If you’re like me, you may have fallen into this same cognitive trap: when you see two or more instances of some phenomenon, you suddenly believe it is way more representative of a situation than it really is. Wow—two people wearing bowler hats? Everyone is wearing them these days! Chances are, though, that the proliferation of bowler hats is not as widespread as one might believe despite the anecdotal evidence. At least I would hope that is the case. It’s bad enough fedoras are as popular as they are—we don’t need bowler hats and possibly even suspenders being thrown into the mix as well. Looking around the media landscape, it would seem this tendency to overrate the frequency and/or importance of salient events is more universal a problem than you or I alone would suffer. For instance, watching various crime procedural shows on television would have you convinced murder and other lawlessness is rampant in this country. For that matter, so would President Trump, but at least these programs are intended as entertainment. You know, as opposed to trying to inspire feelings of dread and loathing for one’s fellow man.
This all gets exacerbated, moreover, when terms created and popularized by popular media are applicable, seemingly for no other reason than to justify repeated use of the term. In the wake of Watergate, the suffix “-gate” has become synonymous with scandal, despite the nonsensical aspect of having -gate as a standalone term. Meanwhile, following the upset wins of Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the option to Leave the EU for the United Kingdom that same year, news outlets are on the lookout for the next “-exit.” If Marine Le Pen had won the French presidential election—Frexit? Greece’s possible withdrawal from the Eurozone—Grexit? If LeBron James were to theoretically leave Cleveland again—LeBrexit? It would appear the mainstream media is wishing for these kinds of things to happen just so they can make use of this portmanteau. All the while, damn the potential fallout to the world economy and to the people within these countries. And Cleveland? F**k ’em! They got their championship! They can go back to watching the Browns and wallowing in their misery!
Along these lines, various outlets have given a considerable amount of attention to the unrest surrounding a possible declaration of independence in Catalonia apart from the whole of Spain, billing it as another iteration of a more global tension between the ruling and the ruled in today’s political climate. As with the 2016 U.S. election and the UK Brexit referendum vote, support for or against Catalan secession is a mixed bag, with a majority of those who came out for a referendum vote expressing their desire to see a “Catal-exit,” but less than half of eligible voters actually participating in the event (and all kinds of irregularities surrounding the vote). There are also historical considerations to be had; in the case of Catalonia, the lineage of a distinct region within Spain is considerably longer than that of the rocky relationship of the democratic masses of the United States with their elected representatives or even that of our forefathers and their colonial overlords. Despite these superficial similarities, though, there are aspects of Trump’s rise/Brexit lacking in a potential Catalan exit that makes the latter a rather imperfect analog. This is to say that not all pushes for “liberty” are created equal.
First of all, let’s talk about how we got here in the first place. The BBC offers a concise primer on the subject of Catalan independence, noting Catalonia has been a Spanish fixture for nearly a millennium and, for much of its history, enjoyed relative autonomy. Then came along the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s and the rise of the dictatorial General Francisco Franco—and that all got shot to shit. Eventually, though, Franco up and died, Catalans regained their independent spirit, and come 1978, Catalonia regained its effective autonomy under the new Spanish constitution. Flash forward to 2006, and Catalans were voting for outright autonomy and status as a separate nation; as with the current referendum, voter turnout wasn’t exactly robust (less than 50%), but the majority of those who cast ballots for the occasion opted for autonomy. Which, um, lasted all of about four years. In 2010, the Spanish Constitutional Court ruled to annul or re-interpret key provisions of the 2006 Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, prompting a large-scale protest in June of that year, and pretty much annual demonstrations on the matter since. Leading up to the most recent referendum vote, an informal vote regarding independence was held in 2014, and in 2016, Carles Puigdemont was elected President of Catalonia, a noted pro-Catalan-independence separatist. As the article underscores, alongside these repeated referenda and the tug-of-war with the central Spanish government, there has additionally been a fair amount of economic strife between Spain and Catalonia, especially following the 2008 economic crisis which hurt so many nations worldwide. For those on the side of forming a new republic, and right or wrong, there is often the concurrent view that Catalonia gives more than it takes to Madrid, and that Madrid takes more than it gives.
So, about that whole referendum vote. Prior to the October 1 vote, the Catalan parliament held a simple yes-or-no vote pertaining to whether or not Catalonia should hold a referendum vote to become an independent state. This did not go over well with the Spanish government, as the Spanish constitution regards Spain as a whole as indivisible, and in response to the passing of the referendum, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the rest of the Spanish government declared their action illegal, using the Spanish Constitutional Court to suspend the referendum law enacted by the Catalan parliament. Rajoy’s government also moved to seize Catalonia’s finances and to take control of the Catalan police force, arrested pro-independence members of the parliament, blocked access to paper ballots, shut down websites designed to inform the public a vote was even occurring, and suspended a Catalan parliament session at the behest of anti-secession Socialists. And when the fateful day arrived? What resulted was nothing short of a shit-show. Close to 900 people were injured as a direct result of the police show of force implemented to try to prevent a vote from occurring, and to say there were voting irregularities would be an understatement. Polling stations were closed. Ballots were confiscated. Various Catalans reported receiving both wedgies and Wet Willies. OK, I made up that last one, but the government’s response to a prospective move for independence struck many as being disproportionately brutal. What’s more, the heavy-handed way in which the Rajoy government approached the situation may have done more to push Catalans on the fence about secession in favor of leaving Spain. Everyday people generally do not enjoy getting beat up on their way to the ballot box. Just saying.
