Endnote 4, Expanded: Catalonia Year 10

by David J. Lobina

The writer Colm Tóibín, who hasn’t seen a peripheral nationalist movement he didn’t like.

And now, by popular demand – that is, on account of the few people who wrote in the comments section of last month’s post – here’s an expanded endnote 4, which in the alluded post was meant to answer one simple question but in the event did no such thing. Namely: What on earth has happened in Catalonia in the last ten or so years?[1]

It all started in Arenys de Munt, a town of about 9,000 people 40 kms north-east of Barcelona. I’m kidding, but only in part. In September 2009, Arenys de Munt held a referendum of independence, which according to the journalist Guillem Martínez, my guide in this post, was the first case of an explicitly secessionist vote in Catalonia in modern times, and the perspective that would dominate what is now known as the procés [“process”].[2] In fact, there were a number of such consultations in different areas of Catalonia between 2009 and 2011, all of which should be regarded as independentist exercises rather than independence referenda, as participation was generally low and support for independence unnaturally high – the turnout in a vote in Barcelona in 2011 was only 21%, with 90% of voters supporting independence. As mentioned last month, numerous official surveys of Catalans show that support for independence is not the majority opinion, though it has increased since 2007, when it was less than 20%, to the 34% of 2021 (see previous post).

These consultations from 2009-11 certainly showcase the process that has made the issue of independence part of mainstream political debate in Catalonia in the last 10 or so years, and which has turned Catalan nationalism into a secessionist movement, leaving behind the federalism that had been favoured since the early 19th century (and which remains the option most people in Catalonia support, mind you). The origins of this change in outlook may be found in a variety of recent political developments, some of which were more removed from the day-to-day of citizens than what may be appear to be the case at first.

In particular, much has been made of the travails of the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia of 2006 (the Estatut) to explain the increase in independentist feelings. Drafted in 2005 and meant to provide the basic constitutional arrangement of the autonomous region of Catalonia within Spain (or rather, to update an older Statute on such arrangement), it was approved by the Catalan Parliament (the Parlament) in September of that year and then made its way to the Spanish Parliament, where it faced opposition from conservative and right-wing parties, especially the People’s Party, then in opposition. The People’s Party in fact filed a complaint against the Estatut in the Constitutional Court of Spain, which allowed the complaint to be heard but would only make a ruling four years later.[3] After many deliberations and negotiations, an amended text of the Estatut made it past the Spanish Parliament in May 2006 and was then put to a vote in a referendum in Catalonia later in 2006. It was approved by close to 74% of voters, though turnout was low at 49%.

Then came the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and with it some of the more comprehensive cuts in social spending in Europe, especially in Catalonia from 2010 when the conservative party Convèrgencia i Unió (CiU) was voted back in power with Artur Mas as president, as Martínez has chronicled.[4] In 2010 also came the ruling of the Constitutional Court of Spain on the status of a number articles of the Estatut. Fourteen articles were deemed unconstitutional and a number of others were identified as requiring reinterpretation or reframing. Cue various demonstrations in Catalonia against the ruling two weeks later, most notably a rather large one in Barcelona in July 2010 under the motto of som una nació, nosaltres decidim [we are a nation, we decide], a reference to the downgrading of Catalonia from being defined as a “nation” in the preamble to the Estatut to a “nationality”, though this particular issue was largely inconsequential in reality.[5]

As is often the case in demonstrations such as these, the impetus was more reactive and symbolic than it was substantive. It really bears emphasis that the Estatut received very little public scrutiny in Catalonia at the time (it was approved in the Parlament soon after being drafted, after all), and even when it was put to a vote in the 2006 referendum public engagement was quite limited. One possible reason for this is that the Estatut offered very little in the way of social policies and rights, given that much of it was in fact devoted to fiscal arrangements, in particular on the scope of oversight the Catalan administration would have over its own fiscal policy – possibly the real objective of most nationalist politicians.[6]

Still, no-one could have foreseen the extent of the independentist march of 2012 in Barcelona on the day of the Diada, the National Day of Catalonia, which falls on the 11th of September, a historic demonstration that certainly made 2012 a turning point for Catalanism. Termed Year 1 of Catalonia by the socialist and republican magazine Sin Permiso, the years after 2012 would see CiU adopt an independentist path (and eventually its dissolution), the emergence of new political actors, and much worldwide attention.[7] Events moved fast.

