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Catalan Referendum and Strike October 2017

Catalan Referendum march in Palafrugell Yesterday, October 3rd 2017, was a general strike in Catalonia against violence seen during the Catalan Referendum on Sunday 1st October. As part of the general strike, towns and cities throughout Catalonia came out onto the streets to demonstrate support in the evening. We went down to attend the local march in Palafrugell and to give a sense of the demonstrations and the strong desire for political change in Catalonia.

At this point I'm going to try to give a potted history and explanation of where and why Catalonia believes it should be independent and some background to what's going on. It's fair to say that for people from outside the region, it can be difficult to understand what is going on, and why there is such a depth of feeling among the Catalans. We certainly had little understanding of the situation or very much understanding of the history of Spain much beyond the discovery of America and the Spanish Armada. However, having lived here and being extremely interested in the history and geography, I've come to realise the rich and complex tapestry of Catalonia and its relationship with Spain.

Catalan Referendum Torre Jonama Palafrugell The simple history of Spain, which is most frequently presented by Spanish nationalists, sees Catalonia as a region that becomes part of Aragon before, in 1479, being unified with Castille under the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella to create the modern Spanish nation. In this view Spain is an indivisible whole and Catalonia was never a country, and so has no legitimate claim for independence. The current claims are 19th century romanticism and a desire to pay less taxes.

To get beyond this, and really into the deep emotional feeling that lies beneath the independence push needs a more nuanced view of Spanish history, one which sees Spain as part of a unified crown, but still being a set of semi-independent territories, each with their own governance, laws, taxes and duties. The Aragonese were not allowed to trade in the Castillan West Indies for instance until the mid eighteenth century.

Catalan Referendum and general strike in Palafrugell These element of self-government and self-identity of the semi-independent territories were swept away in a wave of French-style single-nation laws and centralisation (the Nueva Planta decrees) that followed the Spanish conquest of rebellious Catalonia in 1714, and that included banning the use of Catalan in primary education and official documents. Though Spain remained relatively at ease with itself until Napoleon's invasion, reactions to the events of the start of the 18th Century continued to reverberate through Spain in the 19th and 20th centuries as it struggled under revolts, civil wars (plural), loss of overseas territories and a push-me-pull-you of politics that saw regions pull against centre, and various forms of radicalised politics emerge.

Into this melee, Catalonia rediscovered itself and developed its own idea of Catalonia as a nation, distinct from Spain. It was finally allowed to use its own language in official work in 1931 (216 years later), only to have this removed by Franco in 1936. So that within living memory are groups of citizens who were not allowed to use Catalan at school, and who were ruled by proxies of the central Spanish government, rather than through their own elected officials.

As a result, there are extremely deeply felt opinions that go far back in time with family memories of Spanish crack downs on Catalan separatist views from even the 1900s. While Spanish nationalists will point to the financial crisis as a catalyst, other forces were already at play, seeking the Catalan Statute of Autonomy for instance. Regional identity versus centralism is a topic that bubbles away through Spanish history.

An overview of the history of Spain and Catalonia

We start the story in 719. At this time, Spain had been conquered by the Moors (mainly from Morocco) who had captured the Peninsula as muslim lands. The Moors pushed into France until they were defeated at Poitiers/Tours in 732. The development of modern Spain then starts with the slow reclaiming of Spain by Christian forces.

Resistance to Moorish rule grew in the north first, from Asturies in 722 - the first of the Spanish kingdoms to emerge. The second northern kingdom was Navarre/Pamplona from 824. Then in a complex story of kingdoms and rivalries, Asturies expanded across northern Spain eventually leading to the establishment of the Kingdom of Leon (910). Leon then joining with Navarre. From these northern Spanish kingdoms, the Kingdom of Aragon emerged in 1035 and Castile finally became its own kingdom, from a county of Leon, in 1065 providing the foundation for modern Castilian Spain.

Meanwhile on the Mediterranean side, the Franks under Charles Martel ('the Hammer') pushed back the Moors, building on the victory at Tour/Poitiers 732. Between 759 to 801 when Barcelona was captured from the Moors, Frankish victories established the counties of the Spanish March (Marca Hispanica) in what is now Catalonia (and a bit beyond), as a buffer realm between France and the muslim Spain. Unlike the northern territories that (self-) declared themselves kingdoms, the lands of the Spanish March remained as counties (ruled by a count) with local rivalries.

However, over time, the Count of Barcelona came to dominate across the counties of the Marca Hispanica as a whole, subduing or forging marriage alliances with the other counts. The 'marches' tended to be remote from the main centres of royal power (in Aachen at this time) and the counts had to be self-sufficient and independent minded allowing counts to take liberties with their realms. Wilfred the Hairy, for instance ensured the title of Count of Barcelona was inherited rather than by appointment of the king, and eventually the counties became de facto independent from the central Frankish power. The earliest claim is in 985 when Borrell II failed to get support from the Franks and so curtailed his allegiences.

Both the Kingdom of Leon/Castile in the north, and the County of Barcelona (Catalonia) were growing both in prestige, and in size, through the expulsion of the muslim invaders from lands of Valencia and the Taifa of Zaragossa (the story of El Cid comes from this epoch).

