then,” said Kenneth McRoberts, a professor emeritus at York University in Toronto and the author of Catalonia: The Struggle Over Independence. Mass protests became commonplace in Barcelona and even in seaside towns such as Altafulla. The 2012 agreement by the U.K. government to hold a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 only added to this sense that secession was in the cards for Catalonia.

A crowd of protesters, some carrying flags, try to break a metal security barrier as they gather in front of the Spanish government's local office in Girona. On the other side of the fence are 10 police officers in riot gear.
A crowd of protesters, some carrying flags, try to break a metal security barrier as they gather in front of the Spanish government's local office in Girona. On the other side of the fence are 10 police officers in riot gear.

Protesters try to break a security barrier as they gather in front of the federal government’s local office in Girona, northern Catalonia, on Oct. 1, 2018, during the first anniversary of a banned referendum on secession that was marred by police violence. Josep Lago/AFP via Getty Images

Then, after a 2014 straw poll, came the 2017 referendum. While it delivered a 92 percent vote for secession, turnout was only 43 percent. The Spanish government and high court’s earlier declaration that the ballot was illegal led to anti-independence parties in Catalonia boycotting the vote. “After that, what had seemed inevitable just fell apart,” McRoberts said.

Spanish police cracked down violently on voters. Members of the National Guard and Civil Guard, who were stationed in Catalan cities for months, seized ballots and assaulted voters. The EU, meanwhile, didn’t change its mind, refusing to recognize the Catalan right to vote in an independence referendum, let alone countenance Catalan membership in the EU. With many key pro-independence leaders arrested for holding a banned ballot and others, such as Puigdemont, fleeing into exile, the independence bid collapsed. Since then, Catalonia has continued to preserve its own identity and language but with little appetite for doing that outside the larger Spanish state.

A July 2022 CEO poll showed support for secession in Catalonia was down to 40.9 percent. Meanwhile, pro-union parties now outweigh their separatist counterparts in many parts of Catalonia, including Barcelona.

There are domestic political reasons for this shift. Disputes among pro-independence leaders over responsibility for the movement’s failure and future strategy have weakened the movement. Some, such as the Catalan Republican Left, see working with the current left-of-center government in Madrid as the best way to secure another referendum, while others, such as the Catalan Socialists, seek a federal Spain rather than an independent Catalonia. Others still, such as the Popular Unity Candidacy and the center-right Junts, argue negotiation with the Spanish government is pointless.

A Pro-independence demonstrator wearing a flag argues with helmeted Catalan police officers holding batons as they clear the main entrance of the Parliament of Catalonia during a demonstration of pro-independence supporters in Barcelona in 2019.
A Pro-independence demonstrator wearing a flag argues with helmeted Catalan police officers holding batons as they clear the main entrance of the Parliament of Catalonia during a demonstration of pro-independence supporters in Barcelona in 2019.

A pro-independence demonstrator argues with Catalan police officers as they clear the main entrance of the Parliament of Catalonia during a demonstration in Barcelona on Sept. 11, 2019.David Ramos/Getty Images

“It was always difficult for the pro-independence parties to act together, even when there was momentum,” said Cardenal, the UOC lecturer. “Now, though, they really hate each other.”

Meanwhile, the Spanish government’s handling of the cost-of-living crisis has helped ease bad relations between Catalonia and the central government, as electricity bills have been kept low. In January, Madrid removed sedition laws from the constitution, allowing some of the charges against the Catalan separatist leaders to be dropped.

Recent international events have also delivered a series of blows to the popularity of independence. “While Catalan independence in a globalized world made complete sense,” Cardenal said, “in a world of pandemics, of war in Ukraine, of U.S.-China rivalry—that de-globalized world may not be so friendly, particularly toward a small country like Catalonia.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, “people started worrying about quite different things, and the goal of independence withered away,” Cardenal said. In particular, the EU’s role in combating the pandemic spoke volumes to many citizens about the need for EU backing for an independent Catalonia.

“There was a lot of self-deception back then about how the EU couldn’t do without Catalonia, so future membership would be a given,” Cardenal said. “But the EU—which most Catalans support—set different limits to what could be done.” The United Kingdom’s dire performance post-Brexit, both economically and politically, has also reinforced fears about the risks of losing EU protection.


The shadows of protesters are seen on a Catalan flag that reads "Catalonia is not Spain" during a regional general strike in Barcelona in 2017.
The shadows of protesters are seen on a Catalan flag that reads "Catalonia is not Spain" during a regional general strike in Barcelona in 2017.

The shadows of protesters are seen on a Catalan flag as thousands gather in University Plaza during a regional general strike to protest violence that marred an independence referendum vote, in Barcelona on Oct. 3, 2017.Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Given the current climate, municipal elections on May 28 may see independence parties struggling. According to a March CEO survey, the pro-union Catalan Socialists’ Party was the region’s most popular party. Yet it may still be premature to write separatist parties off, with a number of events later this year potentially combining to give them a boost.

 The first of these comes this summer, when the EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg will make a key ruling on the extradition of Catalan exiles such as Puigdemont, who are still being pursued by the Spanish justice system for their role in the referendum. With courts elsewhere in Europe so far refusing to permit extradition of independence exiles, this sets up a potential legal conflict for the Spanish government when it takes over the EU Council presidency in July.

“A ruling favorable to us might … undermine the Spanish state’s whole approach to us and start a new cycle—a new mobilization of the movement toward independence,” said Castellà, the Catalan councilor. As EU term president, Spain would have to either respect the Court of Justice ruling, allowing the return of exiled Catalan leaders and overturning its own court decisions, or break EU rules.

Then, in December, Spain will hold general elections, which could reinvigorate the movement. Opinion polls suggest that the elections will leave no clear winner—although currently, the People’s Party, which led the harsh crackdown during the 2017 referendum, is ahead, while the even more anti-independence far-right Vox party is surging. This might make the Spanish left and center-left parties more willing to work with Catalan nationalists in order to hold on to power, potentially handing the separatist parties an opportunity to “come together and demand a new referendum in return for our support,” Castellà said. Support for a legal referendum remains high among Catalans, with 77 percent of respondents in an April CEO poll in favor of one. 

However, “while still substantial, support for independence seems frozen,” McRoberts said. “While a Spanish government could call a legal referendum, there’s no suggestion they would.” Even the current prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, who leads the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party—historically more sympathetic to Catalan autonomy—said in December 2022 that “in Catalonia, there is not going to be any self-determination consultation.”

Meanwhile, an independent Catalan identity—and a sense of resentment toward Spanish authorities—remains fundamental to many people in the region. “Despite all that anger and disappointment,” Castellà said, “I haven’t met anyone here who says, ‘Well, after all of that, I’m going to be Spanish.’”

In Altafulla, while the Estelada may be looking ragged, it is still flying. “If you think it’s all over,” said local contractor Josep Calder, “then you really don’t understand anything about Catalan society.”

Jonathan Gorvett is a journalist specializing in European and Middle Eastern affairs, currently based in Ireland.

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