Catalan Conundrum

Independence tremors

“Spain has shown us today its ugliest and darkest face, that which we really thought had disappeared 40 years ago,” said 54-year-old Mario Pulpillo. He referred to the brutal Spanish response to the October 1st Catalan independence referendum, in which 43% of the electorate voted for secession (Minder).

Catalonia, an autonomous region in northeast Spain, contains 16% of Spain’s population and roughly one fifth of the national economy (Erickson). The region has long agitated for independence, but Catalan President Carles Puigdemont still took the world by surprise when he scheduled a referendum for independence from the Madrid government. On voting day, the Madrid government sent thousands of troops and police officers armed with rubber bullets and truncheons to close polling offices and dispel voters, causing the injury of over 750 people (Minder).

Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy unequivocally condemned the referendum. “There will be no referendum,” he said. “It won’t happen” (Erickson). In the aftermath, however, both sides claimed victory, and Mr. Puigdemont claims he now has a mandate for independence. The result? What The New York Times called “one of the gravest tests of Spain’s democracy since the end of the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s” (Minder).

Spanish police block entrance to a Barcelona school that was being used as polling station


The long struggle

Catalonia has a three-century long history of resistance to the Spanish government. The agitation from Catalonia’s “independistas” originated in the early 18th century, when the Catalans opposed the reign of Bourbon monarch Philip V. In 1716, the Madrid government’s Nueva Planta decree established direct rule over Catalonia, but by the 19th century, a nationalist movement began to gain steam, buttressed by industrialization and cultural revival (“Catalonia profile”).

In 1931, the Spanish republic granted regional autonomy to Catalonia. Not long after, however, General Francisco Franco took control, brutally suppressing Catalan nationalism from 1939 to 1975. A turning point in Catalan history arrived in 1979, when Catalonia received a statute of autonomy and became recognized as a nation. Throughout the first decade and a half of the new millennium, however, Catalans continued to agitate for independence, with informal votes on independence in various Catalan cities and a region-wide referendum of separation in which 80% of participants voted for separation. By November of 2015, Catalonia’s parliament had adopted a resolution for independence (“Catalonia profile”).

Catalonia has a three-century long history of resistance to the Spanish government

According to the Economist, most Catalans support independence for three reasons. First, many feel resentment over decisions in 2010 made by the Spanish courts overturning previous legislation that had recognized Catalonia as a nation. In addition, the 2008-09 economic downturn fueled Catalan claims that the Spanish government was robbing them of money. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Catalonia suffers from a long-standing identity crisis. The region has a distinct language and culture, and has long considered itself unique from Spain (“Catalonia prepares”). This sentiment was encapsulated by Marti Feliu, a 21-year-old history student at Barcelona University, when he said, “We’ve shown our way of making politics and changing things is very different to that of Spain. It’s our opportunity to create a different kind of country, even if we don’t yet know exactly how and when” (Minder).

Mr. Rajoy cracks down

Left, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy; right, Catalan president Carles Puigdemont

A week and a half after the referendum, on Oct. 10, Mr. Puigdemont presented a speech to the Catalan Parliament in which he issued an ambiguous declaration of independence. He claimed to assume the mandate of the people, but left the door open for dialogue with Madrid (“Spain moves”). “We are not criminals. We are not crazy,” said Mr. Puigdemont. “We are normal people, and we just want to vote” (Erickson).

In response, the Madrid government demanded that Mr. Puigdemont clarify his remarks: did he declare independence or no? On October 21, after the Catalan prime minister refused to clarify or revoke his remarks, Mr. Rajoy responded with unprecedented measures. Invoking Article 155 of the 1978 Constitution, the Prime Minister requested that the Senate grant him powers to seize control of the Catalan police force, remove Mr. Puigdemont from office, and call for a regional election within six months. Mr. Rajoy commands majority support in the Senate, meaning these measures will almost certainly be passed (“Spain faces”).

Will the Catalan government respond with a full declaration of secession? If so, Catalan independence would reverberate throughout Europe, strengthening separatist movements from Scotland to the Donbas region in Ukraine (“Catalonia’s unconstitutional means”). One thing is clear: Mr. Rajoy will not let Catalonia slip out of his hands without a showdown. Truly, much remains at stake as the crisis in Catalonia continues.


Breaking: On Oct. 27, the Catalan parliament unilaterally declared independence from Spain.  No country recognized the declaration.  Minutes later, the Senate in Madrid approved Mr. Rajoy’s request to invoke Article 155 and impose direct rule on Catalonia.  Mr. Rajoy dismissed Mr. Puigdemont’s administration, replaced the commander of the Catalan police, and called for a snap election on Dec. 21.   In response, Mr. Puigdemont fled to Brussels, Belgium (“Man who wasn’t there”).  A Spanish judge has issued European Arrest Warrants (EAW) for Mr. Puigdemont and four of his allies in Belgium (“Spain issues warrant”).

For further reading:

  1. Recent opinion article from The Economist on the Catalan crisis.
  2. A good overview from Foreign Affairs Magazine on the history of Catalan nationalism.  


Works Cited:

Minder, Raphael and Ellen Barry. “Catalonia’s Independence Vote Descends into Chaos and Clashes.” The New York Times, 1 Oct. 2017, Accessed 21 Oct. 2017.

Erickson, Amanda. “Spain vs. Catalonia: Here’s what you need to know abut the independence showdown.” The Washington Post, 21 Oct. 2017, Accessed 21 Oct. 2017.

“Catalonia profile—Timeline.” BBC News, 2 Oct. 2017, Accessed 21 Oct. 2017.

“Catalonia prepares to vote on secession.” The Economist, 23 Sept. 2017, Accessed 21 Oct. 2017.

“Spain moves to dismiss Catalonia’s secessionist government.” The Economist, 21 Oct. 2017, Accessed 21 Oct. 2017.

“Spain faces a constitutional crisis over Catalonia.” The Economist, 19 Oct. 2017, Accessed 21 Oct. 2017.

“Catalonia’s unconstitutional means to an undesirable end.” The Economist, 23 Sept. 2017, Accessed 21 Oct. 2017.

“The man who wasn’t there.” The Economist, 2 Nov. 2017,  Accessed 4 Nov. 2017.

“Catalonia crisis: Spain issues warrant for Puigdemont.”  BBC, 3 Nov. 2017.  Accessed 4 Nov. 2017.

Image sources:

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