The Catalan president Artur Mas called a snap election in December 2012, despite enjoying a slim majority since 2010, supposedly to gain a greater majority and thus more leverage in the negotiations he was conducting with the central government at the time (the People’s party was then in power), and instead proceeded to lose his majority altogether, forcing CiU to rely on the votes of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya [The Republican Left of Catalonia, an independentist, social-democratic party] to form government. More financial cuts followed, but this time there was a novelty, apparently the main input of Esquerra during this time, as an attempt was made to organise a legally binding independence referendum. The result was yet another consultation in 2014, with similar results to previous such votes.

Catalonia Year 4, or 2015 to you and me, brought new elections, with the grand coalition of Junts pel Sí [Together for the Yes (vote)] winning the vote, but without an overall majority in total number of votes (it did have a majority in the Parlament, thanks to the way seats are distributed in the Catalan electoral system). Though Mas was meant to be invested as President of Catalonia, his candidacy was blocked by other members of the coalition and the then little-known Carles Puigdemont was elected instead.[8]

Events moved even faster now, and hardly with any democratic oversight. The procés was in full swing by the latter part of 2016, with much attention seemingly placed on creating the necessary structures for a new independent state, or so was the brag. And there was much boastfulness about, perhaps more astonishingly in a number of statements that came to light in January 2017, as discussed by Martínez, by a former independentist judge and by then a sitting senator in Catalonia, Santiago Vidal, who had declared at a symposium that the Catalan administration already had the fiscal details of all Catalan citizens, which would have been a crime had it proven to be true (he also claimed the Catalan government had the names of all the judges they wanted to keep as well as those they wanted to get rid of). Vidal resigned as senator right away and in 2018 testified in court that his comments had been untrue, but the episode was reflective of the mood that had set in by 2017. The ONGs Òmnium Cultural and Assemblea Nacional Catalana [ANC, The Catalan National Assembly], which would be instrumental in organising an independence referendum later that year, were by then busy organising numerous pancatalanist events, some of which were borderline supremacist in nature (Martínez dixit). And then came the tumultuous months of September and October, Catalonia Year 6.[9]

On the 6th of September of 2017, the Catalan parliament passed a law to call what they claimed would be a legally binding referendum on the independence of Catalonia, to be held on the 1st of October without the participation, or indeed consent, of the central government. And a day later, on the 7th, the Parlament passed a law setting up the foundation of the Catalan Republic, including the necessary measures for a “judicial transition” (namely, the transfer of all competencies from the Spanish state to an independent Catalonia).

The process of passing these laws was very irregular; among other things, parliamentary procedure was not followed and the law officers of the Parlament refused to sign off the two laws as they regarded them as clearly illegal. No matter, the laws were approved and published by the Speaker of the House anyway, though they would soon be suspended by the Constitutional Court of Spain, kickstarting a legal process that would come to a head later on. The laws of the 6-7th of September were also viewed by many as simply undemocratic, considering that they took Catalan independence as a fait accompli before the vote on independence had taken place; indeed, the role of this legislation seemed to have been to provide a framework to establish a new state. Maybe, Martínez says, inviting us to look at this from a different angle, and I will come back to this in a minute.

What followed in the next month or so was ghastly to say the least. A referendum campaign ensued, and a very short campaign it was – it lasted less than a month; for comparison, the official campaign in the Brexit referendum lasted two months – though in reality this was more a victory parade than a campaign, as the referendum was effectively a confirmatory vote, which certainly didn’t take into consideration any other Catalans other than those who were in favour of independence to being with (it was certainly no exercise in democracy). The central government opted for a heavy-handed response to the referendum when they could just have ignored the non-binding vote as they had with other such consultations in the past, and in the event this ended with horrible, violent scenes on the day of the referendum on the 1st of October. Then there was a shambolic, unilateral declaration of independence from Puigdemont on the 10th of October, followed by a vote in the Parlament supposedly confirming that Catalonia was now an independent Republic. Soon after the central government announced a suspension of Catalan autonomy, which lasted until June 2018, with new regional elections in between. And finally, in October 2019, the Juicio del procés came to an end [namely, the trial of Catalan independence leaders at the centre of it all], with a number of people sent to prison with rather lengthy sentences.[10]

Putting aside the most serious accusations at the trial against the architects of the October referendum and the declaration of independence, the lesser charges of misuse of public funds and disobedience were in a way self-evident  – after all, a referendum emanating from legislation that had been suspended by the Constitutional Court of Spain was in the event held and thus paid for (though of course these charges needed to be properly proved at the trial). Guillem Martínez has a rather different take on this.

