Regional elections in Catalonia have returned a majority for separatist parties favouring a break with Spain. Since becoming embroiled in the economic crisis gripping Spain, and perceiving an unfair levy of taxes and austerity measures being forced upon their region by Madrid, many Catalans have called for independence. Whilst hoping for a peaceful referendum sanctioned by Madrid, some Catalans are prepared for the prospect of armed struggle to break free of the bonds of austerity.
Indeed, some now see this as the only possibility for an independent Catalonia and there are also those within the armed forces not opposed to crushing the separatist movement through violent means. Mariano Rajoy’s government is almost certainly going to reject any formal claim for independence, especially given that Catalonia is one of the few regions of Spain experiencing economic growth and an inkling of renewed prosperity.
The prospect of armed conflict arising over the Catalonia issue seems distant, yet it is concerning nonetheless. The last time Spaniards turned on each other was during the Civil War of 1936-1939, during which over half a million people are likely to have perished. Catalan separatists have shown themselves willing to adopt violent methods in the past. The left-wing Terra Lliure organisation launched sporadic terrorist attacks during the 1980s and fears of an underground militant movement similar to the Basque separatists ETA gives cause for concern.
Perhaps just as significantly, the Catalan separatist movement is far from united. The centre-right party of Catalan President Artur Mas (Catalan nationalist coalition) is at loggerheads with the left-wing Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), which has increased its representation in the Catalan Assembly. Memories of the Civil War, when not only did Republicans and Nationalists stand opposed but each side was riven with internal factions and dissent, loom large. Should the unthinkable happen and an armed separatist movement emerge, will the Catalans unite amongst themselves? Similarly, what would a “Spanish” response entail, given the general regional differences in culture, language and lifestyle?
As long as the Catalan issue is not militarised via unwise terrorist attacks or unnecessary intervention by the armed forces then there will be no immediate reason to fear conflict. However, given Spanish history and the turmoil of the Civil War, which was exacerbated by regional disunity and economic crisis, the sooner the issue is resolved peacefully the easier Europe will breathe.