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What hope for Catalan separatists five years after failed referendum?

A day marking a historical defeat may seem like an odd point to declare the resurgence of Catalonia’s independence movement. 

But for activist Imma Caboti, it showed how Catalans are again working up their appetite to split away from the Spanish state — five years after a failed independence referendum. 

Waving their distinctive red, yellow and blue flags, tens of thousands of Catalans marched through Barcelona for their national day which marks the city falling to a military defeat by Spain in 1714.

“The public support for independence is massive,” says Caboti, a committee member of Catalan National Assembly (ANC), a popular grassroots campaign group.

But her optimism is marred by infighting among Catalonia’s pro-independence parties, which hold a 51 per cent majority in the regional parliament. 

Internal rifts over the strategy to break away from Spain — either dialogue with Madrid or unilateral action — are undermining the independence movement, according to Caboti. 

“Our point of view is clear — we have a majority in votes. Our government was elected with a mandate to implement independence, which isn’t happening,” Caboti tells Euronews. 

“The internal divisions are perfect for the Spanish. We believe Catalonia can only achieve independence unilaterally.”

The ANC’s hardline position — to see Catalonia reinstate its independence declaration by 2024 — is indicative of the split in Catalan politics after the referendum on October 1, 2017.

The ill-fated ballot, which saw 90 per cent of voters — or two million people — choose independence with a 43 per cent turnout, was a “major defeat” for the Catalan movement, according to Dr Andrew Dowling, Hispanic historian at Cardiff University.

Spain branded the vote as illegal and imposed direct rule on Catalonia to clinch back control. 

But Dowling says many Catalans feel alienated from Spain after its response which included police violence, arrests of politicians and spying on activists

“Any consolation Spain can offer now is likely to be too little too late for Catalans who have psychologically broken off from Spain,” says Dowling. 

“Even if 40 per cent of Catalans support independence it’s still a big problem for Spain.”

A government poll in September showed that around 52% of Catalans oppose independence and 41% back it — a drop from the 49% in 2017. 

However, Catalonia now finds itself divided by — as Dowling puts it — “a government with two horses riding in different directions”.

“There was a fair degree of unity that kept the independent movement going up until the referendum,” he adds. 

Catalonia’s divided politics

Catalonia, home to 7.7 million people in Spain’s northeast, is governed by a fragile coalition of pro-independence parties that have clashed over their strategy to break with Spain. 

Regional president Pere Aragones, leader of the ERC (Republican Left of Catalonia), has preferred dialogue with Madrid, which has infuriated coalition partner Junts (Together for Catalonia). 

Last week, the coalition narrowly avoided collapse after Pere Aragones sacked his vice president Jordi Puignero — head of Junts — without consulting other government members. 

The spat came after Aragones announced on Tuesday that he would seek permission from Spain’s capital to hold a referendum; a request that Madrid immediately rejected. 

“If the government had a united front and a clear plan it would probably encourage more people to support the movement,” says Caboti, whose pro-independence group the ANC is considering fielding candidates for a future election if the stalemate continues. 

Identity ‘under threat’

Catalonia’s quest for independence can be traced through the centuries but current debates centre on its economy and identity. 

The region is financially lucrative and contributes around 19 per cent of Spain’s GDP — the second highest behind Madrid — yet in 2022 the Spanish government allocated 17.2 per cent of state funds back to Catalonia in its budget.

“Catalans feel they are underfunded by the Spanish state,” says Ana Sofia Cardenal, political scientist at Catalonia’s Open University.

She adds that the imbalance causes tension in the region which faces some poor public services like trains and roads that need more funding. 

Meanwhile, some fear for Catalonia’s language, which is spoken by most Catalans and has been seen to have come under attack.

In 2021, Spanish courts sparked outrage by ruling that a quarter of teaching in all schools in Catalonia must be in Spanish.

The decision clashed with a system of language immersion — in place for 36 years — that saw Catalan used in classrooms to protect the language that was quashed under the Franco dictatorship.

Catalonia’s government is challenging the court decision and has told schools that they don’t need to hit the quota of teaching 25 per cent in Spanish this year.

“Catalans feel they don’t have enough guarantees that they will be protected from the central state, they need some safeguards,” says Cardenal.

“It’s this sense they can’t protect their policies on language, finances or services from external interference.” 

Public support

Cardenal adds that rising energy costs due to the war in Ukraine mean people are not engaging as much with independence activism, which may provide a chance for Spain to dampen the movement. 

“People are just not motivated because they have more pressing problems,” Cardenal says.

“If there’s real progress in solving some of the problems for Catalan people then we could see the support for independence going down.”

Spain has made some efforts to appease Catalonia since the failed referendum.

Last year, the government ordered the partial pardon of 12 convicted Catalan separatists convicted for their roles in the 2017 referendum. 

But in Arenys de Munt, a small town 40 kilometres north of Barcelona, opinions on the quiet streets are as divided as those in the corridors of power. 

“I’m already 64, it won’t happen in my lifetime,” says shopkeeper Magda Artigas, who voted for independence in 2017. 

Josep Lluis Rodriguez, a former business owner, is more optimistic but voices his frustration at the government’s current direction. 

“It’s clear they [the government] are no longer openly interested in independence. Of course there is frustration and anger, because they didn’t do what they should have done,” Rodriguez says.

“We are organised and when the time comes, we will mobilise,” he adds.

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