Tabarnia: A not-so-funny joke on Catalan democracy

Spanish unionists are trying to delegitimise Catalonia’s fight for independence using a fictional secessionist region.

Spain unionist protest
A Spanish unionist protestor shows a banner during a rally in front of Civil Guard headquarters in Barcelona [Albert Gea/Reuters]

The December 21 election in Catalonia produced some striking results and accentuated the deepening polarisation in the region. In the middle of what the pro-independence camp called a “Spanish occupation”, with the region’s autonomy practically repealed, the Catalan President Carles Puigdemont forced into self-exile in Belgium and some Catalan legislators sent to prison, those who support Catalonia’s independence from Spain still managed to maintain a slim majority in the regional parliament after the snap election.

The unionists in Catalonia, however, did not accept defeat gracefully. The pro-union Citizens Party won the majority of votes across the region, but failed to secure the necessary majority to either govern alone or in a pro-Spain coalition. Also, anti-secessionist parties obtained an even higher percentage of the votes in both the province of Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, and in the neighbouring province of Tarragona. All this fuelled the unionists’ frustration and provided them with an opportunity to exploit the situation – they decided, it seems, to appeal to a not-so-funny joke in order to argue their case and delegitimise the opposition’s significant electoral victory. 

A not-so-funny joke 

In June 2017, an obscure political “movement” called Platform for Barcelona’s Autonomy came up with the term “Tabarnia”, to define Tarragona and Barcelona, the two provinces of Catalonia in which the support for the independence movement is lower compared with the rest of the region, and started arguing that if Catalonia eventually declares independence from Spain, the fictitious region of Tabarnia should separate from the rest of Catalonia and remain Spanish. 

The idea did not attract much attention initially, as everyone was focused on the ongoing political crisis. But after the election in December, “Tabarnia” became a prominent unionist talking point. Even some mainstream anti-secessionist politicians started referring to this fictional region in an attempt to belittle the independence movement they failed to defeat in the election. 

“Tabarnia reflects the contradictions within the independence movement and demonstrates the fragility of their arguments,” Ines Arimadas, the leader of the Citizens Party, said in a tweet. “It is significant how it made some people very nervous.”


Unionists like Arimadas claim that this “joke” demonstrates the supposed fragility of the independence movement, because it forces proponents of Catalonia’s secession from Spain to contradict themselves. If Catalonia secedes from Spain, they say, in line with the current secessionist discourse, Tabarnia should also be allowed to hold its own referendum and separate itself from the new state of Catalonia. After claiming they have a right to hold a referendum to separate from Spain, they ask, would Catalan secessionists dare deny the same right to “Tabarnians”?

Tabarnia is clearly a provocation, and not even a very intelligent one at that. It trivialises the notion of identity, treating it as if it is something as pedestrian as changing clothes. The notion of the Catalan nation and the Catalan identity emerged as result of a complex historical, political and cultural process and the Catalan independence movement grew over decades (if not centuries) of debates, tensions and conflicts. Therefore, the Catalan struggle for independence can not, under any circumstances, be equated to a satirical movement concocted by a small group of people with ties to far-right organisations. 

The movement for Tabarnia’s independence, indeed, has some very controversial names among its supporters. For example, the movement’s spokesman, journalist Jaume Vives, is famous for posting on twitter phrases like “Islam and Gender Ideology are the main instruments of Satan in our times.” 

Vives’ support for the movement should not come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with the history of the Platform for Barcelona’s Autonomy. This movement was born out of the association Societat Civil Catalana (SCC), a unionist organisation with close ties to the Spanish far right, including parties claiming to be the heirs of General Francisco Franco, such as the Spanish Falange de las JONS. Demonstrations organised by the SCC are always crowded with illegal Francoist and Fascist symbols. 

Hiding repression behind satire

So far, the central government in Madrid used all political and judicial tools at its disposal to repress the Catalan independence movement. It jailed the Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras, as well as political and social leaders such as Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart. It levied rebellion and sedition charges upon Puigdemont to prevent him from returning to his country and taking back the presidency – a post for which he was once again elected by the Catalan people in December. Meanwhile, the European Commission remained silent about the political violence experienced during the October 2017 referendum, the enactment of the article 155 and the imprisonment of Catalan MPs who did nothing but represent the will of their constituents. The Commission has also not addressed the fact that the legitimate leader of Catalonia is still in exile. If Puigdemont returns to Catalonia he will undoubtedly be arrested and as his lawyer Jaume Alonso-Cuevillas stated, there is no guarantee that he will even get a fair trial. 

Even in the face of all these blatant rights abuses and crimes against democracy, unionists and their supporters across Europe still insist that they are simply trying “to defend democracy”. And now, it seems, they are stooping so low as to try and hide their hypocrisy behind a not-so-funny joke.

Contradictory positions and opposing point of views are normal in a democracy, but the attempts to repress and delegitimise the fair demands of an independence movement clearly demonstrates the undemocratic character of Spanish unionism. Using Tabarnia, unionists are trying to argue that the secessionist movement in Catalonia is promoting the division of not only Spain, but also the Catalan society. In reality, however, the unionists are the only ones attempting to silence Catalan voices. If and when Catalonia secedes from Spain, the legitimate demands of all peoples of Catalonia will be listened to. For example, the tiny region of the Val d’Aran (Aran Valley) in Catalonia where the population speak Aranese (a dialect of Occitan), will have the right, if the population wishes, to separate from Catalonia and to remain part of Spain. Therefore, people using the example of Tabarnia to delegitimise the Catalan independence movement are not really fighting for democracy, but rather twisting reality in an attempt to subvert democracy to their own objectives.

Also, it is difficult to assign any legitimacy to the narrative imposed by the defenders of Tabarnia, as they are very same people who supported the violent repression of the Catalan independence referendum in October 2017 – the moment where every Catalan had the chance to make their position on independence clear.

In the end, the options for a peaceful solution to the Catalan problem in which the majority of the people will be respected are scarce while tension in the region grows. And the “jokes” about a fictitious region are not helping anyone.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.