If one were to make a list of currently active national independence movements that are likely to succeed, first place would probably be taken by Scotland – especially after controversial British EU exit vote that met with two-to-one opposition by the Scots. And Scotland, unlike most would-be sovereign states, has a centuries-long history of independence behind it that gives its separatist movements greater strength. Second place, however, might belong to Catalonia. The Catalan nation, depending upon how one counts a Catalan, numbers from six million (the number of Catalan speakers in Catalonia itself) to nine million (including Catalan speakers in other Spanish communities.)
And the Catalans are, in fact, one of the most vocally pro-independence peoples in Europe. Recent polling data suggests that support for independence hovers around 40 to 50 percent. However, if support for a strongly autonomous Catalonia as a federal unit of Spain is included — effectively all the benefits of independence without any of the drawbacks — that figure rises to well over 70 percent. Perhaps reflecting this popular support for independence or increased autonomy, the current Parliament of Catalonia is dominated by a big tent coalition of pro-independence parties, and both former President of Catalonia Artur Mas and current President Carles Puigdemont are leaders of the Catalan pro-independence movement.
Like Scotland, Catalonia can make a claim to independence on a historical basis. Catalan nationalists point to the creation of the County of Barcelona in 801 by Louis I, King of the Franks, as a buffer against the newly-conquered Muslim al-Andalus to the south. By the end of the 9th century, Barcelona had gained de facto independence from the Frankish crown, an independence that it maintained under successive Counts of Barcelona for several centuries until the title was taken by King Ferdinand II of Aragon, who married Queen Isabella of Castile thereby joining the two great kingdoms and forming the basis of Spain as we know it today. In this way, Barcelona and most of the other Catalan lands were folded into the new Kingdom of Spain.
This did not put an end to Catalan attempts at secession. At four different times (1641, 1873, and twice in the 1930s) Catalan leaders tried to establish either independent or strongly autonomous states and to wrest control of their lands away from Madrid. The final of these attempts was the Catalan Republic of 1934, led by socialist attorney and politician Lluís Companys, who was forced to flee from Spain following the victory of Francisco Franco’s party in the Spanish Civil War. Companys ended his life in front of a firing squad in 1940 after his arrest in exile in France by the Nazis and has since become a national martyr and symbol of Catalan independence (particularly for the Catalan left.)
From the mid-1930s to the mid-1970s, Franco ruled Spain as the dictator of a one-party state.* Generally speaking, dictators of one-party states don’t like granting regional autonomy because such autonomy means decentralization and a loss of control. Franco was no exception to this rule. The victory of Franco’s party in the Spanish Civil War brought greater centralization and the end of any kind of meaningful autonomy for Spain’s minority nationalities. After his death in 1975, however, Spain transitioned from an autocracy to a democracy under the nominal rule of King Juan Carlos I, and Franco’s former regime was liberalized.
As part of this liberalization process, political power became far more decentralized, and certain domestic policy decisions were entrusted to Spain’s constituent states, now called Autonomous Communities. Article 147 of the new Spanish constitution provides the legal basis for regional autonomy in each community through the adoption of individual Statutes of Autonomy. Critically, however, these statutes must be signed off on by an absolute majority of the Cortes General, the Spanish parliament. Unlike a federal state that grants autonomy to its constituent regions by right, autonomy in Spain must be approved by the central government.
This arrangement has resulted in
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However, the independence referendum in itself is not the greatest threat that the Catalan independence movement poses to the Spanish government. Madrid is concerned not only with the potential loss of Catalonia but also with the resulting increase in support for other independence movements around Spain that a Catalan exit might spark. Unlike most other European states, Spain is home to several distinct nationalities, each with its own language. Despite Spain’s transition into a democracy and the autonomy that came along with that transition, however, agitation for greater autonomy from Madrid and even for independence has continued. Said agitation has come most notably from the Catalans, but also from the Basques in the northeast, the Galicians in the northwest, and the Valencians and Balearic Islanders in the east, each of whom have a culture and language distinct from the Spanish. One likely effect of Catalan independence would be increased support for independent Basque, Galician, Valencian, and Balearic republics, threatening a further reduction of Spain’s population and territory.
Even if this were not to occur, there is no guarantee that a Catalan state would remain confined to the borders of the current community of Catalonia. Catalan and Catalan-related languages also dominate in Valencia to the south, in the La Franja region of Aragon to the west, in the Balearic Islands off of Spain’s Mediterranean coast, and in the French department of Pyrénées-Orientales, all of which are included in the “Greater Catalonia” conceived of by some Catalan nationalists.** Under the circumstances, both Spain and France have an interest in suppressing support for Catalan independence.
Spain’s concerns regarding Catalonia are all the greater considering the major financial contribution the community provides to the country. Catalonia’s GDP in 2012 represented about 20% of the total Spanish GDP, and Barcelona is one of the Mediterranean’s most important ports and centers of industry. The loss of Barcelona alone, widely considered the second city of Spain, is enough of a threat for the Spanish government to strongly oppose Catalan independence.
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* The name of Franco’s party was Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista, better known as FET y de las JONS. Not a very snappy name for a political party, but Franco didn’t have to worry about holding elections, after all.
** It should be noted that many Valencian nationalists are hostile to Catalan nationalists for this very reason – they’re as much against taking orders from Barcelona as they are against taking orders from Madrid. There is an entirely separate rabbit hole one can fall down looking into the ideological battle between Catalan and Valencian nationalists, but this subject lies outside the scope of this piece.