On 1st October 2017, in a referendum deemed illegal by the Spanish Government, 92% of those who voted opted to secede from Spain.
Using police drafted in from elsewhere in Spain, the central government did everything it could to prevent the vote from taking place.
The referendum and its aftermath plunged Spain into its worst political crisis in modern history.
So why are Catalans so passionate about separating from Spain?
In a nutshell, it boils down to 2 issues: identity and economics.
Although it has been part of Spain since the 15th century (Source), the region known as Catalonia has a distinct political, linguistic, ethnic and cultural identity going back almost 1000 years (Source).
Until the late 1930s Catalonia was semi-autonomous. But when right wing dictator General Francisco Franco came to power in 1939 he crushed Catalonian autonomy and banned the Catalan language (Source).
Franco’s death in 1975 ushered in the modern era of Spanish democracy.
In the new Spanish Constitution, drawn up in 1978, Catalonia was granted a degree of autonomy from the Madrid government (Source).
Since the late 1970s Catalan identity has been inextricably tied up with language. In the post-Franco era every aspect of daily life in Catalonia has been conducted in the Catalan language.
Catalans under the age of 40 were schooled exclusively in the Catalan language (Source). The result is reflected in these statistics:
- 95% of Catalans understand the Catalan language
- 73% of Catalans can speak Catalan
- 56% can write in Catalan (Source)
Economy of Catalonia
Catalonia (Cataluña) with its capital of Barcelona, has long been the economic powerhouse of Spain.
In the 19th century Barcelona was the first Spanish city to embrace the Industrial Revolution (Source).
Many Catalans believe that through taxes to the national government, Catalonia subsidises the rest of Spain.
In 2014 Catalonia paid $11.4 billion (€9.89bn) more in taxes to the central government than it received in government spending (Source), a difference equal to 5% of Catalonia’s GDP.
The 2008 recession brought these long standing economic resentments to the boil. Catalans, who lost a disproportionate percentage of jobs as a result of the recession, felt they were paying a steep price for being part of Spain.
The Move Towards Independence
In 2005 both the Spanish and the Catalonian parliament approved plans for a statute that would have given Catalonia a greater degree of autonomy, more financial power, and greater recognition for its language.
The statute, which became law in 2006 (Source), gave Catalonia significant financial power and described the region as a “nation”.
But in 2010, crucial parts of the statute were removed by Spain’s Constitutional Court.
The result was widespread anger amongst Catalan nationalists (Source). The reversal of the 2006 Catalonia Statute was the immediate impetus for the current move towards Independence.
The 2017 Referendum
In November 2014 Catalans held an unofficial referendum on independence (Source).
Of 5.4 million Catalans eligible to vote, more than two million voted and of those, 80% called for secession from Spain.
Then, in the regional elections of 2015, Catalonia Separatists came to power (Source).
In fulfilment of one of their elections promises, the new Catalan Government immediately began planning for a binding referendum on the issue of secession.
The proposed referendum was clearly illegal, given that Spain’s Constitution stipulates that Spain is indivisible (Source).
But the Catalan parliament approved the proposed referendum on 6 September 2017 together with a law stipulating that
- The referendum would be binding
- No minimum voter turnout would be required
The next day, on 7th September 2017, the proposed referendum (scheduled for 1st October 2017) was declared illegal by the Spanish Government (Source).
In the lead up to 1st October, the Spanish Government drafted thousands of national police from around Spain into Barcelona to prevent the illegal referendum from taking place.
These extra police were accommodated in three enormous ferries that tied up in the ports of Barcelona and Tarragona (Source).
On the day of the referendum, Spanish national police reportedly used considerable violence in their attempt to prevent the referendum going ahead. Nearly 900 people were injured (Source).
Forty-three percent of eligible voters cast their vote and of those, 92% (or 2,044,038) voted in favour of establishing an independent Catalan Republic (Source).
According to the Catalan government, 770,000 people were prevented from voting due to police having closed polling stations.
Do Catalan People Really Want Independence?
To what extent does the result of the 1st October vote reflect the will of the Catalan people?
In answering this question, two facts are worth considering:
Firstly, many Catalans who did not support Catalan independence did not vote in 1st October poll because the major political parties had asked citizens not to participate in a referendum which the High Court of Spain had ruled illegal.
Secondly, an opinion poll conducted in July 2017 found that while 41% of Catalans were in favour of independence from Spain, 49% were opposed (Source).
The Fallout From the Referendum
On 10th October the Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont addressed the Catalan Parliament but stopped short of declaring independence from Spain (Source).
On 11th October Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy gave the Catalan government until 16th October to clarify whether or not it had declared independence from Spain (Source).
The Catalan Government failed to meet Rajoy’s deadline and on 21 October, the Spanish government suspended Catalan’s autonomy and announced its intention to impose direct rule on the region (Source).
On 26 October Carles Puigdemont said he would refrain from declaring independence and instead leave it to a vote by Catalan MPs.
The following day, on 27 October 2017, the Catalan Parliament voted by 70 votes to 10 to declare independence from Spain (Source).
That same day Spain’s Senate voted 214 votes to 47 to impose direct rule on Catalonia (Source).