As bad as Spain looks following the clamp-down on the mere notion of Catalonia possibly leaving the country to form a new nation, it should be stressed that this does not mean the desires of Carles Puigdemont and other Catalan separatists are necessarily prudent. As numerous loyalists to the Spanish crown and independent outside observers and experts have expressed, a move out of Spanish jurisdiction for Catalonia stands to be disastrous for both the region and the European Union in sum. Catalonia is largely reliant on Madrid for its communications regulation and energy supplies, and the Spanish government controls a majority of the region’s transportation infrastructure, not to mention Catalonia is only part of the EU because it is part of Spain. As for Spain, Catalan independence would mean a significant efflux of people and capital, which potentially could hurt a country still trying to recover from a recession and threatens to destabilize the Eurozone altogether. Indeed, for as many Catalans supporting independence, that many or more want Catalonia to remain as part of Spain, as evidenced by the numerous pro-unity rallies held in Barcelona—not even in Madrid. Furthermore, the Spanish government has the support of various influential EU member states, with Germany stating its belief that the rule of Spanish law should prevail even with the violence occurring on the day of the vote, and with France openly conceding it would not recognize an independent Catalonia. As such, and in many respects, it would appear that a “Catal-exit” would be as ill-advised as voting for Donald Trump or voting to Leave the EU.
Still, there is a component evidently lacking in Catalonia’s push for independence that makes treating tensions with Spain a rather poor fit as an analog for American Trumpist populism and British separatism. Catalan separatism seems more provincially limited to considerations of economic and political autonomy, alongside pride in Catalonia’s history and culture. Above all, however, this strikes one as an attitude which exists as a function of regional self-confidence and concomitant lack of confidence in the Spanish state. In the United States and the United Kingdom, on the other hand, while economic concerns and class-based inequality have had a role to play, the specter of race hangs over the decision in both cases to make what many so-called “experts” would perceive was the impractical move. On the U.S. side of things, Donald Trump began his presidential campaign with racist statements, and since then, has aligned himself with white nationalists and has shown a questionable (at best) devotion to meeting the needs of Americans of color, right down to Puerto Ricans needing basic assistance and supplies in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. In the UK, meanwhile, Nigel Farage, the UK Independence Party, and others on the far-right made similar appeals to British voters, championing the need for economic independence from the European Union, but also for securing the nation’s borders. Of course, the United States and the United Kingdom are not the only two places to experience this tension fueled by racism and xenophobia; Marine Le Pen made it to the finals, if you will, of the French presidential election, and Geert Wilders, while an also-ran in the Netherlands, maintains an international profile as an extreme right-winger. Trump’s victory and Britain’s stunning vote to Leave the EU are just the most glaring (and successful) challenges to the status quo.
With this in mind, Catalonia’s possible secession from Spain is more comparable to that of Scotland’s theoretical exit from the United Kingdom than that of America’s and Britain’s apparent departure from sanity. Back in 2014, Scotland held a referendum vote which decided against independence, and since then, hasn’t really wavered from the 10-percentage-point disparity which at least temporarily put the kibosh on Scottish secession from the UK. Nonetheless, Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the controlling Scottish National Party still are intent to keep the possibility of a future independence referendum on the table, especially since the English government led by Theresa May doesn’t seem to have much of a clue as to what it’s doing regarding Brexit’s next steps, thus inspiring little confidence from the likes of Scotland or even Northern Ireland, of which a majority of voters opted to Stay in the EU.
Another similar situation has manifested in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, in which Iraqi Kurds voted overwhelmingly in a September referendum vote to declare independence from Iraq. As with Spain vis-à-vis Catalonia, the Iraqi government has announced it has no intentions of honoring the results of the referendum vote, and Kurdish talk of secession has been decried by most of the international community. Even herein, however, the issue is not one of motivation out of fear of foreign bogeymen, but the desire for representation for a group spread throughout the Middle East and yet lacking the authority full statehood could provide. Again, this may not be an altogether prudent course of action; Kurdish independence could lead to economic woes for both parties and, as many fear, destabilization of the region. In the ongoing fight against jihadism in the Middle East, this is no mere trifle, though one’s mind is always left to wander as to what the motivations are of those taking sides on what amounts fundamentally to an internal matter for the Iraqi people.
The above concerns lend themselves to what is perhaps an inevitable question: do Catalonia and other prospective independence-seeking regions have a right to declare themselves a new nation? If you believe the central governments that contain these states, the answer is a firm no, and in the specific case of Catalonia, this is considered unconstitutional. If you adhere to the viewpoint of Carles Puigdemont and others sympathetic to the pro-independence cause, then they have a right at least to conduct a vote and have earned the ability of self-determination. At this writing—and I say that because this volatile situation is subject to change—Puigdemont has apparently postponed any formal declaration of independence in favor of talks with Madrid. What this means for other regions contemplating their own -exits is similarly up in the air. Your feelings on the subject are probably colored by your personal finances/politics and your attitudes toward government at each level. If you have a vested interest in the European single market, you likely are pro-government. If you are disenfranchised with your country’s politics—and that would seem to cover a lot of us, come to think of it—you may very well be behind the notion of Catalan independence. I admittedly share concerns about the instability Catalan secession from Spain would bring, but a part of me admires Catalonia’s chutzpah in bringing about this whole scenario. Yes, I said chutzpah!
Whatever side of the fence you find yourself on, do consider that hasty comparisons between Catalonia and Brexit and President Trump do Puigdemont and Co. a disservice. Catalonia is attempting to assert its place in the Spanish landscape. Trump supporters and pro-Brexit enthusiasts, even when believing in the supposed purity of what their chosen leaders have put forth, nonetheless are falling prey to the illusory nature of the “great” and magical time and place they have concocted. Not everyone seeks independence for the same reasons. Catalonia is owed a little more credit for that reason.