The Catalan feud as told to a foreigner

Key advocates of Catalan independence have Spanish surnames and grandparents who were born in Spain

The past. Catalonia is a historical nation that was born one thousand years ago. In the Middle Ages the kingdom of Catalonia —known as the Crown of Aragon— was a key player in the Mediterranean, its power extending across Valencia and the Balearic Islands, where Catalan is still widely spoken. In 1410, the Catalan royal lineage came to an end and Catalonia fell under the influence of Castilian monarchs. However, she kept her own institutions, laws and constitution until 1714, when the House of Bourbon defeated the House of Austria (Habsburg) in the War of Spanish Succession. Under Philip V’s absolutist rule, a centralised political regime was established. This defeat was cataclysmic for Catalans, who were overcome by a feeling that it was all over, with many fleeing into exile. However, Catalan society gradually saw its economy and culture bounce back: it is the only Spanish region to have had an Industrial Revolution. In the 19th century, Spain’s failed liberal state did not lend enough support to Catalonia’s bourgeois elite, which ended up creating its own political parties to further the region’s interests. At the same time, Catalan workers began to organise. Progress in Catalonia was driven by two pulsating forces: Catalanism and the struggle for social advancement. They sometimes clashed with one another, other times they worked as one. Parallel to this —and under the influence of Europe’s Romanticism— the Catalan language made a literary comeback (although the people had never stopped speaking it) and there was renewed interest in Catalonia’s medieval past amid much artistic and scientific innovation. In the 20th century this process culminated with the creation of a regional government with limited powers in 1917, two centuries after Catalonia’s crushing defeat. This new autonomous government had plans to modernise the nation and improve the people’s living conditions: they aimed for every town and village to have a phone line, a paved road and a school. This experiment —which Madrid viewed as sowing the seed of separatism— was brought to a sudden end by Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship. Later, during Spain’s Second Republic, Catalonia enjoyed another period of self-rule which also ended with a military coup followed by a civil war and four decades of Franco rule until the dictator’s death in 1975. With the advent of democracy, Catalonia regained her self-rule thanks to a pact that predates Spain’s 1978 Constitution.

The present. Within political Catalanism —born 150 years ago— separatists had traditionally been in a minority position up until the last decade. The Spanish state’s unsympathetic stance towards Catalonia explains the growing support for independence of recent years. Catalonia’s efforts to be granted a more ambitious home rule charter were thwarted by the Spanish parliament, resulting in a new Statute that was significantly watered down. Still, it was approved by a majority of Catalan voters in a referendum held in 2006. However, Spain’s Constitutional Court struck down the new charter even further with its 2010 ruling, which elicited widespread indignation in Catalonia. That humiliation, coupled with the drain on Catalonia’s tax revenues (1), the attacks against Catalan-medium teaching in Catalan schools and Catalan language TV have made secession the majority’s political choice at present, with over 70 per cent of Catalans who support “the right to decide” (a euphemism for self-determination). When all attempts to persuade Madrid to agree to a referendum on independence failed, Catalonia’s separatist leaders decided to go ahead and stage one anyway (1 October 2017), which prompted a heavy-handed response by Spanish police. The ensuing declaration of independence was inconsequential and half the Catalan government ended up in jail (with prison sentences of 9 to 13 years) while the other half remains exiled.

The future. Secessionism is not strong enough to prevail, but not so weak that it can be defeated. In Catalonia only 36 per cent of the population use the Catalan language on a regular basis. 48 per cent speak Spanish and the Catalan language has suffered major setbacks in recent years. In contrast, political support for independence hovers just below 50 per cent. A majority of representatives in the Catalan parliament support independence. In the 20th century many migrants from Spain settled in Catalonia. At the turn of the 21st century, another 1.5 million migrants arrived from Latin America, Africa and Asia. Key advocates of Catalan independence have Spanish surnames and grandparents who were born in Spain. From an ideological standpoint, support for independence brings together conservative Catholics as well as the anti-capitalist left. This diversity is both a blessing and a curse: there is no united front. Unionism is equally diverse, but it leans more towards the right, as it includes far-right party Vox. At present, the main pro-independence party on the left (ERC) —with its leader in prison— is the new kingmaker in Madrid (2), a paradox that makes predicting the future even more challenging.


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(1) Catalonia is one of the European regions that contributes the most but receives the least from their country’s coffers. Catalonia’s Social Progress Index (SPI) is in stark contrast with the regional GDP, a gap which leads to growing social inequality.

Translator’s note:

(2) The socialist party (PSOE) scored a narrow win in Spain’s recent elections and ERC’s parliamentary support would be key to securing PM Pedro Sánchez’s re-election.

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