By Hiram José Irizarry Osorio, Ph.D.

Catalan protest
The political relationship between the central state government in Madrid and the government in Catalonia has always been complex. Still, these political tensions increased during September and October, following a heavily contested referendum in Catalonia in which voters decided to secede from Spain and construct the Republic of Catalonia. Although almost everyone in Catalonia and Spain would agree that there is a conflict, the causes of that conflict and its solutions vary widely. Furthermore, those that support independence as a solution do not necessarily agree on  their reasons for supporting independence. This essay would like to paint broad strokes of the recent Catalan independence movement and the recent and forthcoming voting controversies in Catalonia.

To begin, the 2008 global financial crisis had (and continues to have) a strong influence in Catalonia and Spain. Nonetheless, the dramatic increase of support for Catalan self-determination (including independence, but not solely), although not disconnected to this global financial crisis, the same one has to be connected to a 2010 constitutional court ruling in Spain that created a sociological tsunami in Catalan society. That court ruling invalidated several important gains of the renewed Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia of 2006, provoking a massive mobilization (over a million people) on July, 10, 2010 in Barcelona in defense of self-governance (not necessarily independence), entitled “We are a nation. We decide.”

Of the main political parties in Catalonia with parliamentary representation in 2010, there was only one openly pro-independence party. Nonetheless, the 2010 mobilization in support of self-governance had people from every political party represented in parliament, with exception of two . 

But the sociological tsunami is impossible to be understood without knowing what happened to Convergència i Unió (CiU; center-right nationalist party; now Partit Demòcrata de Catalunya, PDeCAT). This was the party that won every Catalan regional election since the transition to democracy. This party also included different sensibilities, but after 2010, its leadership started moving toward the pro-independence camp. In addition, the radical-pro-independence-left erupted with parliamentary representation in the 2012 parliamentary elections and further improved their results in the 2015 elections.
Nonetheless, before arriving to a debate regarding independence, the 2010 ruling created an overwhelmingly social majority in Catalonia in favor of self-determination. Secondly, due to the internal CiU debates, pro-independence support passed from being around 20 percent of political representatives to around 50 percent .

Therefore, despite what appears in the news today about an “illegal October 1st independence referendum,” (because it was done “unilaterally” by the Catalan government without an agreement with the central government in Madrid), supporters of self-determination in Catalonia have, since 2010, been attempting to agree with Madrid on some sort of referendum. The idea was to ask Catalans in a referendum that was agreed-upon with Madrid if Catalans wanted to change its relation with Madrid. If this referendum was answered in the positive, a second round of negotiations would begin to decide what alternative political relations could be proposed to Catalans for them to choose. The alternatives might have been: 1) an improved and stronger regional self-government within Spain 2) independence and 3) a federal option.
These alternatives have not been possible due to Madrid’s opposition to any referendum. Mainly due to the anti-independence political parties’ (and part of the supporters of federalism) argumentation that it is unconstitutional and because Spain’s territorial integrity in non-negotiable.

Although almost everyone in Catalonia and Spain would agree that there is a conflict, the causes of that conflict and its solutions vary widely. 

The closest that a broader questioning achieved was a November 2014 Catalan self-determination referendum. The self-determination supporters attempted to arrive to some sort of agreement with Madrid to ask the Catalan population, but Madrid invalidated and banned every step. In the end, a vote consulting the Catalan population did take place, but without any binding argumentation nor full regional government institutional support. Due to the success of the November 2014 popular vote (since it was mainly citizen-organized and implemented due to the fact that the Catalan government was forbidden by Madrid to be involved), the Catalan government decided to call parliamentary elections, which took place on September 27, 2015. The difference of this parliamentary election was that it was supposed to be a plebiscitary election—in other words, that it would work as the referendum that has been constantly impeded by the Spanish State, which those that voted for pro-independence political parties would be counted as a “yes” for independence and those that voted for anti-independence political parties would be counted as a “no” for independence. 

