Europe is faced with a growing geopolitical crisis as tensions rise over the Catalan independence referendum. The northeastern region of Catalonia in Spain has enjoyed limited autonomy for much of its history. While the country remained under strict control during the Francoist period between 1935 and 1975, there has always been a substantial sectarian faction within the region. With the restoration of democracy in 1978, the government of Spain decentralized political control of the country. This gave way to old internal borders and increased autonomy for the provincial governments, of which Catalonia is one. This October, the regional government voted to formally succeed from Spain in a public referendum.
The sectarian group within the region has been pushing for this since the ‘70s, but it only gained major political power in local elections since 2004. Controlling a plurality in the regional government, and with moderate support, they were able to make the referendum happen. The results of the referendum are highly disputed. The Spanish government does not recognize its authority, but the Catalan government boasts a pro-independence vote of 90 percent. Critics have argued that while the independence vote won, less than half of all people living in Catalonia voted, many out of protest. The claim of the Catalan government that “this is what the people want” is doubted by many key political figures.
The King of Spain, Felipe VI made calls for unity among the Iberian states, while the prime minister and Spanish government took more direct action. Upon resolution of the vote, Spain initiated direct control over the region through force. The European Union, and the international community has largely supported this move, with some countries remaining neutral citing the Spanish government’s violent response. Catalonia seemingly stands alone in its political struggle. While no governments have supported independence, there have been many voices both domestic and foreign that have supported it. The Catalan parliament argued that the people of the region have a separate language, culture, and history. While no one would dispute those claims, the general counterargument has been that those claims do not constitute succession.
It remains to be seen if this event was purely idiosyncratic or part of a greater trend. Scotland, while not an autonomous state, showed substantial support for the independence movement, likely stimulated by a similar failed independence vote in Scotland in 2014. This idea of nation-state sovereignty has become a question in the middle-east, where Palestinian and Kurdish factions seek to carve out their own national boundaries. While the situation in the Middle East is drastically different from the one in Europe, the sentiments that drive both movements draw parallels with one-another. Regardless, the Spanish government moved to dissolve the Catalan government, leaving many Catalans in a state of uncertainty.