On Sunday 1st October, a referendum for independence – deemed illegal by the Spanish government – was held in Catalonia, an autonomous Spanish region, with 90% of Catalans choosing independence from Spain. So what is at the root of this intense drive for separation? Putting modern political reasons aside for just a moment, let’s delve into Catalonia’s historic past to understand why many Catalans are adamant that they will one day achieve an independent state.
Where is Catalonia?
Catalonia is a triangular region in north-east Spain which is separated from the south of France by the Pyrenean mountains. It is bordered by France and Andorra to the north, the Mediterranean Sea to the east, the autonomous community of Valencia to the south, and the autonomous community of Aragon to the west.
Catalonia has a population of 7.5 million, comprising roughly 16% of Spain’s population, spread across 948 municipalities – the largest of which, Barcelona, is home to 1.6 million people.
Modern-day map of Catalonia (CC by SA 3.0)
What is Happening Now in Catalonia?
On 1st October, a referendum was held in Catalonia to vote on whether they wish to become independent from Spain. Officials said that 90% of the 2.26 million who voted in the referendum voted in favour of independence, with a 42.6% turnout of the electorate. Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy rejected the result and denied that Catalonia had held a legal referendum.
The Guardian reports that in the days leading up to the referendum, police confiscated millions of ballot papers, blocked websites related to the referendum, smashed polling stations, forcibly removed ballot boxes and warned a range of public officials of the danger of breaking the law. The day of the vote itself saw a very heavy police presence, with high drama and tension giving way to outright violence: police clad in masks and riot gear forced polling stations to close, charged into protesters, fired rubber bullets into crowds, and violently beat citizens queueing to vote in the referendum. The Catalan Government claimed that more than 900 people were injured.
Today thousands of Catalans have gone on general strike in protest at the police violence
10 Historic Reasons Catalonia Wants Independence from Spain
1. Despite centuries of repression by conquering powers, Catalans have retained their own language – now spoken by 9 million people – which is not a dialect of Spanish, but evolved from the Vulgar Latin spoken by the Romans, who colonized the Tarragona area.
2. Catalonia has a long history dating back to the early middle ages, which saw the formation of its own customs and cultural identity – the first counties of Catalonia were established in the 8th century as a result of King Charlemagne attempting to establish a buffer zone between his Frankish Empire and Muslim-ruled Spain.
3. The basis of what would be the future sovereign state of Catalonia was formed in the 9th century. Considered the founder of Catalonia, Guifré el Pilós (Wilfred the Hairy) united several Catalan counties and became the first independent Count of Catalonia.
Statue of Wilfred the Hairy in Madrid (CC by SA 3.0)
4. Catalonia was a powerful region and a major sea power – Catalonia emerged as a distinct entity with the rise of the County of Barcelona to pre-eminence in the 11th century, and when the marriage between Ramon Berenguer IV and Queen Petronilla of Aragon resulted in a dynastic union with the Kingdom of Aragon, it became a major medieval sea power.
5. Catalonia had its own traditional rights and parliament from as early as the 12th century – although Catalonia was brought under the same royal rule as the neighbouring kingdom of Aragon in the 12th century, Catalonia kept its own traditional rights and parliament, the Corts Catalanes, which remained in place until the 18th century. The Catalan Courts had the force of the law in the sense that the king could not unilaterally revoke them.
Ferdinand II of Aragon on his throne flanked by two shields with the emblem of the royal signet. Frontis of a 1495 edition of the Catalan Constitutions (public domain)
6. Catalonia revolted against King Philip IV of Spain – In the 15th century, Catalonia lost its autonomy when King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile married and united their realms, laying the foundations of the Kingdom of Spain. However, during the reign of King Philip IV, Catalan peasants were forced to host an army which was fighting against the French King even though Catalans had enough problems defending Catalan territory. They revolted and declared a republic under French protection. It was to be a short-lived independence and by 1714, the Catalan State was completely abolished. Catalonia was brought under the rule of Madrid and administrative use of the Catalan language was banned.
7. Catalonia had achieved brief independence under Napoleon – During the Napoleonic Wars, Spanish and French armies fought against each other over several years. In 1810, Napoleon decreed that Catalonia was an independent Republic under his guardianship. But he had a change of heart. In 1812, he annexed Catalonia to France, and it became part of the Spanish Kingdom again in 1814 when the French were defeated.
8. The 19th Century Saw the Rise of Nationalist Sentiment – In the 19th century, Catalonia experienced a cultural renaissance. There was a powerful movement to revive Catalan culture, traditions and language, which flowed into a campaign for political autonomy and separatism.
9. Broad Autonomy Achieved in the 20th Century – At the beginning of the 20th century, Catalonia regained its united administrative system and a certain degree of self-rule. In 1931, the elections were won by Francesc Macià, who proclaimed the short-lived Republic of Catalonia. Three days later, he agreed on the establishment of an autonomous government for Catalonia with the newly-formed Spanish Republic.
10. Repression Leads to Greater Push for Independence – In 1936, a military coup was launched in an attempt to overthrow the Republic, sparking the Spanish Civil War. In 1938-9 – General Francisco Franco’s forces overran Catalonia. The President of the Catalan Government was executed by firing squad. Under Franco’s fascist dictatorship, which lasted nearly 40 years, there was a wide-scale suppression of Catalan autonomy, language and culture. Thousands of Catalan activists were executed or went into exile, and the Catalan language was forbidden in all public sectors. This suppression only served to fuel the fire of the Catalan’s deep desire for independence.
Following the death of Franco in 1975, Catalonia’s official autonomy within Spain, known as the Generalitat, was restored. Catalan’s mobilized to make their voices heard and they have been shouting for independence ever since.
Catalan independence protest in Times Square, NYC (CC by SA 2.0)
What Happens Next?
Spain will not let go of Catalonia easily. The Catalan region has long been the industrial heartland of Spain – first for its maritime power and trade in goods such as textiles, but now for finance, construction, agriculture and hi-tech companies. Today, it is among Spain’s most prosperous regions, contributing a fifth of the country’s 1.1 trillion-euro ($1.32 trillion) economy.
“Crudely speaking, Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, got his wish,” reports The Conversation. “He promised a referendum would not occur, and his government successfully ensured that what transpired on the day was too incoherent and chaotic to be legitimate.”
But this victory comes at a very high price. Rajoy’s government hoped to prevent the vote without police sequestering ballot boxes using violent tactics on ordinary people; instead, the spectacle of police preventing people from voting and attacking protesters, has done deep damage to Spain’s international credibility, and helped poison relations between Catalonia and Madrid even further.
The referendum may be over, but the stakes remain high. In the weeks and months to come, the crisis could lead to the fall of the Spanish government, and the Catalonian one at that. The dream of an imminent independent Catalan state has been shattered for now, but those Catalans who support independence are more alienated from Spain than ever before.
Top image: Guifré el Pilós (Wilfred the Hairy), Founder of Catalonia, Slaying a Dragon. Cathedral of Barcelona. Spain. (Jason M Kelly / flickr)