For Martínez, the events in September/October 2017 are reflective of a certain style of doing politics in Spain, and indeed in Catalonia; more form than substance; and for show rather than for real. Yes, the laws of the 6-7th of September were voted through in the Catalan parliament, but given the manner in which they were adopted it is doubtful they were ever officially in effect (suspended or not), and in any case, Martínez avers, the Catalan government did not actually carry out any measure to implement the “disconnection” from Spain, to “transit” into a new state, to effect the declaration of independence. To Martínez, the whole process of the procés was a propaganda exercise by the Catalan political class, especially by the PDeCAT, the old Convèrgencia who had never been an independentist party but who were now looking to capitalise on the recent increase in independentism. There was a social procés, which Martínez sees more clearly in the popular votes of 2009-2011, and which were for the most part organised by local governments (and sometimes held in very small regions); but the political procés started in 2012 was a case of the political class jumping on the proverbial bandwagon, and thus an exercise in political survival. The aim of that Catalan political class that had historically been mostly interested in fiscal policy was to survive the various political crises facing Catalonia at the time, which seriously threatened their leadership and existence. Two were particularly concerning: the crisis involving the 2006 Estatut, and the rather more real social crisis created by the austerity policies Mas and company had themselves implemented since 2010. In this sense, the procés was as typical of Catalan politics as it is of Spanish politics in general. More importantly, the Catalan political class knew full well that there was no hope to achieve what they had promised to do; that is, that the political procés was a fraud and a hoax, a piece of propaganda aimed at what effectively was a small audience.[11]


We are now in Catalonia Year 10, and thankfully the Catalan government has recently been able to revert some of the cuts introduced since 2010, mostly thanks to the European funds Catalonia has received to offset some of the effects of the Covid pandemic. This brings obvious, concrete benefits to people. In addition, the Catalan administration seems to have finally shaken off the immobilism that has characterised these last ten years, a period in which few laws have been enacted, let alone any social policies, which is what most people care about. Is there an appetite for independence, though, or even for an actual, legally-binding referendum?

One of the things the procés most regretfully brought about in Catalonia was much social division between independentists and non-independentists, at all levels and even within nuclear families. This happened at the Sin Permiso magazine too, an example that was especially troubling for me given that I had taken it for granted that its writers shared a left-wing ideological bond that couldn’t be broken by the procés, and yet after the events of September/October 2017 a number of writers simply ceased to be published (namely, those who were critical of the political procés).[12] This brings attention to the thorny issue of what to do with such falling-outs, and especially with those who lose out in a closely contested referendum. Is it at all justified to introduce wide-ranging changes to a country or region if a referendum is narrowly won? Can the social divide be mended in such cases?

Consider a hypothetical case. Imagine a referendum with a 72% turnout which is decided by a simple majority (more than one half) and in which 51.89% of voters ask for fundamental changes to the constitution of their country, for 48.11% who would rather keep things as they are (or to put these votes into total numbers, let’s say this is a difference between 17.4 million people and 16.1 million, for a total of 33 million people who voted). What on earth do you do with the 48% of voters who did not want such drastic changes to their country?


[1] In a reversal of roles from the last post on this series on Language and Nationalism, the endnotes to this piece will be more scholarly than political, and the main text more political than scholarly (or something like that). I should stress that it was never my intention in this series to have to talk about politics, but here we are. And with this in mind, it is perhaps worth briefly summarising the overall picture I have tried to paint in this series. To wit: language is a mental phenomenon, a system of primitives and rules that can “generate” internal linguistic structures which in turn can be externally “produced” in speech, hand signs, or else; crucially, two people are able to communicate with each other when they share such a system (otherwise termed a mental grammar) to a significant extent; small communities of people naturally develop a similar enough language, which is typically all of their own; indeed, as the various communities of an ever larger territory – say, a nascent country in medieval Europe – become more ingrained within their own regions and as a result fairly removed from communities from other regions – the usual state of affairs in pre-modern, parcelised, feudal Europe – the various languages spoken in a large territory are bound to be rather different; with common languages usually come common beliefs about a given community’s history and customs, most of these beliefs typically more imagined than real, but in so arising they do yield a certain psychological disposition (namely, an embryonic nationalist ethos); nationalist feelings first arose properly around the time of the Renaissance in Europe and only among the regional elites who by then were starting to share a language, each such language slowly becoming ever more established among these elites; with the advent of the full effects of industrialisation and the centralisation of state functions, the most prestigious elite language became the language of the administration, and in time of the overall country once universal education became a reality in the 18-19th centuries; and with this came national identities, nation-states, and all the other features that orbit around nationalism (the imposition of a language or culture, the enforced contrast with others, etc.), be this in the United Kingdom, Spain, or indeed in Catalonia.

