The Catalan independence referendum held on 1 October 2017, was one of the most important recent developments for the Spanish central government and for Catalonia. The unilateral declaration of independence of Catalonia after the referendum held on October 27, 2017 attracted the attention of the Spanish central government, as it revealed the possibility of deterioration of Spain’s territorial integrity and territorial unity (Çelik, 2021: 171). The study aims to explain the conditions and conditions in which the 2017 Catalan referendum took place, to understand the reasons for the independent decision after the referendum and the current political environment created by this situation.
Spain does not accept the Catalan demand for independence, arguing that it violates the Spanish constitution. This argument has the force of law and is based on the 1978 Constitution developed by the Madrid government with a number of Catalan representatives in 1978 (Foundation for Social Studies and Analysis, 2014:23). According to the Spanish government, the independence movement was simply a separatist movement because when the constitution was drafted, Catalonia was represented by a large number of people, whereas the Spanish constitution represented the Catalans. For this reason, the representative of Catalonia accepted the application for autonomy and reflected the wishes of the Catalans (Ercan, 2020: 51).
Another reason why Spain did not accept the calls of the Catalans for a referendum is that the result of the referendum was interpreted as reflecting only the wishes of the Catalans. In fact, according to the Spanish constitution, such a decision can be taken and implemented by the decision of the entire people. It is unconstitutional that only the Catalans make a referendum decision and try to implement it. On the other hand, although this requirement does not represent the whole of Spain, it violates Spain’s right to self-determination and the principles of Westphalia’s territorial integrity and indivisibility (Connoly, 2013: 67).
Despite all these objections, the Catalan parliament decided for a referendum in 2014. Although the decision was not accepted by the Spanish central government, an independence referendum was held in Catalonia in November 2014 (Aydın, 2017: 543). While the participation rate in the referendum was only 37% and did not represent the majority, the central government accepted that the referendum was unconstitutional, causing the 2014 referendum to remain at a symbolic level (Aydın, 2017: 544). Although 80% of the election results stemmed from the desire for independence and it was claimed that the referendum and its results were not taken into account by the opponents due to low turnout rates, the referendum did not represent the majority (Smith, 2017: 8).
The reasons that were not disclosed but were probably the strongest factor in the process leading up to the referendum are economic. Spain, one of the four member countries most affected by the 2008 global economic crisis, had to apply for a loan from the European Union to overcome its financial difficulties. The brutal years of austerity that began with the financial crisis led to the rise of populist parties across Spain and disillusionment in Catalonia, Spain’s wealthiest region. Probably, the Catalan dissatisfaction with paying high taxes to support the welfare of Spain, which has little partnership, is largely effective in meeting the needs for secession (Çelik, 2021:107).
Table 1: Reasons for the 2017 Catalan Independence Referendum
The Catalans from the past saw themselves as a separate nation from the Spaniards.
Spanish identity imposed by Barcelona after the siege of 1714
Felipe V , Rivera and Franco
The Spanish government’s belief in the lack of democracy and the politicians’ unresponsiveness to the Catalan problem
Restriction on Catalan autonomy by the 2010 Constitutional Court decisions
The 2014 Scottish Referendum set a precedent
The belief that elements of Catalan identity are suppressed
Increasing influence of Spanish in the Catalan region
austerity policies after the 2008 financial crisis
High taxes from Catalonia
Catalonia’s inability to receive a response at the rate of its economic contribution to the country
Source: Çelik, S. (2021). Justifications Explaining the 2017 Catalan Independence Referendum. Section Academy Journal, 7 (26), 100-109.
Although “religion” was a unifying factor for the 8th to the 16th centuries, economic factors became decisive afterwards. As a matter of fact, the emphasis on economy can be encountered in the background of the discourses of independence today. First, Catalonia is active both in the traditional industry and in the football industry. In a report published in 2018, the weight of Catalonia in the Spanish economy was determined as approximately 20% (Elcano Royal Institute, 2018: 6). Secondly, it would not be wrong to talk about a process that feeds each other from the first rebellion/uprising to the present. It is possible to see a relationship between the prohibitions put forward from the Bourbon dynasty to the Franco period and the demands of the Catalans for more rights. Thirdly, “language” comes first among the parameters that sustain the Catalan identity. Therefore, the emphasis on culture and cultural rights comes to the fore rather than an ethnic emphasis. However, it should be noted that the idea that these demands represent all Catalans is wrong. In particular, the rate of those who consider themselves to be “Spanish and Catalan” is not low, and the rate of the population participating in the aforementioned referendums is low. Although the Spanish Constitution does not allow this situation, it can be stated that it is difficult to eliminate the Catalonia issue in 2019 and beyond. On the Catalonia side, a point of view that ignores the decisions and sanctions of both Spain and the EU is dominant. (Zenginoglu, 2019: 1782).
In October 2017, Catalonia voted to secede from Spain in a controversial referendum. Later that month, the regional president unilaterally declared independence. The Spanish government responded with police intervention and the use of courts to thwart these attempts. Finally, direct rule was applied, suspending the devolved powers of Catalonia. The referendum caused panic among Spanish companies based in Catalonia. This particularly affected banks that moved their headquarters to Madrid, many of whom were concerned about whether independent Catalonia would become a member of the European Union. ( Oliveria , 2020: 3).
The failed independence campaign led to the movement’s leaders either going into exile or being tried and convicted for their role in the October 2017 events . The severity of the sentences is disputed and sparked riots in the Catalan city in October 2019. Meanwhile, the situation in Catalonia helped reshape Spain’s national politics. Unprecedented periods of instability, including the two elections in 2019, made the far-right Vox party the third largest party in the Madrid parliament ( Oliveria , 2020: 3).
While unrest in the streets of Catalonia has been suppressed and constitutional order restored, the underlying tensions that led to the region’s modern independence movement remain unresolved. The standoff between the Spanish government and the political and social movements of the region continues to this day. The crisis turned to national politics; Spain held its fourth general election in four years on 10 November 2019. Understanding the context of the Catalan crisis is part of explaining Spain’s political instability and its polarized and fragmented political landscape.
Considering this information, considering the international reaction to the unilateral declaration of independence of the Catalan parliament, it should be noted that most countries have a negative view of the issue in general. England, Germany, France, Belgium, Canada, Turkey and the United States of America, stating that they do not recognize the unilaterally declared independence and support the Spanish central government, emphasize that the above-mentioned declaration of independence has no meaning for them. The states emphasize the importance of establishing a dialogue between central and local governments in Spain, emphasizing that the problem should be resolved within the framework of the Spanish constitution by considering the rule of law (Çelik, 2021:177).
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