The United Kingdom as we know it survived by a whisker in Scotland’s referendum on secession, after three centuries of union. Next in line is Spain, one of the oldest nation-states in the world, but one eternally racked by tensions from its peripheral nationalities: Catalan, Basque and, to a lesser extent, Galician. Catalonia has decided to recast its planned November 9 referendum on independence as a nonbinding consultation, after Spain’s Constitutional Court opened an inquiry into a referendum’s legality. This avoided a possible violent clash with the Spanish state, but given the huge turnout at a September 11 demonstration in favor of independence, the next Catalan elections are likely to give independence parties a majority. This would bring the breakup of Spain a step nearer, and along with it a new phase of the Eurocrisis.
Why are so many Scots (45 percent in September’s referendum) and Catalans (50 percent in recent polls) set on leaving now? The answer is surely a desperate search for sovereignty by voters with longstanding resentments over discrimination by the power centers in their respective states. Like many other Europeans, they feel cheated by their governments’ response to the Great Recession.
An estimated 1.5 million Catalans demonstrated in support of the referendum in September, flooding the main boulevards in their capital city of Barcelona with the Catalan star and stripes: four red bands over a yellow background, signifying the trails of blood left by a dying martyr during the Catalan defeat by the Spanish in 1714. But such visceral imagery hardly reflects the sociology of the growing Catalan secession movement. Hundreds of thousands of smiling families were bused in from the Catalan heartland, many sporting the shirts of their world-famous Barça soccer team. They joined a perfectly choreographed protest, visible from the surrounding Art Nouveau apartment blocks as an enormous “V” for Votar—the demand for Catalonia’s right to vote on independence, just as Scotland had done.
This is what radical protest looks like in Catalonia, a stateless nation of 7.5 million inhabitants known for their pragmatic seny (a difficult-to-translate Catalan term denoting coolheadedness). The same holds true for Oriol Junqueras—the leader of the secessionist Esquerra Republicana, or Republican Left party, which helped organize the protest—who is not the wild-eyed nationalist painted by the Madrid media.
“We are not nationalists; we are republicans. We are inspired by the US Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution,” Junqueras told me in an interview in Esquerra’s modest offices in downtown Barcelona. “One of our influences is the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson.” Junqueras, who teaches history at the University of Barcelona and is mayor of Sant Vicenç dels Horts, a working-class (and Spanish-speaking) dormitory town west of the Catalan capital, is the anti-politician, scholarly and unflappable. He is now the de facto leader of the independence movement, eclipsing the smooth, technocratic president of the Catalan Generalitat, or regional government, Artur Mas, who heads up the center-right Convergència i Unió (CiU) alliance. Already losing ground to the more radical Junqueras, Mas has been undermined further by a tax-evasion scandal this year affecting the former CiU leader and iconic president of the Generalitat, Jordi Pujol. In the next elections, many expect Junqueras and Esquerra to win an overall majority.