Behind the Headline: Why is Catalonia Vying for Independence?

Boy, it has been forever since I’ve done one of these, huh?

So, yesterday, the Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, announced a plan to all but shut down the government of Catalonia, an autonomous region of Spain in the northeastern part of the country, and temporarily impose direct rule from Madrid. For his part, Catalan president Carles Puigdemont has announced in a speech that his government won’t accept the plan and hinted that they may formally try to break away from Spain. A massive protest flooded the streets of Barcelona, the largest city in Catalonia, with hundreds of thousands of marchers opposed to Rajoy’s proposal, which must be approved by the Spanish Senate to take effect.

These events are in response to a referendum held in Catalonia on October 1, in which 90% of voters supported Catalan independence (though the vote was considered illegal by Spain’s courts and many anti-independence Catalans boycotted the vote). After the referendum passed, Puigdemont and the Catalan government wrote a declaration of independence, but then immediately “suspended” the document, supposedly to allow for negotiations with the Spanish government. Rajoy’s latest moves are in response to Catalan leaders ignoring calls by Spain to clarify their position. Both sides have accused the other of stomping all over democracy and ignoring the rule of law. Catalan protesters have announced that if Spanish authorities try to have Puigdemont arrested, they will use themselves as a human shield to stop them.

Why is this happening? What is driving Catalonia’s independence movement? Why is Spain so adamant on stopping them?

It’s time to go Behind the Headline.

A history of Catalonia (and its relationship to Spain)

Our story begins in 711 AD. Yes, really.

That was the year that Muslim armies from North Africa invaded the Iberian Peninsula. Over the next seven years, they took over almost all of the peninsula, with the exception of a small pocket in the Cantabrian Mountains along the northern coast, where some Christians managed to hold out under the Visigoth leader Pelagius. It was this pocket of Christian resistance that would be the seed from which Spain would grow, as generation after generation fought over the centuries for the Christian reconquista (reconquest) of the peninsula.

However, Catalonia has altogether different roots. In 732, a Muslim invasion of France was defeated at the Battle of Tours by Charles Martel. His grandson, Charlemagne, was one of the greatest conquerors of early medieval Europe, and he wanted to ensure that his new empire was safe from any would-be Muslim threats, so he created a buffer zone along the border known as the Spanish March. It was here that the County of Barcelona was created, and over the centuries its power and influence expanded, thanks in part to Barcelona’s status as an important trading port in the western Mediterranean, and in part to a series of political marriages, wars, and treaties. By the 12th century, Barcelona had become the economic hub of the Crown of Aragon, a medieval federation of Catalonia, some neighboring regions, and eventually, even most of southern Italy.

The official flag of Catalonia, known as the Senyera, is based on the Crown of Aragon’s coat of arms – a gold shield with four red stripes. According to legend, when Count Wilfred the Hairy of Barcelona was wounded in battle, the French king Charles the Bald paid the count a visit to thank him for his bravery. During the meeting, Wilfred’s blood-soaked hands stained his copper shield, creating the red stripes. Today, the Catalan independence movement uses the Estelada, a flag that adds a star to the Senyera to symbolize national freedom and independence.

Of course, as we all know, in the 15th century King Ferdinand II of Aragon married Queen Isabella of Castile, creating modern Spain. Having said that, for several centuries, “Spain” was legally not a single country but a collection of autonomous kingdoms that happened to share the same monarch. During these years, Aragon, while unified with the rest of Spain, continued to enjoy a high degree of autonomy with its own separate laws. However, as time wore on, this autonomy eroded as successive Spanish kings demanded more centralization of political power, and eventually king Philip V formally abolished the separate kingdoms and created a unified Spanish nation-state in 1716.

This is a large part of why the relationship between Spain and Catalonia is so complicated. Catalonia was its own separate thing for centuries. It has its own national culture, its own traditions, its own cuisine, its own holidays, and even its own language. In fact, the Catalan language is actually more closely related to the dialects of southern France than it is to Spanish. Yet, at the same time, Catalonia has been a part of Spain for hundreds of years, and numoerous generations have thought of Catalans as fellow Spaniards.

In living memory, however, the real touchy hot-button subject is the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975. Franco promoted an ideal of Spanish nationalism that emphasized unity and rejected diversity. Spanish national culture was “whatever Franco happened to like” (flamenco dancing, bullfighting, the Roman Catholic Church), and all other traditions were banned and suppressed. Catalonia, which had sided against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, was especially targeted. The use of Catalan in public was banned, as were traditional Catalan dances and festivals. This is a part of why the soccer team FC Barcelona came to be so popular; for many Catalans, it was the only legal way to express their national pride and sort-of voice their distaste for the Franco regime.

After Franco died and Spain transitioned to democracy, a new constitution was drawn up that, among other things, allowed the Spanish government to grant various regions of Spain autonomy and self-government. This is why Catalonia is able to elect its own regional government with control of many local affairs. That is, until these latest developments happened.

So, why is Catalonia seeking indepedence now?

In a word, economics.

The Great Recession hit Spain especially hard, and it has suffered from a major unemployment crisis as well as ballooning public debt. Yet Catalonia has, by and large, managed to weather the storm, and it is one of the most well-off parts of Spain, with a robust manufacturing sector and plenty of tourism. Catalonia alone is responsible for 20% of Spain’s GDP.

Madrid has taken full advantage of this, using billions of euros of Catalan tax money to help prop up struggling regions elsewhere in Spain. This is completely natural and rational from the Spanish government’s point of view, and indeed, using resources from better-off parts of a country to help those in worse-off areas is perfectly normal in many countries. Here in the United States, there are many states that depend on money from the federal government to function, but a few, such as New Jersey, Delaware, Illinois, Minnesota, and Kansas, actually pay more in federal taxes than they get back in federal spending. I’m certainly not aware of any major secessionist movements in Kansas right now.

The difference is that many Catalans don’t see themselves as Spaniards (thanks to their own national culture that evolved separately) and don’t trust Madrid (due to the decades of repression under Franco). To these Catalans, it is completely unfair for them to be paying for the rest of Spain – they want their taxes to pay for Catalonia’s needs. They feel Spain is an anchor that they are forced to drag, and would be better off going it alone.

Having said that, some economic experts question whether Catalonia really would be better off without Spain. If Catalonia gains its independence, it will need to provide for itself those government services that Madrid currently provides, such as a military, embassies around the world, and the like. About a third of the products Catalonia makes are sold in other parts of Spain, so there is an immediate question regarding trade across the new Spanish-Catalan border. An independent Catalonia would also be outside the European Union, and if it wants to stay in the EU it would have to apply for EU membership. Mind you, being admitted as an EU member requires the unanimous consent of all existing EU members, including Spain. You know, the very country they would have just gained their independence from?

Still, Puigdemont seems adamant in pursuing Catalan independence with zeal and determination, reportedly even over the objections of other leaders in his own political party and government. What will be the outcome of this latest political crisis? Will Catalonia gain its independence or will Spain succeed in stopping this train in its tracks? It looks like we will all find out soon.

3 Responses to Behind the Headline: Why is Catalonia Vying for Independence?

  1. auntleesie says:

    Seems like people all over the world are looking for big changes with more focus on self-preservation and independence… Brexit, the last elections in the U.S. & France, the collapse of Japan’s Democratic Party and now this upheaval in Spain. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

  2. auntleesie says:

    Oh, and thanks for the history behind the headlines!

  3. Pingback: More Countries that Almost Existed | Cat Flag

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: