I am not known for talking politics, but as elections in Catalonia are on their way I have gotten an unexpected urge to share my political opinions. I suddenly came to the realization that politics is not a matter done behind closed doors, but rather one that involves and affects everyone. I no longer believe that politicians are faceless individuals, with names not worth remembering and whose paths I will never cross: they are real people. And just like real people, their actions have real consequences in everyday life and I can no longer pretend that I do not care about their political decisions. At the University of Barcelona I have been taking a class titled Political System of the European Union. The class is small and engaging and because of it I have found myself listening to other peoples’ opinions and beginning to finally wrap my head around the world of politics. It has been fascinating to learn in class about the European Union and to be able to reaffirm what I learn with real life experiences outside of the classroom. I am after all a temporary citizen of the EU and, being caught in the middle of a historical moment for the region of Catalonia, I feel it is my moral obligation to share an overview of the political situation of my place of residence.
For those unfamiliar with the region of Catalonia (also Cataluña or Catalunya), Catalonia is an autonomous community in Spain with four main provinces: Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona. Historically, Catalonia has at times been its own principality and has been considered a part of Spain since the Second Spanish Republic in 1931. In 1937, in the midst of the region’s first thoughts of independence from Spanish rule, Spain fell under Francisco Franco’s regime and Catalonia suffered from a period of repression where freedom of expression was censored and speaking Catalan (a mixture of Spanish and French) became illegal. It would take Francisco Franco’s death and forty years’ time for Catalan nationalism to show its political face in public again. Today, there has been a surge in political movements seeking independence with visible impacts on the regions’ main cities. Public universities ask to install Catalan as the official language for higher education and general strikes exhibit the citizens’ discontent with the Spanish government. Many families speak only in Catalan and a radical younger generation has begun to reject the “Spanish” label and express its disinterest in being a part of the European Union. On September 11th of the present year (Catalonia’s national day) more than a million and a half people manifested on the streets, waving proudly the Catalan flag and asking for a democratic independence from Spain. The manifestation resulted in the convocation of elections to be held on November 25th that will determine the percentage of Catalans who wish for the separation of Catalonia from the Spanish state.
The coming election will define a key moment in the road to independence for the Catalan people but there is still a level of uncertainty surrounding the outcomes of the possible results of the election. If the polls show that the vast majority of citizens desire to become a separate state, the leftists parties will gain political power that could lead to beneficial negotiations with the Spanish government. Yet the minute Catalonia becomes an independent state will be the minute it will loose its membership to the European Union and if Spain’s secession of the territory is not friendly there is always a possibility that any request from Catalonia to re-enter it could be vetoed. And yes, Catalan taxes would be better off fulfilling the needs of the region instead of being destined to support Spain’s poorest areas, but they would also have to cover the social necessities previously covered by the EU. If, on the other hand, the election results do not reflect the need for independence, the Spanish government will feel pressured to put out any remaining political manifestation seeking the separation from Spanish rule and will have to implement policies directed to the percentage of Catalans who fail to take on the Spanish identity. But what can the Madrid government do to unify two regions separated by different languages, levels of religiosity, state governments, distances, industries and cultures?
The next few months will be critical for the writing of Catalan and Spanish history and as a student from a Mennonite college I cannot help but feel inspired by the peaceful approach to independence by the Catalan people. If the Catalan effort for independence fails, then we should at least applaud its democratic take on an often times violent path. Maybe someday Catalonia can serve as a model for places like Quebec or Scotland and even change the social construct of placing the value of a state in the strength of its government and not the character of its people. Nations do not have to be homogeneous in the expression of their culture and ideas that do not reflect the righteousness of those in power do not have to become threats to authorities. The Spanish and the Catalans have coexisted successfully for decades and their example can teach us that identities should be built by that which is shared, not by that which separates us. People change through the natural course of their lives in the same way that identities tend to shift and there is only shame in forming new alliances if there is shame in discussing them openly with other people. A road to independence is a road that is conscious of the rights of others from beginning to end and is respectful of the weight that tradition tends to bring. May the Catalan effort keep true to its nature and may the Catalan message remain always peaceful.