By Assad Bhuglah
The fierce rivalry between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, Spain's top football clubs is not just about
sports, but is an expression of a latent sentiment of Catalan identity. Barcelona is the proud capital
of Catalonia, one of the autonomous communities of Spain.
Catalonia is one of Spain's wealthiest and most productive regions and has a distinct history dating
back almost 1,000 years. Before the Spanish Civil War, it enjoyed broad autonomy but that was
suppressed under decades of Gen Francisco Franco's dictatorship from 1939-75. When Franco died,
Catalan nationalism was revived and eventually the north-eastern region was granted autonomy
again, under the 1978 constitution. Proud of its own identity and language and with a distinct history
stretching back to the early middle ages, many Catalans think of themselves as a separate nation
from the rest of Spain
Although relatively small, populous, prosperous Catalonia is disproportionately important to Spain's
economy. Catalonia, which is one of Spain's richest and most highly industrialised region, occupies
just over 6.3% (32,114 sq km) of Spain’s territory. but its importance is not proportionate to its size.
With 7.45 million people, the region accounts for 16% of Spain’s population. Its €215.6bn (£191bn)
economy, larger than that of most countries in the Eurozone, generates more than one-fifth of
Spanish GDP, while Catalonia’s exports of €65.2bn represent more than one-quarter of the national
total. At about €37bn, foreign investment in Catalonia accounts for more than one-quarter of inward
investment to Spain.
The Spanish financial crisis fuelled a surge in the independence movement, leaving many in the
wealthy region with a feeling that they were paying more than their fair share. Many Catalans
believe that their affluent region pays more to Madrid than it gets back, and blame much of Spain's
2008 debt crisis on the central government. Catalonia’s pro-independence majority government
staged a unilateral referendum on separating from Spain. In doing so, it defied the Spanish
constitutional court and the Madrid government. The Spanish government had made it very clear
that it would not tolerate such a direct challenge to the unity of Spain or the constitution itself.
Although the referendum was illegitimate, having been suspended by Spain’s constitutional court,
the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, was largely responsible for the situation to get out of
hand due to his many mistakes. He had been confrontational and dismissive toward the Catalan
independence movement, thereby invigorating it. He narrowed potential space for negotiations. The
police crackdown, an attempt to stop the referendum, was clumsy and heavy-handed. His attempt
to stifle democracy was criticised all over Europe. The brutality of the Spanish police in their mission
to shut down the Catalan secession referendum succeeded mostly in deepening a political crisis.
The European Union has said it will not intervene in the matter, which it views as an internal one for
Spain. Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission’s president, has said that Brussels must abide
by the decisions of the Spanish government and of Spain’s constitutional court. Catalan
independence is as unpopular among European Union leaders as Brexit. Just as Europe considers
Brexit a nightmare, so Spain sees Catalan independence as a calamity.
Although the result the referendum shows that 90 percent of the 2.26 million voters unsurprisingly
favoured independence, it ignored the silent half of Catalonia who did not take part in the vote.
These Catalonians would wish to see a middle-of- the-ground approach or rather an autonomy within
the central power. They are of the view that Catalonia has already made some gains in autonomy in
so far as the management of their own prison system, their own police, their own education and
their own health was concerned. However, as far as the treasury is concerned, the Catalans control
tax collection while the redistribution of public funds is controlled by the central government.
Generally speaking, Catalonia is one of the most autonomous regions in the whole of Europe. They
claim that the police crackdown and the reckless stand of the independence activists have narrowed
the path of negotiated solutions for greater autonomy. However, the pro-independence activists are
not satisfied with the limited autonomy because key areas such as taxes, foreign affairs, defence,
ports, airports and trains are in the hands of the central government and therefore they want to split
Catalonia has become a focal point across Europe, with many framing the confrontation as a case of
fundamental rights being crushed by force. If Catalonia declared independence, Spain as we know it
would cease to exist, given that there are other regions such as the Basque Country and Galicia with
powerful nationalist movements that would probably follow their lead. In Basque Country, where
ETA separatists waged a decades-long terror campaign that killed more than 800 people and injured
thousands, the dream of independence is on ice – but not forgotten. The danger is that a new
generation of younger Basques who feel ignored by Madrid, and repelled by what happened in
Barcelona, may be tempted to revisit ETA’s unilateral 2010 ceasefire and its subsequent
disarmament. Images of manhandled Catalans will stoke the flames of separatism. The harsh
crackdown from Madrid has inevitably raised dark spectres in a Europe. Ripples from Catalan
referendum would extend beyond Spain – to Ireland, Scotland, Greece and Germany. Catalonia is
not unique: all over Europe several groups are seeking to redefine identity and rejecting the
Emboldened by the outcome of the referendum, the Catalan President Carles Puigdemont
announced his plans for the Catalan parliament to vote on a unilateral declaration of independence.
However, Puigdemont and his separatist supporters were struck a blow when Catalonia's top two
banks, CaixaBank and Banco Sabadell, as well as energy giant Gas Natural announced they were
relocating their headquarters from Catalonia to other parts of Spain. Other companies are
considering such a move to ensure that the region's possible secession would not knock them out of
the European Union and its lucrative common market. The warnings by the business sector have
coincided with the first calls from within Puigdemont's government to hold off on a declaration of
independence. Lately, Puigdemont has said that he is not seeking a” traumatic" split, but a “new
understanding with the Spanish state”. He has called on the EU to mediate between the Catalonian
Government in Barcelona and the Spanish Government in Madrid, who he says have had no contact
since the vote. In the meantime, thousands of people have rallied in Madrid and Barcelona in an
effort to push politicians in both cities to end months of silence and start negotiating.