That election was the first in Catalonia where the elected majority of parliamentarians openly supported independence (i.e., 72 out of 135 deputies). The pro-independence parties argued that if they won, the Republic of Catalonia would be proclaimed in 18 months. Nonetheless, even though pro-independence political parties won the most number of parliamentary seats, they did not get the majority in votes. The pro-independence political parties ran into difficulties with the State and its’ court system since they started governing in January 2016, and these difficulties attained their maximum level of tension in October 1, 2017 (i.e., the referendum’s police repression) and October 27, 2017 (i.e., the application of Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution). And both votes (i.e., September 27, 2015 and October 1, 2017) received after-the-fact legitimacy criticisms I refer to below.
It is also important to underscore the active role of Catalan civil society in order to understand the rapid and massive success of Catalan self-determination. Civil society organize activism in favor of self-determination or independence every September 11th, which is the national holiday of Catalonia, since 2012 successfully executed massive and imaginative mobilizations: Catalonia, new state in Europe (2012), Catalan Way (2013), Catalan Way 2014, Free Way to the Catalan Republic (2015), and Go ahead, Catalan Republic, We are ready (2016). The reason to mention these mobilizations is to underscore that Catalan governmental institutions have more reacted, rather than guided the self-determination claims in Catalonia, which is embraced and accepted as an accurate portrayal by politicians themselves of the current political and social reality in Catalonia. To put into perspective, every September 11th since 2012 around 14% of the Catalan population have gone to the streets in one way or another to defend their right of self-determination! If this would happen in the US it would imply having around 42 million citizens in D.C. every Fourth of July!

So why do many Catalans support independence? The reasons are varied, some of which could be categorized as cultural identity (e.g., language), economic (e.g., the slogan “Spain robs us”), and historical (e.g., underscoring that Catalonia today has its 130th president, which indicates a long tradition of self-government and nation-building; in comparison to the U.S. having its 45th). Nonetheless, the two political actors I interviewed (i.e., Mr. Terricabras and Mr. Salellas) do not use any of these defenses to underscore support for Catalonia’s independence. Terricabras (and the ERC) uses the term “dignity,” while Salellas (and the CUP) uses the term “sovereignty.”

The defense of independence based on “dignity” has an implicit reference to historical conflicts between the Spanish State and Catalonia that has not been overcome, and which has blocked Catalonia’s full potential (and its people). Nonetheless, the emphasis is not so much the past, but the future development and construction of Catalan society with the power that comes from full self-governance (i.e., independence). Having stated this, I do not imply that those that do not advocate for independence are not concerned for their own (or Catalan) dignity. Their political positioning perceive that their dignity can be attained by other means. Therefore, here is the conundrum, and why the essential nature of what it at stake in Catalonia is a political issue (with social, cultural, economic, and legal dimensions). In the case of the CUP, their “sovereignty” claims for advocating independence, although not disassociated from the dignity claims just described, stress the empowerment of the Catalan population, with special emphasis on the popular classes, to decide, act, and construct social reality with a strong democratizing ethos. 

The reason to mention these mobilizations is to underscore that Catalan governmental institutions have more reacted, rather than guided the self-determination claims in Catalonia, which is embraced and accepted as an accurate portrayal by politicians themselves of the current political and social reality in Catalonia.

As referred to above, there has been quite a bit of discussion surrounding the issue of legitimacy in Catalonia, since those that opposed self-determination or independence have criticized vehemently the results of the last parliamentary elections in Catalonia (September 27, 2015) and the October 1, 2017 referendum. Nonetheless, I think that it is important to underscore that legitimacy is not solely (or exclusively) based on numbers or percentages; no matter how democratic in nature the subject of discussion might be. The goal of any democratic vote should be 100 percent participation. Nevertheless, that is not usually the case, for a plethora of reasons. Therefore, democratic elected systems in practice work with less than 100 percent of its population having participated in the elections that validated their ruling, and even less percentage that ended up supporting the winners. 

Another discussion is if some legal minimums are agreed before the vote takes place. For example, minimum percentage of participation to consider valid the vote or a special majority to consider victory. And like any institutional decision, these strategies have their pros and cons. But what is true without a doubt is that these sort of argumentations have to be sorted out before a vote takes place, not improvised after-the-fact. And this sort of post-hoc criticism, which is intellectually and procedurally dishonest, is what have taken place after the September 27, 2015 parliamentary elections and the October 1, 2017.
The upcoming December  21, 2017 parliamentary election, called by Madrid after the application of Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, is considered “illegitimate” by the pro-independence political parties . Nonetheless, they will participate — and they want to win. Although it is too early to know the complete reasoning and strategies of these pro-independence political parties, they do not consider this election “normal.” They are framing it as a plebiscite against what they call the “155-block” (i.e. the anti-independence parties). And they are asking Madrid to abide and respect the results of the elections; meaning, if the pro-independence parties win, to accept the “process” of secession. Madrid and the so-called “155-block” see the election as legitimate and are willing to abide by the results of it, irrespective of who wins. 

