An extraordinary event took place in Catalonia yesterday. Some 400,000 people formed a human chain that covered the full stretch of the Catalan territory from north to south (400km), in a symbolic gesture emulating the 1989 Baltic Way. It happened on September 11, the Catalan National Day that commemorates the takeover of Catalonia by Spanish troops in 1714, and the participants joined hands 14 minutes after 5pm, or at 17:14 in the European system.
For years, the Catalan National Day has been used to express separatist sentiments, but it really gathered speed last year when over 1.5 million people demonstrated in central Barcelona. This year’s event attracted at least 1.6 million.
That figure is only in Catalonia itself. What is most remarkable about this year’s demonstrations is that similar events have been taking place around the world in the last few weeks, including in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Wellington and Auckland in New Zealand. Referred to as the “Catalan Way for Independence”, Catalans living overseas and other supporters of Catalan independence joined hands to form small human chains in a symbolic act of solidarity.
Catalonia’s regional autonomous government supports the idea of a referendum – similar to that in Scotland – to decide whether the Catalans split from Spain and form their own independent state. This referendum will likely take place in 2014, which will mark the 300 year anniversary of the loss of sovereignty to Spain.
The problem is that such a referendum would be unconstitutional. The Spanish Constitution of 1978, drafted during the transition to democracy after the death of Franco in 1975 and with military oversight, stated unequivocally that Catalonia is an “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”. The Constitution also positioned the military as the guarantor of this unity – which would make a military intervention legal in the case of a secession, an option immediately explored by right-wing groups.
When Catalonia called itself a “nation” in a new statute that it approved by a referendum in 2006, it was immediately challenged by the Spanish Constitutional Court. In 2010, after four years of legal battles, the court finally accepted the use of the term “nation” in regard to Catalonia, but only for historical and cultural reasons and with no legal value.
In January this year, the Catalan parliament approved a declaration of sovereignty that was again taken to Constitutional Court by the Spanish government, and is currently pending resolution. The Constitution was also evoked last year when Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy rejected the so-called “fiscal pact” – a measure that could have satisfied some sections of Catalan society and paved the way for a federalist option rather than a full independence.