Today, October 1st (1-O), a highly controversial independence referendum is being held in Catalonia, Spain. It is controversial, because the regional and national governments do not agree on its validity. Some three weeks ago, the government of the north-eastern region passed a law making the referendum possible, a law that was almost immediately suspended by Spain’s national Constitutional Court. The latter makes its outcome non-binding and unconstitutional; whatever comes out of the poll, the result will not be valid. The Catalan leaders know this, but have still urged their constituents to go on and cast a ballot. What is more, Carles Puigdemont, head of the regional government, has promised to proclaim Catalonia an independent state if at the end of today, the majority of the ballots are in favour of independence, regardless of the turnout percentage. Again, since becoming an independent nation necessitates legal conditions, the vote is symbolic at most. Nevertheless, as we have seen throughout today, this has not stopped millions of people from participating.

The motives of the Catalan independence movement can be divided into two categories. The first is economic. Spain invests a relatively small sum of money in Catalonia, even though the region has steadily generated about a fifth of the national gross domestic product. The anger about this discrepancy is often expressed through the popular slogan “espanya ens roba”, which translates into “Spain robs us”. The second category of arguments is related to catalanism, or subnationalism. Many Catalans claim to have an identity that is different from the Spanish identity. Throughout the years, this identity has been suppressed by many Spanish leaders, strengthening the us-versus-them sentiment. 

The referendum was preceded by a very heated political debate. Beyond striving for independence, certain political parties are now demanding the resignation of the central government of Mariano Rajoy. Other nations have tuned in as well. President Donald Trump, for example, could not resist to put in his two cents, echoing his Spanish counterpart and praising the unity of Spain. The United Nations, while not taking any substantive position, have urged the central government of Spain to let the Catalan people vote freely.

The Spanish people are also split over the issue. The popular debate about the referendum and the independence movement more broadly has become more and more polarised throughout recent years. “Before, it was possible to be pro-Spain without being seen as a rightist. Now, if you are pro-Spain, it is because you are a radical,” explains Belén Jimenez, who is from Madrid, but spends half of her time working in Catalonia. “I know both places very well and love them both very much. This whole situation makes me very sad, because it is dividing the people.” Jimenez works with children and has observed that even they have been sucked into the dispute. “I overhear 7-year-olds talking about how Spain is robbing them. That pains me. They are filled with hate. They are so small and they are filled with hate.” Even though she would like to see Spain remaining one united country, she would be keen on a legal and binding referendum. “The Catalan people should have been able to vote on this a very long time ago. The situation should have been resolved a long time ago, and it could have been resolved much better back then.” With regards to the referendum of today, Jimenez thinks it will not end well. “It will worsen the relationship between Catalonia and Spain even further, if that is even possible. The two governments are acting like little children.”