Millennials may possibly be the ones to douse the flames of secession in Catalonia – Rajika Jayatilake explains

Independence for an individual generally brings euphoria. However, independence as a separate state within national boundaries is a tantalising but deadly mirage – as is apparent from the experiences of Catalonia, one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities.

As the third US President and one of America’s Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson once said: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be.”

As it happens, separatist ideas have exploded in Catalonia over the past 20 years even though the region enjoys a high degree of autonomy. Many Catalans are wealthy; and Catalonia is one of Spain’s wealthiest and most productive regions.

Its grouse is that despite producing a quarter of Spain’s exports and 19 percent of its GDP, being the country’s prime touristic spot and with its capital Barcelona viewed as a prime port in the EU, Spain imposes unacceptably high taxes on Catalonia.

This has given rise to the popular secessionist slogan: Madrid nos roba! (‘Madrid is robbing us’).

These feelings of indignation and revolt gathered momentum, and resulted in a referendum on independence in October 2017 with Catalonia’s government ignoring a warning by Spain’s Supreme Court that a vote by a region on national sovereignty would be unconstitutional.

As it turned out, two million of Catalonia’s 5.3 million eligible voters cast their vote in favour of separation from Spain despite the central government’s brutal crushing of the event.

When the Catalans reached out to the European Union to intervene with Spain on their behalf, the EU officially declined, stating: “This is an internal matter for Spain that has to be dealt with in line with the constitutional order of Spain.”

So with Spain not recognising the Catalan parliament’s declaration of independence on 27 October, there was no international recognition of it either.

As the attempt to secede ended in a fiasco, the then President of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont i Casamajó and several of his supporters fled the country but a dozen leaders of the attempted secession were arrested.

Subsequently in 2019, Spain’s Supreme Court found them all guilty of several crimes including sedition, misuse of public funds and disobedience. Three of them got off lightly with fines and no prison time while the remaining nine were handed lengthy jail terms.

In recent months however, four years after the attempt at secession, Spain pardoned all nine separatist leaders, hoping that this gesture of goodwill would create an environment for dialogue.

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said: “With this act, we want to open a new phase of dialogue, of reconciliation; and to stop, once and for all, all the divisions and confrontation.” Nevertheless, the pardons are conditional and the leaders are still banned from holding public office, he added.

Surveys carried out in the country showed that most Spaniards were not in favour of the pardons granted; but Sánchez’s aim is to eventually weaken the separatist movement in Catalonia.

Moreover, Catalonia’s regional president and pro-independence leader Pere Aragonès had acknowledged that the pardons are a “first step on the path of negotiation and agreement.” On the other hand, he wanted Madrid to allow an internationally accepted referendum, which the central government immediately rejected.

In the meantime, Catalonia’s former head of foreign affairs Raül Romeva, who is among the nine jailed and released leaders, tweeted: “We won’t give up the fight; amnesty and self-determination!”

Even though Spain’s central government has brushed aside Catalonia’s secessionist movement for years as merely a ‘soufflé,’ which is easy to inflate but then caves in on itself, the movement appears to be standing its ground – even in the current life altering pandemic when fractured relationships in other regions of Europe have healed and bridged their differences.

Meanwhile, representatives of Spain’s central government and the Catalan administration are due to meet in the near future to move forward on negotiations, aiming for a resolution to the festering political crisis – although a quick fix is too much to expect.

A prime reason is the difference in perspective regarding a referendum. Catalan separatists want an authorised referendum on independence while the central government requires it to be a vote on a proposal to improve the northeastern region’s relationship with the rest of Spain.

Ultimately, what could effectively douse the flames of separatism and independence is the practicality of young Catalans.

Once on the front lines of the independence movement, younger generations of Catalans no longer want to fight for secession. Instead, they are willing to settle for good jobs, steady salaries and cheaper rents.

Even as youth get drawn to idealistic social movements, the millennial generation appears to have lost interest in sovereignty, focussing instead on the basics for a decent life – and issues relating to work, race and the environment.

In the words of 30th US President Calvin Coolidge: “Economy is idealism in its most practical form.”

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be

Thomas Jefferson
Third President of the US