When Barcelona and Real Madrid spar on the football field, more is symbolically at stake than the match. Catalonia, the region in which Barcelona lies, is among the most fiercely independent in Spain. Catalonia was one of the original provinces of modern Spain – part of Aragon when a fifteenth-century marriage brought Aragon and Castile together. That hasn’t stopped the region from maintaining its own identity, language, and culture. After suppression for decades under Franco, the Catalonian identity has re-emerged from hibernation.
In a non-binding vote in November 2014, about 80% of Catalan’s voted for independence from Spain – although less than half of those eligible actually voted in the election. Now, on October 1st, Catalan is set to vote on a binding proposal of secession. There is only one problem: it’s illegal. The 1978 Spanish Constitution declares the Spanish nation to be indivisible, while it also granted some measures of autonomy to Catalonia. Spain’s constitutional court has also ruled the referendum illegal, agreeing with the view of the government of Mariano Rajoy. Supporters in Catalonia argue that regardless of the constitution, they have an internationally recognized right to self-determination. That also seems to not hold, as international law has traditionally recognized this right only in cases of foreign occupation or human rights abuses.
While independence has always stirred some in Catalonia, the present movement gained steam when Spain’s economy was dealt a severe blow in the aftermath of the global financial crisis in 2008. Catalonia, one of Spain’s more prosperous areas and home to Barcelona, bristled at paying more to the Spanish government in taxes than it received in benefits. Catalonia has income levels nearly 20% higher than the rest of the country.
About 40% of Catalan’s are in favor of the referendum according to polling, while 70% of Spaniards as a whole oppose it. With the government in Madrid doing everything it can to block voting throughout Catalonia and many of those opposed boycotting the vote, it is difficult to see how favorably even a “Yes” vote would be seen – both in Catalonia and outside of it.
For the most part, Spain has attempted the patient approach in dealing with the situation, hoping that as the economy improves, independence movements will die out. It is true that an improved economy will allay some of Catalonia’s concerns, but thinking that it will allay all of them ignores the broader history of the region. Ultimately, once the referendum has concluded, Madrid and Catalonia will need to sit down and jointly agree on their future relationship.