Between Castile and Catalonia was the Kingdom of Aragon, which had emerged from Navarre in 1035. Through marriage, Aragon became a possession of the Counts of Barcelona in 1137 and the counts switched to take the titles of King of Aragon as their main title. However, despite being unified under the the same monarchy, Catalonia and Aragon continued to exist as separate territories each with their own system of laws and cortes including custom posts, taxes and duties, not as a simple unified state as we might consider today. The Crown of Aragon grew to include Aragon, Catalonia, Majorca and Valencia plus territories in the Mediterranean including Sicily and Sardina and at one point to Athens.

Castile and Aragon continued to develop separately, but slowly the ruling families became intertwined by marriage until the ruling crowns of Castile and Aragon united by marriage in 1469, with Isabella becoming queen of Castile in 1474, and Ferdinand (Ferran in Catalan) becoming king of Aragon in 1479. Once again, the two parts of Spain, Castile and Aragon, remained quite separate with distinct royal councils.

During the reign of the Catholic Kings, America was discovered, and the final expulsion of the Moors started with the fall of Grenada in 1492 to the Castilians. Both events reflect the complexity of the kingdoms, under a united crown. When the Americas were discovered these were established Castilian territories and Aragonese merchants did not have access, with access almost exclusively through (Castilian) Andalucia (Cadiz and Sevilla).

But even before Ferdinand had got to the Spanish throne, Catalonia had already been through a civil war (1462-1472) in the Revolt of the Remences against John II with involvement of the French and loss of Roussillon (for the first time). So by the time of Ferdinand, it was already past it's high point, and with the discovery of America, and eviction of the Moors followed by coastal attacks by the Ottomans navy/pirates, its importance in Spanish affairs diminished.

In short order, by wealth and marriage, Spain became the leading European power. Joanna, daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand married Philip the son of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, and so their son, Charles V, Spain became Emperor with great lands in the Americas, joined with the European holdings of the Holy Roman Empire (that included Netherlands, Belgium, Burgundy, Savoy, Germany and Austria) - the original empire where the sun never sets.

At this time, Catalonia, and Barcelona became a gateway to the Spanish European territories, though via the sea across to Genoa (the Spanish Road) as rivalry with France prevented overland access to the Italian, German and Dutch territories. However, it wasn't all plain sailing, discontent with Charles led to a series of revolts in both Castile and Valencia and Majorca of Aragon (Revolta de les Germanies), as local needs were overlooked for issues of the greater empire.

Such large territories were also proving expensive and difficult to maintain. Over the next period, the Spanish Empire fell into wars with the Dutch, the British (Spanish Armada) and the French. An empire of such a size was proving unsustainable and expensive. The vast gold and silver wealth from the Americas brought inflation to Spain and Spain defaulted on its debts (1557, 1560, 1569, 1575, 1595), lost the Armada to England. The cost of war and rebeliousness in the Netherlands (the 80 years war) took its toll and Spain's star started to diminish. Meanwhile wars with France over Italian territories of the Holy Roman Empire and involvement with the French Wars of Religion, spread into plain old wars with France, starting with rivalry over Spanish territories in the north of France (1595-1598).

The Spanish European empire fell into a complex war with the Thirty Year's War (1618-1648) involving religion, Netherlands, Sweden and central Europe. As the conflict spilled over, Catalonia become something of a piggy-in-the-middle between Spain and France, as the Thirty Year's war developed into a Spanish-French war of 1635-1659, with the French attacking Spanish territories through Italy, and in northern and eastern France.

Spain seeking to protect the border with France, put Castilian troops into private houses in Catalonia (which included forcing peasants to provide food for the soldiers). The result was a  Catalan Revolt of 1640 - also known as the Guerra dels Segadors - when Catalonia declared itself independent under the protection of France. The song Els Segadors based on this period of history is considered the national anthem for the Catalonia.

At the time, Portugal had also revolted against Spain and the Catalans looked towards the recently liberated Dutch for inspiration. This 'Independence' lasted until 1659 when a Spanish-French peace returned Catalonia to the Spanish King, but with the final loss of Rousillon (Catalonia Nord) to the French, and a continuing bitterness towards the French.

Tensions didn't diminish though with another revolt (Barretines - named after the traditional Catalan red cap) 1687-1689 which was more of a class war, again partly because of tension between Spanish soldiers and the local population, and the Nine Year's War 1688-97 again between Spain and France.

With all this turmoil, by the outbreak of the Spanish War of Succession in 1701, Catalonia was out of sync with the rest of Spain. The war which encompassed half of Europe, was over the choice of the Spanish king from one of the two major European royal houses. The Bourbons from France, supported by most of Spain and the French, or the Hapsburgs of Austria supported by Britain who feared a French-dominated Europe. Catalonia took the side of Britain and supported Charles, the Austrian candidate for Emperor.

