Més Que un Estat: The Catalan Independence Movement and What it Means for Europe

La Liga, the highest division of professional soccer in Spain, is probably my least favorite league despite boasting some of the best talent in the world. Almost every weekend, I choose to watch the English Premier League instead, as I find it to be more fun and exciting. But this Sunday, I went against my normal soccer watching habits and instead turned on a game between two La Liga teams, FC Barcelona and Las Palmas. It seemed like any other game except for one major difference: the normally raucous FC Barcelona Stadium known as Camp Nou was completely empty. In one of the most surreal and shocking moments of an already tense weekend, Barcelona played a soccer game behind closed doors.

For centuries, Barcelona, located in an area of Spain known as Catalonia, has dealt with plenty of Spanish governments, many of them oppressive. However, Catalonia, alongside many other parties, put aside their differences to help establish democracy in Spain in 1975. Catalonia became an industrial powerhouse, leading their nation’s economy while their capital, Barcelona, became a hotspot tourist destination. Since then, Catalonia has faltered back and forth between independence even holding a nonbinding vote for independence in 2014. The final result showed 80% of the voters were in favor of independence from Spain, although turnout only included roughly 41% of the Catalan population. Thanks to the newly elected Catalonian President Carles Pudgimont, another independence vote was scheduled to take place this past Sunday; however, the Spanish Constitutional Court declared the vote unconstitutional. In a brute show of force, Spanish police were ordered to stop the vote at all costs, seizing ballots, injuring civilians, shutting down polling stations and other horrifying and brutal actions. This left more than 800 injured and scores more upset and angry, which led to the Region’s most popular sports team closing their stadium to the public for their first team game after the Football League governing body refused to let the game be postponed.

While tensions have bubbled up since the 2014 vote, Sunday was a victory for the pro-independence movement, as it showcased the Spanish Government in the ugliest light possible and helped reinforce the idea that Catalan might be better off as independent from the Spanish Government.

While there are many reasons why independence for Catalan would be undesirable for both Catalan and Spain, Madrid’s obsession with stopping this vote only gives the independence movement more legitimacy to the people who participated. Spain’s repressive actions potentially made other Catalan citizens  consider whether or not it was worth staying in a country that resorts to such violence despite simply trying to have a peaceful vote. This could further destabilize the region and create more political tension between the two parties in the future. While tensions have bubbled up since the 2014 vote, Sunday was a victory for the pro-independence movement, as it showcased the Spanish Government in the ugliest light possible and helped reinforce the idea that Catalan might be better off as independent from the Spanish Government.

There is no question that Catalan leaving Spain would have a tremendous impact on Spain and would affect the country’s standing within the European Union. Catalan itself makes up nearly 20% of Spain’s GDP, which could have a devastating effect on Spain’s output and its ability to trade with other nations.

Sunday’s events only increase the divide growing between the West and its own institutions. Whether it is the far-right party in Germany securing 13% of the vote, the President of the United States inability to condemn White Supremacy, or the brutal slaughtering of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, populism within governments is growing. While there are many differences between the Catalonian Independence vote and the other shocking political trends currently in Europe and around the world, what the world saw on Sunday was not only a population questioning its own society, but also a democracy willing to resort to oppressive measures to stop it from occurring.

While I sincerely hope the Spanish Government’s reaction is an outlier, it is hard not to worry about comparisons between the US and Spain. Not even a day after the referendum, the Spanish President attempted to deny that the independence vote ever took place, a denial becoming eerily more commonplace in an age of alternative facts. These acts of violence and denial increase division and lead to revocations of rights, for whatever reason governments feel is necessary. Whether it is a failed coup in Turkey, or a need for a new constitution in Venezuela, democracies moving away from their principles is most certainly not a new phenomenon. If this trend continues, we will see more and more so-called democracies transform into worrying symbols of nationalism gone awry, and maybe even the collapse of a unified and democratic Europe. This should worry everyone, not just Catalonians or fans of FC Barcelona. This goes beyond loyalty to a particular sports team; the events in Catalonia tear at the very fabric of modern day society and only time will tell whether or not the political system of the west can last much longer.

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About Noah Garfinkel

Noah is a freshman looking to study International Studies. He is from Southern California, and his main interests in writing are sports (particularly soccer) and politics. In his free time he likes to play basketball, listen to podcasts, run, and read.