top of page

Catalonia: Why are they trying to declare independence?

Recently, Catalonia (Catalunya in Catalan), an autonomous community in the Kingdom of Spain, has been in the news after a controversial referendum to declare independence from Madrid. Both sides seek to discredit the other: the Spanish loyalists point out that only pro-independence Catalans turned out for the referendum (declared unconstitutional by Madrid) and that less than half of registered voters voted. The Catalan separatists also rightly highlight the disturbing levels of police violence against voters as roughly 900 people were injured and another 750,000 votes were uncounted because of closed polling stations and confiscations.

On referendum day, October 1st, Spanish police prevented voting and at times were violent against Catalans. The Spanish police are blocking the entrance to a polling station held in a local Barcelona school. Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press


But what is so unique about Catalonia? While the brutal Fascist Franco regime from 1939-1975 sought to promote Spanish unity through promotion of Castilian Spanish and Catholicism as normative Spanish identity, this was far from the case historically.

To understand Catalan nationalism and modern politics, it is necessary to understand the complex historical cultural and ethnicities of the region. The Spanish peninsula’s wealth of natural resources and strategic location attracted the attention of many other Mediterranean peoples. By the 3rd century BCE, the Carthaginians established fleeting hegemony in Iberia, spreading their control over the Peninsula, controlled through Carthago Nova (modern Cartagena in Andalusia).

The Romans gained control over Iberia with the defeat of Barca’s son, Hannibal Barca, during the second Punic War (218-201 BC), ending Carthaginian hegemony in the Peninsula. While the Romans easily conquered most of Peninsula, the northern Celto-Iberians held out in Numantia until 133 BC and Emperor Augustus finally completed the conquest in 9 CE. The population, other than the Basques, was heavily romanized, producing two Roman Emperors (Trajan and Hadrian), numerous Latin writers (including Seneca, Martial, and Quintilian) and breathtaking Roman artistic and architectural monuments such as aqueducts, theatres, circuses, and Camino de la Plata. Thanks in part to St. Paul’s evangelism. Christianity spread during the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE and St. James became the patron saint.

At this point, you may be asking, where’s Catalonia? I thought this was a blog post about current, not another excuse for David to wallow in ancient history. Here are the modern borders of Catalonia. CC, 1184px-Cataluna_in_Spain_(plus_Canarias).svg.png

At this point, you may be asking, where’s Catalonia? I thought this was a blog post about modern history, not another excuse for David to wallow in ancient history. Here are the modern borders of Catalonia. ca. 1184.


As the Western Roman Empire began to decline, the Visigoths, under King Euric (466-88 CE), conquered Iberia, and instituted a Roman-inspired kingdom, later converting the kingdom to Christianity. While the Moors defeated the Visigothic kingdom in 711, their influence and presence in Catalonia was brief. Soon after, in 732, Charles Martel's victory in the Battle of Tours warded of the Muslims and allowed the Carolingian Empire to establish the Spanish March, a buffer zone between the Christian Carolingian Empire and the Muslim Umayyad Dynasty ruled by a series of Counts. However, Frankish control of the region was always tenuous and in 987 Count Borrell II did not recognize the new Capetian Monarchy.

In 1137, Count Ramon Berenguer IV of Barcelona married Petronila, queen of Aragon, uniting the provinces of Catalonia and Aragon under the same ruler. The Catalans dominated this union, monopolizing trade in the western Mediterranean in the 13th and 14th centuries, until the last of the male counts of Barcelona passed in 1410. An unsuccessful Catalonian rebellion occurred in 1462-1472, after dissatisfaction with the new Trastámara dynasty of Aragon increased after 1412.

However, with the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile (1469) and the ensuing unification of Spain, Catalonia’s fate was permanently tied to kingdom of Castile. While the facade of autonomy was preserved through the Catalan Generalitat, in the 1640 War of the Harvesters, Portugal and Catalonia revolted against Castille with the help of Louis XIII of France, but where Portugal succeeded, Catalonia failed.

Catalonia defied Castilian hegemony again during the War of Spanish Succession, supporting the pro-federalized Spain Habsburg pretender. When the French Bourbon Philip V of Spain succeeded, he punished Catalonia, eliminating Catalan institutions and forbidding the official use of the Catalan language. The Catalan state was eliminated and cultural and linguistic assimilation among the wider Spanish state was encouraged.

A symbol of the La Renaixensa found in an old newspaper. (Public Domain) [ça#/media/File:La_Renaixensa.jpg]

However, the 19th century Renaixenca (“Rebirth”) movement promoted Catalan as a living through press and theatre. While there both conservative Catholic and liberal secular Catalan nationalisms, the conservative elements won a limited autonomy in 1913, only to have Spain rescind it in 1925. In response, a liberal 1931 Esquerra Republicana party won municipal elections and declared a Catalan Republic. The next year, a compromise was reached with the central Republican government and Catalan autonomy became law, until Franco’s Nationalists victory in 1939, leading to the most repressive period in Catalan history.

After the death of Franco and the return to democracy in Spain, in September 1977, Catalonia received limited autonomy. Two years later, in 1979, Catalonia was distinguished as an autonomous community of Catalonia. While in 2006, Catalonia was granted “nation” status and was granted responsibility to collect taxes on par with the federal government, in 2010 this was amended by Spain’s Constitutional Court. Not only did they strike down portions of this autonomy statute, they ruled that Catalonia was no longer a “nation,” albeit the Catalan people were still considered a “nationality.”

Undeterred by these setbacks and compelled by anger at the Spanish management of the Euro-Zone debt crisis, pursued great independence. In 2013, the Catalan regional parliament voted to hold a 2014 referendum on independence. Inspired by Scotland’s 2014 independence bid, the leader of the pro-independence Convergence and Union party, Artur Mas, called for a November 9th non binding independence referendum. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy quickly opposed the referendum and the Constitutional Court reviewed the legality of it, formally suspending it. After Mas decided to recast the vote as a poll of Catalan opinion on independence, over 80%, over a third of registered voters, favored independence.

In September 2015, after calling for Catalan regional parliamentary elections, Mas led the Junts pel Sí (“Together for Yes”) alliance that won 62 of the 135 seats and entered a majority coalition with the anti-austerity Popular Unity Candidacy that won 10 seats. On November 9, 2015, the Catalan parliament voted by a slim majority to seek peaceful independence, promoting Rajoy to remind that any referendum would be illegal and opposed by Madrid.

But why have we seen Puigdemont name, not Mas’s, in the headline? Because the Popular Unity Candidacy disliked Mas and the coalition depended on a compromise candidate, on January 9, 2016, they chose the mayor of Girona, Carles Puigdemont. In June 2017, Puigdemont announced that Catalonia would hold the now infamous binding referendum on independence on October 1, 2017.

While many in the province seek independence, the pro-unity residents of Catalonia have not given up yet. In Barcelona, a pro-unity rally was held this past Sunday. _98578397_39bc3a99-11bb-42bd-ab86-6696020e861a.jpg

In response to the Catalonian referendum and Declaration of Independence, Madrid dissolved the regional parliament, called for new local elections on December 21st, and has now summoned deposed Catalan leaders to Madrid courts, accused of rebellion. The rest, as they say, is still breaking news.

bottom of page