In theory, Britain had promised to help the Catalans and to protect the Catalan institutions under the Pact of Genoa, but as the war continued and the circumstances changed, the view in Britain shifted, eventually abandoning Catalonia to its fate as the last bastion against Bourbon king. The final chapter for Catalonia was the submission of Barcelona on the 11th September 1714 (a date commerated with the Diada - the Catalan National Day). This was written up in a couple of English pamphlets at the time denouncing the English failure to support Catalonia (The Case of the Catalans Consider'd and The deplorable history of the Catalans 1714)

With the victory of the French Bourbon king, he sought to impose a French-style centralisation on Spain. In the Nueva Planta decrees the historic institutions, governance, tax raising powers of Catalonia were removed and the Catalan language was no longer to be used in official documents. At the same time, the centralised monarchy installed vice-roys to take command of the provinces backed by Spanish troops effectively throwing out hundreds of years of autonomous rule and traditions across the Spanish provinces.

Catalonia was not the only Spanish province that felt the rules were unfair, but matters didn't come to ahead until after the Napoleonic invasion had passed (when parts of Catalonia were subsumed into France as a new French department).

These underlying tensions in the 19th Century, led to Spain being repeatedly pulled apart through a complex series of revolts and wars, including a civil war from 1833-1839, shifts from monarchy to republic and back again, and internal factionalisation as another royal succession dispute gave rise to Carlists - who were in favour of Infante Carlos V's - Don Carlos's - claim to the throne based on the French derived male succession rule, over Isabella II, his niece who became queen, based on the older Spanish rule that allowed female succession. This seemingly arcane rule created tensions and rebellions right up to the 1930s. And at the same time, Spain, like much of Europe, was developing a complex set of new political ideas including anarchism, as working classes became more powerful.

Meanwhile, industrialisation had come to Catalonia, and it began to rediscover its language and heritage (the Renaixença or rebirth) that started to emerge after the liberation of Spain from Napoleon. Through the 1830s to 1860s, this rekindled ideas of Catalonia and Catalan nationalism as Catalans reviewed and romanticised their history and their relationship to Spain. To start with this led to calls for federalism, but later to calls for full independence.

This idea of separatism got swept up with the prevailing moods of anarchism and revolt so that by the late 1800s Catalonia had a firm secessionist movement that was being prohibited by the Spanish authorities with suppression including martial law in 1900, and a short lived revolt in 1909.

This sense of nation and historical identity from the 19th century is then swept into the troubles of the 20th century. The eventual outcome was the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Franco, but before this there was another period of dictatorship and republicanism leading to Spanish Second Republic of 1931. The chaos of the pre-civil war politics even led to further declarations of Independence, but all was lost with the collapse into war between the Franco nationalists, and the Spanish Republicans. George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia gives a good flavour of complex mix of factionalism and war in Barcelona and Aragon.

Franco's victory came with the exili - a max exodus of refugees into France as can be seen on some of the walking routes or the museum at La Junquera, with camps on the French side of the border at Argeles and Elne. And under Franco, Catalan institutions and language were once again suppressed, so that even now there are old people in Catalonia who were not allowed to learn Catalan at school. Franco initially had a policy of self-sufficiency, which drove Spain into the ground. After the Second World War, more liberal policies were adopted and Spain opened up, bring tourism to the Costa Brava and industry back to Barcelona but sold as Spain, not Catalonia, with tradition Spanish totes like bull-fighting and flamenco dresses.

However, Catalan pain and pride remained undiminished. From the end of the dictatorship, the Catalan civil societies have been working to reestablish Catalan institutions, language and elements of culture with a view to gaining recognition of Catalonia's status and history.

In 2006 Catalonia agreed a new Statute of Autonomy (approved by Catalan referendum and supported by the Spanish government), however this was ruled in part to be unconstitutional in 2010 by the Spanish Constitution Court supported by PP. The rejection of the Statute of Autonomy caused many in Catalonia to demand greater autonomy and, combined with the economic crisis, led to a great renewal of independentist feeling with a major grassroots demonstration in 2012 (more than one million people out of a population of 7.5m), that effectively pushed Catalan politicians to become more focused on independence, and was then followed by huge marches and demonstrations in each of the subsequent years.

So behind the current political stand-off is a deep sense that Catalonia should be respected for its traditions, history, language and culture which are distinct and not the same as Spain. Among Catalans there is a perception that Spain imposes itself on Catalonia - it is the relationship of a dominant father who demands respect from an errant daughter, instead of being a relationship of kinship, peers and mutuality. This local view sees the unwillingness of the central Spanish government to listen or respond to the Catalan protests, which were met with practical silence and sitting on hands, as further examples of the difficult nature of the relationship.

The intransigence and inaction of the Spanish government, combined with deep seated local feelings about Catalan identity has allowed the situation to develop so that now Catalonia believes it has a mandate for independence. How this will play out will strongly depend on how the Spanish-side react and whether it seeks to find compromise. While it's not entirely clear how strongly Catalans want to be separate, or whether they just want to have a more balanced relationship with the rest of SPain, the one thing is clear is that some political movement will be necessary. For visitors, it's also worth pointing out that from the Catalan side this has been entirely peaceful with large marches and demonstrations, but in good spirits with no tolerance of trouble.

See also: Via Catalan and the Diada - Dia de Sant Jordi in Palafrugell

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