[2] Or more properly, the Catalan independentist process. I already mentioned the Catalan writer Guillem Martínez in endnote 4 of What do Catalans want?, and I shall base most of what I say here on Martínez’s account of the procés and its aftermath. Most of this material can be found, in Spanish, in the column Martínez keeps at Revista Contexto (or ctxt, as they style themselves), though fishing out the relevant articles is an impossible task now as ctxt does not categorise the entries and Martínez is a prolific and moreover rather promiscuous author. Thankfully, Martínez has published three books on the procés (see here, here, and here), also in Spanish, and these are effectively collections of his best columns from ctxt. I will refer to Martínez throughout the text but won’t provide any page or article references on this occasion. It is worth adding that ctxt has published many interesting pieces on the procés other than those of Martínez’s, but a venue of exchange of ideas it is not; like many other Spanish publications of recent, comments are only open to paid subscribers, which is really a mockery of free speech. Had comments been opened in one particular occasion, by-the-by, I would have told Martínez that Rudolf Rocker’s memoirs in Spanish can easily be found at university libraries in Barcelona; a fascinating figure who wrote much about nationalism, this anarchist rabbi deserves a few entries in this column of mine, and I invite anyone to raise their hand if interested in reading what I have to say about Rocker. By the way, I will keep to my practice of using sources that are mostly in Spanish and Catalan, as in the previous post; again, I think this provides a different perspective to what has been on offer in the English-speaking media.

[3] As a matter of fact, the People’s Party was not the only agent to take the case to the Constitutional Court. Many of the regional governments surrounding Catalonia (those of Valencia, Aragon, Balearic Islands, etc.) filed complaints of their own, and this included the Office of the Public Advocate in Spain [El Defensor del Pueblo; the Ombudsman, basically]. The details of each complaint are complex and would require an extensive endnote, even by my standards. Suffice here to say that the Catalan Estatut is rather comprehensive in specifying the rights and obligations of citizens and other agents (often overreaching), and in some cases it appears to even encroach upon the functions of other Catalan-speaking regions, such as Valencia and the Balearic Islands.

[4] As a reminder: Convèrgencia i Unió [Convergence and Union] was an alliance of two parties (one conservative, one Christian democratic), it ruled Catalonia from 1980 to 2003, and has had a central role in Catalan politics in one guise or another since then, as explained in the text (and in endnote 8).

[5] As the Constitutional Court of Spain confirmed, the preamble does not have any legal standing, though I should add that the contrast between the concepts of a “nation” and a “nationality” is probably more pronounced in Spanish and Catalan than may be in English. This, however, doesn’t stop someone like Colm Tóibín, who certainly has a rose-tinted view of Catalan nationalism (a tainted view, I would argue), exaggerating the supposed significance of this point (for instance here, where he insists it was the Supreme Court rather than the Constitutional Court that curtailed the Estatut, two very different bodies in Spain, in fact).

[6] The main model for some Catalan politicians is the so-called “concierto económico” [economic agreement, roughly] the Basque Country enjoys in Spain, according to which this region is in control of most of its fiscal policies.

[7] Sin Permiso, based in Barcelona, has been another useful source of information for me over the years, but I should make clear that the material they have published after the 2017 independence referendum (see main text) has been quite skewed at times (their coverage also exemplifies an unfortunate cultural development during the procés; I will come back to this at the end of the post).

[8] Mas may have been affected by the corruption case known as the Palau-Millet case then engulfing his party, though Puigdemont also belonged to the same party as Mas, the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia, one of the two parties CiU was composed of, and which was later rebranded as the Catalan European Democratic Party, or PDeCAT, once CiU was dissolved (the PDeCAT remained the main party in Catalonia until the local elections of 2021, where they did really badly). The Palau-Millet corruption case was especially damaging to Jordi Pujol, the Catalan president from 1980 to 2003. This would not have surprised the first president of Catalonia post-Franco, Josep Tarradellas, who by 1980 had foreseen some of the developments Pujol would be part of in the future, including becoming a Catalan nationalist while in government as a way to fend off some of the corruption accusations already hanging over his head at the time. I should add, as a way to bring Colm Tóibín into the conversation again, that technically speaking Tarradellas was never a president of Catalonia; he was made president while in exile during the Franco dictatorship, but so-called government-in-exiles are never truly representative and their status can often simply temporary or preliminary (that is, transitional). In fact, Tarradellas’s main role after the Franco years was to act as the de facto leader of a pre-democratic Catalan government set up to negotiate the approval of the Catalan Statue of Autonomy of 1979, and by the time of the 1980 elections Tarradellas duly retired. Interestingly, when Tarradellas went back to Catalonia in 1977 and made his now famous speech (“citizens of Catalonia, I am back”), Tóibín was there, even shedding a tear, apparently, though he couldn’t understand why hardly anyone in Catalonia took Tarradellas seriously. But why would they? Tarradellas had been in exile since 1939 and was clearly not part of Catalan civil society in any meaningful or direct way; the triumphal return of a prodigal, Nationalist son is a trope perhaps better appreciated by outsiders with a penchant for peripheral nationalist movements.

