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Why part of Spain is trying to secede — and why the Spanish government cracked down on it

Police were filmed beating would-be voters on the streets of Barcelona.

Independence Referendum Takes Place In Catalonia Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Two million voters in Catalonia, one of the wealthiest provinces in Spain, voted on Sunday to secede and create a new nation of their own. The Spanish government maintained that the vote was illegal as well as unrepresentative, and there's zero chance that an independent nation will emerge from the ballot.

But that's not the only thing you need to understand about the Catalan drive to secede from Spain, which is expected to lead to a formal (if likely ineffectual) declaration of independence on Tuesday. The important thing is to understand that the Spanish government's brutal crackdown on Sunday's vote — which included seizing ballot boxes, the beating of unarmed voters and protesters, and the firing of rubber bullets — has made the Spanish state that much more fragile.

In a country that has only been a democracy for four decades, the scenes of police violence — which left some 800 people injured — looked like images from Spain’s bygone era of fascist leadership. The Catalans called upon the European Union to intervene on their behalf. The EU officially refused.

“This is an internal matter for Spain that has to be dealt with in line with the constitutional order of Spain,” a spokesperson for the EU said on Monday morning. The spokesperson then went further and warned the Catalans that their independence drive risked leaving them even more isolated internationally.

“Beyond the purely legal aspects of this matter, the Commission believes that these are times for unity and stability, not divisiveness and fragmentation,” the statement read.

That kind of language is meant to put down any notion that an independent Catalonia would be a formal member of the EU — and to stop other secession movements from getting similar ideas. If the Catalans won independence, theoretically there would be little to stop the Flemish from breaking away from Belgium, or the Corsicans from peeling off from France.

In other words, creating the theoretical nation of Catalonia wouldn’t simply be a blow to Spain; it would also be a potentially large blow to the territorial integrity of an array of other EU nations.

Catalonia’s desire for independence stretches back decades

At stake in the entire fight is the future of Catalonia, home to the city of Barcelona and one of the richest of Spain’s 17 provinces stretching from below the city of Tarragona to the French border. It has its own language (Catalan), education system, and cultural and literary traditions. The current Catalan independence push began roughly 80 years ago, when dictator Francisco Franco suppressed both Catalan culture and language, but some in the region trace the desire for autonomy back hundreds of years, to the inclusion of Catalonia in Spain in the early 18th century.

Catalonia’s economic prowess was instrumental in helping Madrid finally recover from the devastating 2008 economic crisis and the subsequent years spent climbing back out of that fiscal nightmare. Many Catalans are angry that they funnel more taxes into Madrid than they receive back in government aid. It got them thinking they’d be better off as citizens of their own state.

And yet, this referendum aside, most polls show that the region is deeply divided over the question of independence — 41 percent of Catalans say they want a fully independent Catalonia, while just under 50 percent say they want to remain part of Spain.

The current movement toward independence can also partially be traced back to 2010. That year, the Spanish courts struck down a 14 parts out of a popular 223-article 2006 referendum that gave Catalonia more autonomy over a broad range of issues, including privileging the Catalan language over Spanish.

The court decision prompted more than 1 million angry Catalans to march in favor of greater autonomy.

Everyone knew Sunday was going to go awry

Sunday’s violence was shocking but not entirely unexpected: The Spanish government in Madrid had spent weeks arguing that a vote for independence would be illegal. That ruling hinges on the text of the 1978 Spanish Constitution, which calls for the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation.”

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy also made clear that he was willing to use heavy-handed measures to prevent the vote from taking place. In the run-up to Sunday’s ballot, the Spanish Civil Guard raided offices in Catalonia, arrested Catalan leaders, and impounded 10 million ballots — all in the name of squelching the vote. On September 7, Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled that the vote was illegal and should not proceed.

As expected, as well, the Catalan government refused to acknowledge the authority of that ruling. "We will respond to the tsunami of lawsuits with a tsunami of democracy," Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president, told the press, insisting the vote would be held anyway.

Protests In Madrid As Catalonian Votes In Referendum Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

Thus, the scene was set for yesterday’s confrontations — though the level of violence shocked even those expecting it.

“I see no way back either for Madrid or for Barcelona,” Xesco Reverter, a Catalan journalist for TV3, told me by phone. “I don’t know how they can go back and sit at a table and talk.”

In the hours after the votes were cast, Rajoy flatly denied any referendum had even taken place.

For his part, Puigdemont told a crowd of supporters that “the Spanish state has lost a lot more than it had already lost, and Catalan citizens have won a lot more than they had won until now.”

Spain’s prime minister gambled — and lost

To some degree, the one who lost most on Sunday was Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, whose efforts to block the referendum, paired with his police force’s violent response to it, risks pushing more Catalans into the pro-independence camp.

Speaking to reporters in Catalan, Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau called Rajoy a coward and said he should resign. “Today I don’t think we are talking about the question of independence, yes or no, nor are we talking about a split between Catalonia and Spain,” she said. “We are talking about a split between Mariano Rajoy and his government and Catalonia.”

Missing in most of the conversations about Sunday’s violence was the voice of those who wanted a referendum in order to bolster their union with Spain. Remember that in the most recent poll, nearly 50 percent of the region’s residents indicated they were against secession.

“They’ve called me a quisling, a turncoat, a sellout, a coward, a wimp and a traitor,” wrote Jordi Ballart, a Catalan politician who came out against independence, on his Facebook page. “They’ve told me … I’m a bad Catalan, a moron, that I’m despicable, a piece of shit and a disgusting faggot — among many other things.”

All of which drives home a simple point: The independence drive, and the Spanish government’s response, has unleashed a torrent of public fury that will be difficult to bottle up again. Rajoy hoped to stop the secession movement from barreling forward and protect his country’s fragile democracy. He may have dealt it a serious blow instead.

Watch: The rise of Catalonia’s independence movement

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