The Catalan Dilemma

By Gwynne Dyer


Gwynne Dyer is a Canadian-born independent journalist whose column is published in more than 175 papers in 45 countries.

The demonstrations, some of them violent, are still going on in Catalonia a week after Spain’s Supreme Court sentenced nine separatist leaders to between nine and thirteen years in prison for sedition. This was the last thing Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sanchez needed three weeks before a national election in which his Socialist Party is already losing ground to right-wing nationalist parties.

The Court had little choice in the matter, however, because those Catalan leaders deliberately broke the law. They held an illegal independence referendum two years ago in which few people except the separatists voted, and used that ‘victory’ to proclaim independence.

Opinion poll always show that a narrow majority of people in Catalonia don’t want independence, but 92% of those who participated in the referendum voted for it. It was cynical manipulation which exploited the fact that the anti-separatist parties in Catalonia all told their supporters not to vote in an illegal poll.

The bid for independence failed when Madrid dissolved the regional parliament and removed the separatists from office. In the subsequent provincial election in December 2017, the pro-independence parties got 47.7% of the vote, so the separatists would probably have lost a real referendum by the same margin.

The real problem for the separatists is that about half the people in Catalonia are Spanish-speakers, descended from migrants from other regions who were attracted by Catalonia’s booming economy over the past 75 years.

Understandably, they have no interest whatever in seceding from Spain.

How can ethnic Catalans achieve their goal in a democratic way when half the voters by definition are not interested in it? The only way is somehow to define Spanish-speakers as not really full citizens of Catalonia, and that was the separatists’ unspoken justification for the manipulation they practised in the 2017 ‘referendum’.

As Josep Borrel, Spain’s foreign minister, but himself a Catalan, recently said: “I think the root of the problem is that the independence movement denies the ‘Catalanness’ of those people who aren’t in favour of independence.

When you…claim that only those who think like you are ‘the people’, that’s a totalitarian attitude.”

Yet you must feel some sympathy for the Catalan nationalists, for as recently as 1950 the great majority of the city’s residents were Catalan-speakers. Catalans are not oppressed now, but the only language used in the schools right down to the 1980s was Spanish.

At one time Catalans even feared that their language might be lost. An independent Catalonia might have restricted the arrival of so many Spanish-speakers if it had existed 75 years ago, but it’s too late now.

Those Catalans who respect democracy but want independence therefore face an insoluble problem, and it’s only Spain’s refusal to permit a real referendum that spares them from having to face up to the conflict between these two values. But Spain has seen four civil wars in the past two centuries, so the Spanish constitution does not permit any region to hold a referendum on independence.

This effectively guarantees that the unrest in Catalonia will continue indefinitely. So far it has been almost entirely non-violent, but the traditional pro-independence civil society groups are now being outflanked by Tsunami

Democratic, a more combative and secretive group. (It was they who occupied the airport last week.)

They are almost all young, they are at home with apps and social media, and they are up for a fight, but Catalonia is still a pretty peaceful place. Long may it remain so.

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