[9] Like any other nationalism, Catalanism is not free of xenophobic or racist strands. Significant public funds have been granted to the Institut Nova Història [The New History Institute] in recent years, for instance, a fringe institution that spreads supremacist accounts of Catalan history, denouncing the concealment of what they see as the real history of Catalonia (both Columbus and Cervantes were Catalan, if they are to be believed; worth adding that some members of the Catalan National Assembly are involved with this Institute). There are also many examples of anti-Spanish sentiments from various nationalist organisations and politicians, including from high office. Needless to say, one needs not look too hard to find plenty of examples of anti-Catalan feelings from non-Catalan Spanish politicians and intellectuals, but this is just in line with my overall take on nationalism tout court.

[10] Regarding the trial of the procés, I shall simply paraphrase the verdict of Amnesty International: a fair process, but unfair sentences (there is more to say about it, but this time please do not ask for more!).

[11] A small public indeed, and certainly not representative of Catalan society overall, despite the fantasies of Colm Tóibín, who at the time saw the procés as an example of the Catalan people reinventing themselves. The nonsense Tóibín was writing in September 2017 about it all is hardly believable today (or then, in fact; this endnote has been 4 years in the making!). Tóibín’s overall take seems to be based on two rather ill-informed premises. First there is the claim that many Catalans don’t feel Spanish, though in actual fact, and according to official data from July 2017, 39% of citizens felt as Catalan as they were Spanish, 21% more Catalan than Spanish, and 22% only Catalan (as we saw last month, this general picture has changed in recent years). And then, secondly, there is the claim that the programme of linguistic immersion initiated in the 1980s to increase the number of Catalan speakers was a great success, to the point that soon no-one in Catalonia would have to bother with Spanish (this premise includes a rather chilling anecdote Tóibín recounts in the article, according to which a restaurant is threatened with closure by an official because it cannot provide the menu in Catalan; not that this bothered Tóibín one bit, though). In actual fact, by 2013 75% of the population spoke Catalan and close to 99% Spanish (in addition, and from the same survey from 2007: 48% stated that Spanish was their mother tongue, for 41% for Catalan); and as mentioned last month, Catalans are as bilingual as they come and this is not going to change, though it is certainly true that the Spanish language is so widespread and influential that Catalan is always going to be in a somewhat precarious state (but this is not on account of any political reasons). So how did Tóibín view matters in 2017, then? He criticised the Madrid government for insisting that the referendum was illegal (this despite the fact that the vote had been suspended by the Constitutional Court), castigated them for not campaigning in the referendum (as if there was nothing wrong with either the laws passed on the 6-7th of September or with the inadequate few weeks allocated to campaigning; not to mention, again, that the vote had been suspended by one of the highest courts of the land), and surmised that the central government wasn’t campaigning because of the success of linguistic immersion, which meant that in some areas of Catalonia the President of Spain may well have thought that he was in a foreign country where people didn’t understand the language he spoke and he didn’t understand the language they spoke (as if there are many, or even any, monolingual Catalan speakers in Catalonia; and as if no-one outside Catalonia understands Catalan). Back to the real world, and in another context entirely, Tóibín is reported as having shown his desire for Ireland to become ‘a pluralist, post-nationalist, all-inclusive, non-sectarian place’; no such feelings appear to be applicable in the case of Catalonia. Indeed, in a particularly pathetic comment from the 2017 article, Tóibín acknowledges that independence is unlikely to win in a referendum (in July 2017, 34% favoured independence), but if the Brexit vote has shown anything, it is that polls are often wrong and small margins can be overcome – so that’s OK, then, pluralism and inclusiveness be damned!

[12] It is worth adding that the (knee-jerk) reaction of much of the left outside of Spain was to support the peripheral nationalist movement of Catalonia against the repressive Spanish state, and this highlights an interesting disconnect of the international left with a substantial part of the left in both Spain in general and in Catalonia in particular. Indeed, my focusing on Guillem Martínez in this post is precisely along the lines of this disconnect, but others could have been mentioned to this effect.