There is only one caveat. Madrid and the so-called “155-block” consider the election as a typical regional election. Therefore, even if the pro-independence parties win, Madrid may expect them to govern the regional government of Catalonia, not the so-called Republic of Catalonia in-the-making. My understanding then, is that the December 21, 2017 elections will not put to rest this ongoing conflict: if the pro-independence parties win, they will not be allowed to pursue further the secession process; and if they lose, the ongoing persecution and prosecution of pro-independence leaders will intensify. In other words, if the pro-independence parties win, what they would gain is some sense of a “buffer” against the State’s repression, but no sort of complete overcoming of it.

Regarding the risks and opportunities of Catalan independence, it would depend on the person asked, the conceptual priorities taken into consideration, and the projections into the future that that person embraces. I am a supporter of independence. I conceive independence as a collective project to embrace popular sovereignty in order to engage emancipatory struggles toward their possible overcoming. There is never a guaranteed or certainty of conquering emancipation of any sort, but the pursuit of it defines humanity. 

It is important to understand that being pro-independence (or against it) is a political position, which highlights a relevant broad pathway toward overcoming lived and perceived difficulties. I am an outsider, since although I reside in Catalonia, I myself am a Puerto Rican. My wife is Catalan and my children are being raised in Catalonia. Without getting into too much detail, I am not new to the issue of reclaiming “self-hood” due to the ongoing debate regarding Puerto Rico’s relation with the United States. I am not new to the difficulties of reclaiming lived differences between your perceived nationality (i.e., broadly understood as cultural) versus citizenship (i.e., broadly understood as legal). Puerto Ricans have been US citizens since 1917, but not every Puerto Rican considers as its’ nation (or nationality) the US . Therefore, I do not have citizenship from the Spanish State, which invalidates my political participation, although that does not imply or invalidates my social, economic, and cultural participation. 

...even if the pro-independence parties win, Madrid may expect them to govern the regional government of Catalonia, not the so-called Republic of Catalonia in-the-making.

Among the many different immediate future-oriented questions, the two that are more prominent are: 1) would a Catalan Republic be economically successful? and 2) would a Catalan Republic be inside, or not, the European Union? My take on these matters is that any economy is successful or not, depending on its allies. Economic success is about connections and relations, not about any essential attributes of any society under discussion. And regarding the European Union, since there has never been a partition of a member state, for sure it would set a precedent. Therefore, there is quite a bit of speculation if an independent Catalonia would be automatically accepted to the EU or not. Within the pro-independence parties, the PDeCAT and ERC are pro-EU, while the CUP is anti-EU. Furthermore, the EU stance regarding Catalonia until now has surprised and even disappointed sectors of the PDeCAT and ERC, although they still claim to be pro-EU. The CUP argues that the EU’s stance is not surprising since, according to them, the EU has shown again and again their lack of solidarity with popular movements (e.g., the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean).

Like any diverse and plural movement, there are serious disagreements regarding the model of society (culturally, economically, politically, socially) among the different pro-independence groups; since you have within those advocating for independence (i.e., political parties) from the “center-right” to the radical “left.” Nonetheless, they do agree on the necessity of self-determination (as around 80 percent of Catalan society advocates) and within that self-determining process, they advocate for independence. Their differences will become more important and consequential during a forthcoming constituent process (i.e., if this stage is achieved) during which a new constitution and organizational framework for Catalan society would be debated and drafted. In addition, their ideological differences, although more contained, can be viewed in their respective advocated paces and means of action for attaining independence. 

Although every known grouping with social support and credibility advocates for democratic and peaceful means to achieve independence, their perceptions of what is meant by “peaceful resistance” varies. For example, the CUP, although advocating for “peaceful resistance,” has always underscored the necessity to push the envelope since they argue and perceive that the Spanish State would never negotiate nor allow a secession, which is why they argue the need of a rupture strategy. The PDeCAT has always advocated to attain independence without legal rupture (i.e., from the law to the law); through negotiation. Meanwhile, the ERC has been more ambivalent and has occupied a middle-ground between the PDeCAT and the CUP (i.e., at times advocating for civil disobedience and at times for the no-rupture perspective).

