Catalonia’s independence hopes dim amid political deadlock and pandemic

Catalonia’s independence hopes dim amid political deadlock and pandemic

Catalonia, a wealthy and autonomous region in northeastern Spain, has been struggling for independence from the central government for years. The conflict reached a peak in 2017, when the Catalan government held an illegal referendum and declared independence, triggering a harsh response from Madrid that included dissolving the regional parliament, arresting and jailing several separatist leaders, and imposing direct rule over the region.

Since then, the pro-independence movement has faced several setbacks and challenges, both internally and externally. The movement has been divided by personality clashes, ideological differences, and strategic disagreements among its three main parties: the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), Together for Catalonia (JxCat), and the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP). The ERC, led by the current Catalan president Pere Aragonès, has adopted a more pragmatic and conciliatory approach, seeking dialogue and negotiation with the Spanish government. The JxCat, led by the former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium after the 2017 declaration of independence, has maintained a more defiant and radical stance, insisting on unilateral action and civil disobedience. The CUP, a far-left and anti-capitalist party, has also advocated for a more confrontational and revolutionary strategy, while criticizing the other two parties for being too moderate and compromising.

The pro-independence movement has also faced a loss of momentum and public support, as the Covid-19 pandemic has shifted the priorities and concerns of many Catalans. The health crisis has exposed the weaknesses and failures of the Catalan government, which has been accused of mismanaging the pandemic response, imposing excessive and inconsistent restrictions, and failing to provide adequate social and economic assistance to the most vulnerable sectors of society. The pandemic has also worsened the economic situation of the region, which was already suffering from the effects of the 2017 crisis, such as the departure of thousands of businesses, the decline of tourism, and the increase of unemployment and poverty. According to a recent poll by the Catalan Center for Opinion Studies, only 42.9% of Catalans would vote for independence if a legal referendum were held today, down from 48.7% in October 2017.

The pro-independence movement has also faced a lack of international recognition and support, as most countries and institutions have sided with the Spanish government and rejected the legitimacy of the 2017 referendum and declaration of independence. The European Union, in particular, has been reluctant to intervene or mediate in the conflict, considering it an internal matter of Spain. The European Court of Justice, however, has issued some rulings that have favored the Catalan cause, such as granting immunity to Puigdemont and two other exiled Catalan politicians who were elected as members of the European Parliament in 2019, and ordering the release of the jailed Catalan leader Oriol Junqueras, who was also elected as an MEP but was prevented from taking his seat by the Spanish authorities.

The Spanish government, led by the socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez, has shown some willingness to engage in dialogue and find a political solution to the conflict, but has also ruled out any possibility of allowing a referendum on independence or granting amnesty to the convicted Catalan leaders. Sánchez has proposed a reform of the Catalan Statute of Autonomy, which was partially annulled by the Spanish Constitutional Court in 2010, sparking the rise of the pro-independence movement. The reform would entail expanding the powers and resources of the Catalan government, as well as recognizing its national identity and cultural diversity. However, the proposal has been met with skepticism and rejection by both the pro-independence and the pro-union camps, who consider it either insufficient or excessive, respectively.

The future of Catalonia’s independence movement remains uncertain and dependent on several factors, such as the outcome of the ongoing negotiations between the Catalan and Spanish governments, the evolution of the pandemic and the economic recovery, the verdict of the European courts on the cases of the exiled and jailed Catalan leaders, and the results of the next regional and national elections, which could alter the balance of power and influence among the different political forces. What is clear, however, is that the conflict is far from being resolved, and that the Catalan society remains deeply divided and polarized over the question of independence.