The Spanish government has taken a hard-line stance, refusing until recently to talk with independence leaders. In October, Spanish courts doled out harsh prison sentences to independence leaders involved in what Spain declared was an illegal referendum in 2017. The ruling sparked widespread protests, and violent clashes with police. Our findings show a shift toward wider support for anti-government violence, as well as a shift in polarized identities. Here’s what you need to know:
How we did our research
As academic researchers in the consortium Artis International, we’ve been studying the progression of the Catalan independence movement since 2014. With the support of the U.S. government’s Minerva Research Initiative, we conducted dozens of interviews with independence activists and leaders and their opponents. We also conducted longitudinal surveys — asking the same people about the same issues over time — to gauge changes in Catalan attitudes.
In fall 2019, we ran one such survey on a representative sample of 1,070 residents of Catalonia with YouGov Spain, tracking Catalan views before and after the October court ruling and mass protests.
Catalonia’s relationship with Europe has changed
When we began our research over five years ago, there was a noticeable pro-European spirit among pro-independence Catalans. They celebrated how Catalonia attracted more European students, academics, freelancers and entrepreneurs than other regions in Spain.
Five years later, our survey results paint a different picture: It’s the pro-independence Catalans who identified the least with Europe. We also found that the more people identified as Catalan, as opposed to Spanish, the less they identified as European. In fact, among Catalans who fully identified as European, twice as many wanted unity with Spain compared with those who favored independence.
Why this big change? Catalan independence supporters may well have become resentful that the European Union didn’t offer any support, even symbolic, for their independence movement. In 2014, Catalans were optimistic that the E.U. would act as a fair broker between Catalan pro-independence forces and the Spanish government. But the E.U. landed firmly on the side of Spain after Catalonia’s October 2017 independence referendum, which Spain declared illegal.
Other surveys show that confidence in the E.U. system plummeted among Catalan independence supporters after the E.U.’s move.
Catalans are hardening their views on who is Catalan
This may explain antagonism toward Europe, but it does not fully explain the “narrowing” of Catalan identity. In 2014, independence supporters would point to immigrants at their protests as proof of Catalonia’s inclusive identity. Most stated with pride how 56 percent of Catalans don’t have any grandparents who were born in Catalonia. “Anyone can become Catalan” was an oft-repeated phrase.
Our recent survey found that Catalans who supported independence agreed the most with the idea that Catalan identity is something that cannot be acquired; instead, it’s in their blood. In fact, the closer someone’s position moved toward independence, the more exclusionary their notion of Catalan identity became. These findings suggest independence supporters became more tribal, with a much narrower sense of identity.
Moderates in Catalonia are becoming more polarized
On the extreme ends of this debate are those who want full independence versus those who want to abolish Catalan sovereignty via full integration into Spain. However, many in Catalonia are stuck in the middle — they might want to maintain Catalonia’s current status as an autonomous region, or push for a fully federated Spain, as opposed to accepting its current quasi-federal system.
Over time, our survey showed that people who held these middle positions initially saw Catalan and Spanish as being overlapping identities. However, after the October court ruling, we found that these same people saw them as completely separate identities — you’re either Catalan or you’re Spanish. This is similar to the views of people on either end of this debate. In other words, despite holding more-moderate positions in terms of preferred outcomes, the moderates begin to resemble those at the extremes in terms of how they identify.
The extremes are becoming more extreme
We found that the majority of independence supporters rejected the use of violence in protests before the court ruling, but afterward we saw a 20 percent increase. This result suggests the majority of independence supporters now accept the use of some degree of violence against Spanish police in defense of their pursuit for independence. Some may argue that the violence after the ruling arose spontaneously as a response to police aggression, but our results show a definite shift from pacifism beforehand to a greater tendency to support political violence after the court ruled in October.
Nationalism is on the rise in the rest of Spain
The election results also show a shift in Spain toward ultranationalism — voters who have zero tolerance for outsiders or for Catalan independence. Fueled by outrage against the independence movement, voters catapulted the far-right Vox party to large gains in the November election — Vox is now Spain’s third-largest party. It has promised to crush the independence movement, then turn its focus against feminists, the LGBT community and Muslims.
Spain’s government has long denied independence leaders’ requests for dialogue, hoping to wear down the movement. Our research suggests that this strategy has not worked. With Catalonia’s moderates growing increasingly polarized, independence supporters have become increasingly exclusionary in their identities and more willing to accept political violence in their quest for independence. These trends, along with growing evidence of a right-wing, nationalist backlash, could lead to long-term social fragmentation both within Spain and in its broader relationship with Europe.
Nafees Hamid is a PhD candidate in security and crime science at University College London. Follow @NafeesHamid on Twitter.
Clara Pretus is a postdoctoral researcher in social neuroscience at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Follow @ClaraPretus on Twitter.
Hammad Sheikh is a postdoctoral researcher in social science at the New School for Social Research. Follow @HammadSheikh on Twitter.