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Catalans: a renewed nationalist movement

27 February 2013

Laura Quintana Soms, who interns with MRG’s Street Theatre Programme, explores recent and rapidly changing notions of nationalism in her Catalan homeland

11th September 1714. This is the most important date for any Catalan. It commemorates the siege of Barcelona by the Bourbon monarchy, which led to the loss of Catalan self-rule.  Over time, as this region of Spain became more industrialized, Catalonia witnessed an increasing number of nationalist movements.

Although Catalan parties had never been clear about their ideas of nationalism and support for a Catalan state, their convictions seem to have changed since 11th September 2012, when more than 1.5 million people took part in the annual independence day commemoration in Barcelona. People from all over the region traveled to the city waving the Catalan independence flag and shouting “Independència” (‘independence’) or “Catalunya no és Espanya” (‘Catalonia is not Spain’).

Demonstations in Barcelona
11th September 2012 demonstrations in Barcelona. Credit: Meritxell Prat.

Since then, Catalan nationalism seems to have gone from strength to strength, and many political parties are moving towards the idea of a Catalan nation. None more so than the governing Convergència i Unió (CiU), who, after the September demonstration, decided to call an election on 25th November, although they were only in their second year of a four year term.

The outcome however of the election, with a considerable turn-out of 69.56%, has been a disaster for the CiU, who lost 12 seats. Despite these negative results for the main party, the elections showed that most Catalans support a nationalist movement, because the three main parties advocating the independence of Catalonia (CiU, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya and Candidatura d’Unitat Popular) gained a majority in the Parliament (74 out of a total of 135 seats).

However, the pro-independence movement is full of contradictions. While the region’s government agreed to hold an independence referendum by 2014, at the same time they asked the Spanish central government for a bailout of 9 billion euros. The Catalan government seems to blame the central government for the economic problems that the region is suffering, whilst the central government opposes Catalan secession and the referendum, labeling it as ‘unconstitutional’.

So what nowadays is considered a nation, and why have the parties changed their stance?

One of the main scholars in the study of nations, Anthony D. Smith, defined the ‘nation’ as, ‘a named human population sharing an historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass public culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties for all members, complemented by a common language, the feeling of belonging to a community and a desire for self-government’. With this definition in mind, it seems that Catalonia can be considered a ‘nation’, as it ticks all the boxes necessary to be defined as such.

However, what has caused the shift in opinion of both the people of the region and the political parties is the concept of ‘national identity’ and not the concept of ‘nation’. In the literature of ‘nationalism’ most scholars such as Hans Kohn, Peter Sahlins, Montserrat Guibernau, John Hutchinson or Thomas Hylland Eriksen, have discussed this concept.

Friedrich Meinecke divided national identity into ‘civic’ or ‘ethnic’. Throughout history scholars have addressed this dichotomy and nowadays, generally speaking, the concept of civic could be quoted as ‘political, territorial and rational’. On the other hand, the ‘ethnic’ concept of national identity could be understood as ‘cultural, organic and inherent’.

Applying this theory to the Catalan context we can see a transition from a ‘civic’ national identity towards an ‘ethnic’ notion of it. This could be caused by the current economic crisis that this region, and the state within which it sits, is suffering, with six million people unemployed. But it could be also caused by the policies that the Spanish government is putting into practice in education, health and economy.

Although the causes are not clear, what it is true is that Catalan parties and society are moving towards a more ethnic- based concept of national identity of ‘us’ highlighting ‘our’ culture, ‘our’ past, ‘our’ language, ‘our’ traditions, ‘our’ story, and ‘our’ history. The notion of ‘us against them’ is growing and thus the tension between the Catalan and Spanish governments is heightened.

If this change affects how Catalan parties perceive immigration will be discussed in a future post.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.