In Spain, the same slogan is repeated over and over again: “The independence of Catalonia is impossible”. It’s absurd to hear such unappealable judgment in the 21st century. If there is one thing we should have learned from politics this century, it is that everything once considered “impossible” could become “unlikely”, and what used to be “unlikely” may end up happening.
Before 2014, no one could have imagined that the Scottish people would get an opportunity to decide on their own future. No one thought the UK could vote to leave the European Union only two years after Scotland’s Independence Referendum. Who could have imagined Donald Trump would become president of the United States? In France, who could have thought that Marine Le Pen would make it to the second round of the presidential race? It all seemed impossible, but it all happened. So, why is it still so hard to believe Catalonia could one day be independent?
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When Spain began to reconstruct its democracy after General Francisco Franco’s death in 1975, Catalonia once again began to voice its desire to become an independent state. Today, there is a significant number of Catalans who want to be able to decide the fate of Catalonia.
The Spanish government has reacted defensively to the calls for independence. It has tried to deal with the situation through prosecution rather than political dialogue.
There is a lot to be said about the way the Spanish government handled this issue, but there is a question that needs to be answered before anything else: Does Catalonia have cultural and historical arguments for independence?
The roots of Catalan statehood
The first Catalan county emerged on the map of Europe in 798 and was located between Charlemagne’s Frankish Kingdom and al-Andalus. The legend of Catalonia’s birth was preserved in the manuscripts of that era.
According to the legend, a powerful knight called Otgher Cathalo arrived from the north with nine other knights and conquered Barcelona, which was under the rule of the Goths. The knights repopulated the city and created a political system that later transformed into a kingdom which took the name of its founder, Cathalo.
In 1137, the Kingdom of Catalonia and the Kingdom of Aragon to the south united under the crown of Aragon, though Catalan autonomy remained intact. And in 1479, the crowns of Aragon and Castile were united through the marriage of their Catholic monarchs, marking the beginning of the Kingdom of Spain. However, the union was only dynastical at the time – each kingdom was entitled to maintain its own autonomy, traditions, laws, and institutions.
In addition to legends and written historical records about the Catalan people, there are places that, to this day, stand as a proof of their long history, including the Monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll, where the remains of the first Catalan count rest.
Persecution of the Catalonian nation
The Catalan people endured attempts of assimilation for centuries, but their persecution peaked in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the middle of one of Europe’s most devastating conflicts, the Religious Wars, Portugal declared its independence from Spain and Catalonia was left fragmented as a result of this conflict. After the Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed between France and Spain in 1659, Northern Catalonia was annexed by the Kingdom of France, while Southern Catalonia remained part of the Kingdom of Spain.
It's not right for Spain to turn a deaf ear to the will of a substantial segment of the Catalan people.
The legal persecution of Catalan language and culture in this era began in Northern Catalonia because France wanted the population living in their new territories to speak French. Louis XIV banned the use of Catalan in education, public administration and in religious celebrations.
In the other Catalan-speaking territories the widespread persecution of the Catalan language and culture began in 1716 with the enactment of the so-called Nueva Planta Decrees, a package of laws passed by Philip V after he succeeded the Spanish Imperial throne following a battle known as the Siege of Barcelona.
In Spain, the persecution of the Catalan nation and the Catalan language continued long after Philip’s reign. In 1896, the General Directory of Post Offices and Telegraphs in Spain issued a circular banning the use of the Catalan language in telephone calls. In 1900, the Spanish government enacted provisions that made teaching in Catalan illegal.
But the tides turned in favour of the Catalan people in 1931 when the Second Spanish Republic’s constitution recognised Catalonia as a nation and Catalan as an official language of the republic. But this accommodating attitude did not last long, and after General Francisco Franco led the Nationalists to victory in the Spanish Civil War everything changed. One of Franco’s main goals was to annihilate Catalan aspirations for independence and he decided to achieve this through repression. In 1940, Catalan leader Lluis Companys was assassinated by Franco’s dictatorship. Catalonia’s dream of recognition and independence was once again silenced.
However, when democracy was reinstated in Spain in 1978, everything changed again and Catalonia swiftly received the status of Autonomous Community in 1982. But this was just a temporary solution and the problem remains.
Independence: Yes or no?
According to UNESCO, today Catalan is the most widely used regional or minority language in Europe, with between seven and 10 million speakers in Spain, France and Sardinia. So, the Catalan language and identity is alive and well, but the Spanish state still refuses to discuss the Catalan issue in parliament and does not allow the Catalan people to determine their own destiny.
The government of Catalonia proposed to hold an independence referendum on October 1. However, the Constitutional Court of Spain decided that the Parliament of Catalonia does not have the right to hold such a vote. The Spanish Supreme Court is looking for ways to prosecute anyone who is officially participating in referendum preparations, yet Catalans are determined to have their say.
Given the situation, the Catalan regional government decided to disobey the court’s decision, as they stressed the necessity for Catalonia’s bid for independence to come to a democratic conclusion.
So, can Catalonia become an independent European nation? The answer is “yes”. It has a historic right to independence. And Catalonia can be an independent nation without having any problems or hostilities with its Spanish neighbour, with whom it shares a bloodline and strong friendship.
We, as Catalans, want to change the terms of our relationship with Spain. It’s not right for Spain to turn a deaf ear to the will of a substantial segment of the Catalan people. As Albert Camus once said, “Must one therefore give up on this effort to achieve what would seem to be an impossible reconciliation? No. One must simply appreciate the immense difficulty of the undertaking and make it clear to those who in all good faith would like to simplify everything.”
Rafa Perez Bel is a Barcelona-based writer and MA student.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.