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Don’t wake sleeping giants, don’t disempower separatists: The pandemic and Catalan independence

The refuelling of historic animosities in the wake of centralised public health interventions

By Aminata S. Roth

Three years after the independence referendum that placed Catalonia in the global spotlight, Spain was hit by the coronavirus outbreak. Being one of the countries worst-affected by the pandemic, some might have thought that this crisis would suppress its secessionist movements, if only temporarily. However, quite the opposite happened, as it turned out that the pandemic only added fuel to the separatist fire in Catalonia.

The Spanish central government’s initial response to the pandemic caused discontent among Catalan politicians and parts of the Catalan population. To understand the context of these actions and the reactions they elicited, it should be noted that Catalonia enjoys a level of autonomy from the rest of Spain on regional matters. In the 1980s, Catalonia was the first of the Spanish regions to take independent policy responsibility for health matters. Thus, it should not come as a surprise that Catalonia currently places more importance on its autonomy than many other Spanish regions. However, in March, this autonomy was suspended when the ‘state of alarm’, invoked to centralise the country’s pandemic response, shifted power back to the central government in Madrid. Catalonia repeatedly demanded that it be allowed to impose harsher restrictions and made clear that it wanted to close its borders to the rest of Spain, but these demands were refused. What the Catalan government – the Generalitat – wanted, was an approach similar to that of the UK, where different regions were able to lead their own, regional Covid response. While the Generalitat – led by Quim Torra at the time – may have hoped to follow Scotland’s example in outperforming other parts of the country, Catalonia was instead forced to follow Sanchez’s orders and look on as the Spanish military was deployed to help in the response. This move, in particular, was a risky one. Although the Generalitat eventually acknowledged that it needed this additional assistance, its attitude towards the Spanish military is traditionally a very sceptical one. Arguably, the national Coronavirus campaign did not help the situation and further provoked Catalan separatists. Its slogan, #estevirusloparamosunidos (“We will stop this virus united together”), was criticised by the Generalitat as an unnecessary symbol of nationalism.

The pandemic has reignited old debates about Catalan autonomy, diverging preferences and economic burdens

A possible turning point came when Sanchez handed power back to the regions in June. However, it soon became apparent that Catalonia was not as prepared to lead its response as it had made itself out to be. Not only was there a significant shortage of contact tracers, but the post of Secretary for Public Health laid vacant for almost two months until Josep Maria Argimon was finally appointed to the position in mid-July. Nevertheless, unlike some other regions who called on the central government to step up once again in helping to coordinate the pandemic response, Catalonia stood by its decision to do it alone, continually voting against centrally-coordinated measures over the past few months.

So, where does Catalonia stand now, and what happens next? Even though pro-independence parties have undoubtedly tried to use this rift to further their cause, public opinion polls show that the Catalan people are still evenly split on the matter of secession. The real test will be the next regional election. Already postponed, it is now due to take place in February 2021, almost exactly one year after the pandemic started to wreak havoc in Spain. It is predicted that the pro-independence Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) will be significantly strengthened. Additionally, the anti-independence Ciudadanos are predicted to receive considerably fewer votes than they did in the last election in 2017. The pro-independence ERC (Republican Left of Catalonia) is likely to emerge as the winner, meaning that secessionist parties are currently set to gain a majority of seats, but less than 50% of the votes.

That being said, there are too many unknown factors in this election to make reliable forecasts, let alone predictions, about the future status of Catalonia. For one, Torra, who was at the centre of this issue during spring and summer, is no longer in power. Spanish courts banned him from holding public office because he refused to remove pro-independence symbols from a government building ahead of a general election in 2019. A second crucial and unknown factor is what role exiled politician and independence-superstar Carles Puigdemont will play in the election. Lastly, the outcome of this election will undoubtedly depend on the Covid situation at the time, seeing as the virus tends to generally (with a few key exceptions) suppress voter turnout. Granted, it does seem that pro-independence Catalans are not willing to step back because of the pandemic, with (socially distanced) protests having taken place on Catalonia’s national day in September 2020, despite the fragile public health situation at the time.

Catalonia repeatedly demanded that it be allowed to impose harsher restrictions and made clear that it wanted to close its borders to the rest of Spain

Regardless, it is clear that the pandemic will have left its mark in many different ways, one of them being an enduring effect on Catalonia’s secessionist movement. Some might have thought that the pandemic would leave no room for the independence movement. On the contrary, it appears to have strengthened it. This outcome should be expected when one renders a secessionist government powerless in a situation like this.

Some Catalans believe that they should push for independence precisely because the country is in crisis. The pandemic has reignited old debates about Catalan autonomy, diverging preferences and economic burdens. It is fair to say that many felt a sense of powerlessness as the pandemic took over the country this past spring. So arguably, further curtailing of Catalonia’s autonomous powers was always going to elicit heightened reactions. Regional autonomy continues to be an emotionalised topic in Spain. Catalonia did get to handle the second wave on its own terms and even succeeded in closing its borders in late October. Nonetheless, three months of unwanted central governance will not be easily forgotten, and it remains to be seen how this will affect its future. Time will also tell how Spain will manage in the weeks and months going forward, especially when it comes to the distribution of vaccines. It is known that this issue leaves great scope for nationalist debates and Sanchez has already made clear that Spain will implement a national vaccination programme, which raises the question of whether this will act as another major catalyst for debates about Catalan autonomy.


Originally published 05.12.20 in Vol. 4 No. 1.


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