Catalans' aspiration for independence: cultural or economic?

Confronting the authorities is not the only price Catalans are willing to pay for independence.

LOS ANGELES, United States (Kurdistan 24) – As the people of Catalonia headed to the polls Sunday morning in a referendum to determine whether to secede from Spain or not, Spanish riot police began forcefully removing polling stations in Barcelona.

Supporters of Catalonia’s independence were seen in the streets shouting “We will vote,” in defiance of the Spanish Constitutional Court’s decision.

But, confronting the authorities is not the only price Catalans are willing to pay for independence.

The racial and linguistic minority of nearly eight million are aware independence would be the start of economic hardship, but that does not shake their resolve.

In an interview with Kurdistan 24, political analyst Hemn Seyedi discussed the historical struggles of the Catalans.

He said Catalonia enjoyed short-lived autonomy in 1932 until the Franco regime banned their language and other cultural aspects and punished their intellectuals.

Parallel to the Kurds’ situation, the cultural suppression and population engineering (moving non-Catalans to neutralize the culture through mixing) created an ethnic anxiety that led to instituting a cultural resistance.

At a time when Europe’s political environment was not in favor of nationalism, the left also lacked a comprehensive understanding of state-less nations’ claims and perceived nationalism as “bourgeois,” Seyedi argued.

Catalanism was treated as a threat to the unity of Spain. The Catalan language was introduced as an “element of backwardness,” and the exclusive use of Spanish was advertised as a “more universal” language.

Seyedi, who recently graduated from Birkbeck, the University of London with a Master’s Degree in “The Middle East in Global Politics,” explained that even in the post-Franco period, while Catalans could regain their autonomy within Spain, the anxiety persists, not only because they hold images of torture, deprivation, and lack of cultural rights but also because their existence as a nation is not recognized yet.

“For many years, Spanish authorities were reluctant to use the term ‘nation’ when referring to Catalans. Finally, they explicitly announced that reference to Catalonia as a nation had no legal weight because Spain is the only nation recognized by the constitution,” he said.

The Kurdish analyst denied the argument that Catalan nationalists seek independence for economic gains.

“Its material rationality stems from Catalans’ specific economy: its share in Spanish tourists, export, and also its share of total taxation in Spain. Catalonia says it pays at least $15 billion more in tax revenues than it receives back in social spending or investments in infrastructure,” he explained.

Seyedi believes that in the final calculations, secession is not economically in favor of Catalans and they are aware of difficulties that would arise post-independence.

“If other factors such as the markets of Catalan’s goods and legal financial frames are added to calculations, it will become very clear very early how dangerous [independence] is,” he said.

“At first, if a part of the EU wants to separate, it will no longer be a member of the EU. Then, it would not enjoy EU economic policies, access the European Central Bank (ECB), and the European Stability Mechanism,” Seyedi explained.

He added that the main importers of Catalonia productions are from the rest of Spain. Any attempts at secession would lead to trade falling and a decline in other exports.

Despite that knowledge, Catalonians are not willing to give up on demands for independence. In fact, in a previous referendum in November 2014 about 80 present of Catalans voted for independence.

“That means non-material rationality of Catalan nationalism has primacy to economic and other material factors,” Seyedi said.

These feelings and anxieties which justified seeking secession found several political opportunities to grow from civil war to external pressure on Spain and also general internal demands for democracy, Seyedi said.

This situation was repeated in the 1970s when Spanish democracy was built by the crucial role of Catalans which in turn led to re-establishing a regional government.

They also benefited from the Basque’s armed conflicts with Madrid as a card to say, “The other options of struggle are on the table in negotiations with the central government,” according to Seyedi.

“They always compare their peaceful movement to ETA’s violent activities,” he said. “While they exploited external pressure from western democracies on the Franco regime, in the current decade they have also emphasized on Britain’s style of devolution which recognizes Scottish, Irish, and Welsh as nations.”

Catalan nationalists used a variety of tools to mobilize members, from cultural and linguistic frames to religion and sport.

“At first, the role of intellectuals among Catalans was not limited to producing theories and thoughts, but they had become mobilizing agents of their nationalist movement. They used all powers of culture, language, and ethnic symbols to transform their intellectual circle into a mass movement,” Seyedi noted.

“Religious elites also contributed in this cultural resistance under Franco dictatorship: Football matches between Barcelona Football Club and the other Spanish clubs, in particular, Madrid ones, always went beyond sport and this politicized a sports environment still alive in Spain,” Seyedi concluded. 

Ahead of the referendum, Spanish police arrested Catalan officials, seized campaign leaflets, closed down 2,300 schools outfitted as polling stations, and raided the Catalan government’s communications center. 

Much like Catalonia, the Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum was deemed “illegitimate” and “illegal” by the Iraqi Parliament.

Nevertheless, the vote went ahead peacefully with no major disruptions the day-of.

In the aftermath of the poll, Iraq imposed a flight ban over the Kurdistan Region, while neighbors Iran and Turkey threatened sanctions, some of which have already been implemented. 


Editing by Karzan Sulaivany