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Awakening Old Dreams

Independence for Catalonia. Joanjo Aguar Matoses, Flickr, Creative Commons.

Editor’s note: This week, BPR World is excited to feature two guest columnists weighing in on a pressing global issue — the persistence of the Catalan independence movement. Jorge Tamames’ column, published Wednesday, can be found here. Today’s column is written by Daniel Bogre Udell. Mr. Udell co-edits the Catalan-language edition of Global Voices Online and founded Wikitongues, a project dedicated to raising awareness about global linguistic diversity. He recently completed a BFA in Design & Technology at Parsons The New School for Design and is currently writing a master’s thesis on the history of national identity in Catalonia. 

On September 11th, hundreds of thousands of Catalans joined hands to form a human chain that spanned 460 kilometers across their region, stretching from the French Pyrenean border all the way down to Valencia. This event hardly came as a surprise but was nonetheless exciting; it was in fact the echo of a mass demonstration that took place in Barcelona one year prior, when a million crowded the city’s streets under the slogan, “Catalonia: The Next State in Europe.” Both protests were staged on September 11th to commemorate the fall of Catalan troops to Castilian and French soldiers in 1714, remembered in Catalonia as a prelude to Spanish centralism and the erosion of their sovereignty. Conversely, their regional holiday, known natively as La Diada, has a distinctly morbid purpose; in stark contrast to most nations, Catalans celebrate the day they lost independence, and therein lies the cause of recent events.

A majority of the Catalan population wants to participate in the world according to their identity as a nation, but in a world where the lack of political sovereignty implies a lack of nationhood, maintaining a national identity can only mean one thing: a sovereign Catalonia, free and independent from Spain. Instead of taking this clamor seriously and engaging the Catalan public, most in the Spanish government — including Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy — have postured themselves firmly as antagonists, insisting on the illegality of a referendum on independence, even though 80% of Catalans want one. A handful of politicians, willfully ignorant of public opinion polls and the Catalan parliament’s pro-independence majority, have even denied that nationalism is a majority force in the region. Some have gone so far as to compare the sovereignty movement to Nazism.

On the international stage, the Spanish government has done its best to cast Catalan nationalist ambitions as parochial and irrelevant. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Prime Minister Rajoy described a potentially independent Catalonia as a threat to global unity and its advent contrary to “natural” (!) evolution. He went on to qualify a Catalonia outside the European Union as “absurd,” a rhetorical deception given that the Catalan nationalist project is aimed at further integration in Europe.

Despite the prevailing wisdom in Madrid, however, which seems to assert that ignoring the sovereignty movement will make it go away, the relevance of nationhood in Catalonia cannot be understated. If Mr. Rajoy really wants a unified country, he should respect this reality instead of belittling the deep-rooted identity of the Catalan people, whose feeling of nationhood is older than Spain itself. It arose at the height of the fourteenth century and was no roadblock to the Spanish Kingdom’s birth. Why try to suppress it?

In fact, despite a long history of friction between Barcelona and Madrid (historian J.H. Elliot has found that Catalan writers were already complaining about marginalization a few decades into Spain’s existence), Catalonia’s robust identity only manifested in an attempt to secure its independence three times: once in 1640, once in 1934, and now in 2013. Each uprising came after overzealous officials in Madrid encroached too far upon regional liberties, leaving Catalan citizens frustrated and their politicians feeling left without a choice.

Even the current Catalan president Artur Mas, who is leading the effort to organize a referendum in 2014, pursued a federalist agenda until the 2012 protests. In a speech he gave last week before the Catalan parliament, he insisted that independence is their only viable option if reform in Spain, to which he has dedicated his political career, becomes an exhausted possibility.

This is not mere fanfare. Prime Minister Rajoy has largely refused to negotiate the issue of Catalonia’s status. This strategy is certainly a brave one; the state of things implies that by posturing himself a resilient centralist, Mr. Rajoy is only fueling separatist fire, encouraging his country’s divide and making a terrible mistake. Or maybe he isn’t.

In 1882, Ernest Renan wrote that nations are imagined, the realization of collective solidarities and nothing more than communities who define themselves as such. In that spirit, Catalonia’s nationhood is certainly legitimate — but so, too, is Spain’s. It is irrelevant which identity came first; both play significant roles in the lives of millions of people.

Flag of Catalonia. Pablo Saludes Rodil, Flickr, Creative Commons.

I pertain to the school of thought that the Spanish nation would be ideally reimagined as multinational, multilingual, politically federal and culturally diverse, in the spirit of Switzerland and Canada. This view, much more consistently than secession, has dominated Catalan nationalist thought for the past two-hundred years. But perhaps Mr. Mas is right and this is a futile purpose.

Given the rhetoric saturating the Spanish political establishment, it is certainly possible that a majority in Spain rejects a pluralistic definition of Spanish nationhood, and consider their country as it was defined by royal decree at the turn of the eighteenth century: united according to the culture and traditions of Castile.

If this is how a majority of Spain identifies, then it is so and this is reasonable. But it is unreasonable to then force those communities marginalized by this identity to participate. If Spain should continue to be a unitary state, then the Catalan people have every right to establish their own, providing a significant majority wants one — and a referendum on independence is the only way to determine this.

If Prime Minister Rajoy must insist on the singularity of the Spanish nation, he should also be comfortable with bidding seven million Spaniards adéu.