Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The Spanish Reconquista

The brutal measures employed by the Spanish government in Catalonia may show that the spirit of the Reconquista is alive and well in Spain, writes Hany Ghoraba

Shocking footage from the Spanish city of Barcelona showing clashes between riot police and angry protesters has stunned the world as it appeared to be coming out of a troubled Middle Eastern country or the Occupied West Bank rather than from a country in the heart of Europe.

 To the amazement of TV viewers worldwide, these scenes were taken in the heart of Western Europe and particularly the city of Barcelona on 1 October 2017. The Catalonia Regional Government in Spain held a referendum on independence seeking to secede from the rest of Spain and establish an independent state.

The Spanish government rejected the call for a referendum and labelled it “illegal and unconstitutional”. It decided to use heavy-handed tactics to annul the referendum, resulting in the worst clashes Spain has witnessed in decades. Over 460 protesters were injured in the clashes, resulting in massive protests estimated to reach 700,000 people who marched into Barcelona to denounce the Spanish government’s draconian measures.

But instead of any form of a political process or negotiations with the increasingly popular Catalan independence movement led by separatist leader Carles Puigdemont, the Spanish government opted for an approach that could be labelled as a “political reconquista” to resolve a complex political issue. 

The Reconquista, the Spanish for “reconquest”, was the period that saw the expulsion of the Arabs from the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages. It ended with the fall of the city of Grenada in southern Spain in 1492, when the last stronghold of the western Ummayid Caliphate fell to Christian forces. Spain then embarked on becoming a major colonial power, especially in the Americas. The military methods used during the Reconquista and thereafter were brutal at times and were accompanied by the infamous Spanish Inquisition that sought to impose religious orthodoxy on the whole of the country.

Nearly six centuries later, the soul of the Reconquista period still lingers in the hearts and minds of many Spanish politicians and decision-makers when handling political calls for independence, including those in Catalonia. It resulted in the brutal police interventions and clashes with Catalan voters during referendum day that were seen worldwide live on air.

Though using peaceful democratic means to seek its independence through a public referendum, the Catalonia Region was not spared heavy-handed measures to quell the separatist movement and force the closure of polling stations in the region. This brutality sends a very negative message that may aggravate an already delicate situation in Spain, meaning that the central government is not willing to abide by democratic rules or sit down to negotiate constitutional questions.

The referendum may be illegal according to the Spanish government, but the methods it used have given it a measure of legitimacy. The Spanish government has empowered the separatists, who scored 90 per cent of the vote in the referendum, according to Catalan figures, and will likely continue on a collision path with the central government entailing further civil strife in the upcoming period.

 At the same time, the volatile Basque Country of northern Spain that has been seeking independence from the country for decades is likely to follow suit in its old ambitions for independence, these in turn encouraging the terrorist-designated Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or “Basque Homeland and Liberty” (ETA) group, to carry on its violent activities against the Spanish state.

The Catalan and Basque regions of Spain are different ethnically from the rest of Spain and have distinctive cultures, languages and traditions that mark them off from the rest of the country. The Catalan language is entirely different from Spanish and contains literature that dates back to the 11th century. There are also other regions of Spain that have their own languages and ethnicities, including Valencia which speaks Valencian, a dialect of Catalan, and Galicia, which speaks Galician and includes the regions of Leon, Asturias and Zamora in northwest Spain.

As a result of the country’s complex nature, which is not as homogenous as it may seem, the Spanish government needs to change its strategy to keep the Spanish state united. The handling of the Catalonia referendum was nothing short of disastrous, and it was devoid of political tact or prudence. It has garnered sympathy for the Catalan independence movement domestically and internationally.

The Catalonia Region, with its population of some eight million people, is among the richest in Spain and provides 30 per cent of Spanish exports, 22.2 per cent of its tourism, and 19 per cent of its GDP. The region is of extreme economic and political importance to Spain as a whole, as it contains some of the country’s most important industries and touristic and historical sites.

The Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia issued in 1979, together with its newer version in 2006, is second only in importance to the Spanish constitution from which the statute originates.


BRITISH EXPERIENCE: The British government’s handling of the Scottish quest for independence from the United Kingdom is exemplary in comparison to Spain’s handling of the referendum in Catalonia.

The British government managed to wage an intensive media campaign to support the “no” vote rejecting independence in the referendum organised in Scotland in 2014. It played on many of the aspirations and hopes of Scottish citizens, including economic, political and even emotional ones. For months it emphasised the importance of the country’s remaining united in order to retain the strength of the United Kingdom.

The campaign also emphasised the economic and political perks that Scotland enjoyed by staying part of the United Kingdom. The campaign continued all the way to the eve of the referendum, with the BBC TV network running a documentary entitled The British that narrated 2,000 years of British history and the country’s common origins as a way of keeping British sentiments within the hearts of the Scots alive.

The tactic worked and the “no” vote won the referendum keeping Scotland within the United Kingdom. While some rigging may have happened, as claimed by the Scottish Independence Movement, the result left both sides nearly contented and absorbed the anger of the Independence Movement peacefully despite its new demands for a further referendum after the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

Alas, the Spanish government’s modus operandi was completely different, retrieving the spirit of the Reconquista in keeping Catalonia as part of Spain instead of using 21st-century political methods. It raided referendum polling stations, seizing ballot boxes, besieging centres and beating protesters including journalists covering the events.   

Official reactions from the European Union, the United States and United Nations were nuanced to the extent that media reports were timid in the face of the draconian measures taken by the Spanish government. This timidity could be the result of the Pandora’s Box that the Catalonia referendum could open if it is emulated elsewhere in the EU. At least the Flemish independence movement in Belgium could attempt to organise a similar independence referendum. Moreover, the Scottish Independence Movement is already rallying to demand a new referendum. These examples may spread across Europe and to other regions of the world.

As a result of the measures taken by the Spanish government, the Catalan parliament is defying pressure from Madrid and working to take steps towards an independence declaration. The Spanish government issued a late apology to the injured protesters, yet it is still threatening to annul the Autonomy Statute of the Catalonia Region, only adding fuel to the fire. It is aware of the stakes that include losing Catalonia and the negative impact on Spain’s future.

Areas having different ethnicities or languages should not have complete independence from the nation states of which they are a part, since this would lead to thousands of new countries if every ethnicity or racial minority decided to have its own independent state. This would throw the world back to a modern form of tribalism not seen since the Iron Age.

Nevertheless, there are cases such as the Catalonian or the Scottish that may require a different approach in conjunction with the nation state. The solutions may vary from complete independence to a form of federalism. However, handing such issues with an iron fist will reap the reverse results to those that are wanted.

The Spanish government must seriously reconsider its Reconquista strategy in handling the most pressing political situation in the country since the Spanish Civil War. It should learn from the physicist Albert Einstein, who said that “peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.”

The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

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