Since the current Catalan pro-independence movement is quite plural, it has “leftist,” “nationalist,” and “rightist” component. There has been, and continues to be, debate about the theoretical and philosophical possibility of being a “leftist” and supporting “secession.” Generally speaking, those “leftists” movements that support “secession” make the distinction between their support for “secession” and their embrace of “national” consciousness and sensibilities, but not their embrace of “nationalism.” Those sectors that support “secession” from the “center-right” or “right” are more comfortable embracing the label “nationalism,” but making differentiations among types of “nationalism.”
Currently, there are open legal proceedings against the actions taken by the pro-independence camp between September 27, 2015 and October 27, 2017. From the legitimate government that came out of the September 27 parliamentary elections, eight cabinet members were put in prison as a precautionary legal measure (i.e., but six of them were recently freed), while they await  trial. The same happened on October 17, 2017 to the two civil society leaders of the largest pro-independence organizations responsible for organizing the successful multitudinous mobilizations aforementioned. Finally, the President of Catalonia and four other cabinet members are in Brussels, and they are waiting to know if they will be extradited to Spain to be prosecuted or not. Nonetheless, the Spanish State dropped the Euro-order of arrest, but if any of these deposed Catalan government members touches Spanish territory, they would be arrested. Although things might change, it is possible to conceive of the possibility that December 21, 2017 arrives and some of the elected parliamentarians might be in prison or exile, which would create a very strange political scenario. If the political groupings that attain the most amount of votes and seats in parliament are those pro-independence, how could a leader take power while in Brussels or in prison?

Therefore, the December 21, 2017 vote is important for Catalonia, Spain, and the EU. Their destinies are interlinked. Still, I think that the vote will not solve the relevant issues at hand, but, in fact, will make the situation even more tense. The EU has positioned itself in favor of Spain and its unity, and I do not foresee that changing anytime soon. Spain and the “155-block” are betting on good results to beat the pro-independence parties. If the “155-block” wins, since I do not foresee a crushing victory, that pro-independence side will remain strong and mobilized and would need to be won with relevant concessions of self-governance (in and of itself a quite difficult task). The pro-independence side should not be humiliated nor repressed even further. Sadly, I do think that that is the highest probability of occurring if the “155-block” wins. 

If the pro-independence parties win, they will not be allowed to govern with the aim of furthering the secession (or further constructing the proclaimed republic of October 27). Therefore, I foresee further repression and regional government intervention by Madrid, which is why I think an outside mediator will be needed (although I am not sure if it would be allowed by Madrid) to create new spaces of agreements to overcome the current political impasse within Catalan society. The EU could play that role, but as I mentioned, they have resisted it. Their continued rejection to take a different position would continue to discredit the EU’s muscle, ethos, and effectiveness (i.e., at least in the eyes of the pro-independence side); which takes me to further push the relevance of this vote beyond the EU, to the global geopolitical scene. And the reason for thinking as relevant to write this piece and interview relevant political actors in Catalonia to take the issue beyond Catalonia, Spain, and Europe, which includes the United States.

Hiram José Irizarry Osorio is a Professor of Mediterranean Politics and Politics of the Developing World at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. In addition to this piece, he also interviewed two pro-independence players in Catalonia's fight for independence: Benet Salellas and Josep Maria Terricabras i Nogueras

Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Haas Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.



[1] Pro-independence political parties: Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC; center-left); Partit Demòcrata de Catalunya (PDeCAT; center-right); (CUP; radical left ) Anti-independence political parties: Partit Popular de Catalunya (PPC; right) and Ciutadans (Cs; center) Pro-federal political parties: Esquerra Unida i Alternativa-Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds (EUiA-ICV; radical left), En Comú Podem (radical left), Partit Socialista de Catalunya (PSC), but has within themselves different sensitivities regarding the relation to Madrid, but mainly they were “federalists.”

[2] PPC and Cs

[3] PP and Cs


[6] This is an article of the Spanish constitution that was never before been applied until October 2017. It is an article that gives power to the central government in Madrid to intervene regional governments. Nonetheless, what exactly is meant by the “constitutional intervention” is heavily debated; especially, since it has never done before.

[7] PDeCAT, ERC, and CUP