Spain Explained

A quick guide to what’s happening in Catalonia

Last updated on September 13th, 2019 at 09:09 am.

National borders have a lot to answer for.  Countries continue to battle over where the lines are drawn and who gets to fly the flag. But who should decide what belongs to whom?

The issue has been carefully documented in both Britain and Spain recently. With the potential secession of Scotland, came a rethink for many of what Britain and being British actually means. It perhaps came as a shock for some that so many Scottish people were prepared to shake off the ties. Neither did the referendum do much to reinforce the national picture.

And now, it’s Spain that’s facing a schism. Some of the rhetoric might be similar, but there are many differences between the possibility of Scottish and Catalonian secession. The first being that the Spanish government does not want a referendum to take place at all. In the face of this, Catalonia have tested the waters themselves with their own vote on independence.

The background

If you enter a bar or restaurant in Barcelona you can be confused by the menu. Rather than Spanish being the leading language you will see that dishes are generally written in Catalan first with English or Spanish second.

Spain is perhaps an unusual country in having so many separate languages within its whole. To talk about the Spanish language is not really accurate. There are several languages in Spain; Catalan, Valencian, Galician, Euskera and Castilian. Castilian or Castellano is the official first language of Spain, but there are those across the country who wish it wasn’t so.

The history of regional variations and allegiances is one that trails back to the year 801 and the County of Barcelona. It became particularly poignant with the War of Spanish succession which saw Catalonia’s political institutions abolished and Catalan’s status as an official administrative language revoked.

In 1931 Spain became a republic and the Generalitat, an autonomous Catalan regional government, was created. As Franco took power, this was revoked and Franco continued to take a hard line with Catalonia with the suppression of its language and culture, perhaps partly as payback for the key role it had taken in opposition to him during the civil war.

There is perhaps a tradition in Catalonia of socialism and hard line radicalism that was certainly evident during the Spanish Civil War and has continued to tinge discussions since. During the civil war, Catalonia was a key Republican stronghold. The fall of Barcelona to right-wing forces was the beginning of the end of the Spanish resistance to Franco.

Much of the bad feeling that exists must come from the very hard line that Franco took towards any form of rebellion from the regions. Spain was Spain and regional differences and languages were repressed.

As inevitably happens, the more they are squashed, the more they can bubble up. The new Spain, after Franco, was quick to pacify some of these regional tendencies, allowing the autonomous regions an element of independence within the national structure. The 1978 Spanish constitution recognises the nationalities and regions of Spain and Catalonia was given a statute of autonomy in 1979.

The separate identity of the autonomous communities can cause some difficulties. Laws across the country can vary depending on their regional application. This can be confusing and there are some who feel that rather than making the divisions deeper, all parts of Spain should be brought firmly into a more national picture.

For others, the measures in 1978 did not go far enough. The wounds have not healed and there is a deep-routed desire to separate from Spain once and for all.

Reasons for

Catalonia has been an uneasy part of Spain for many years.  Here are some of the arguments you might hear pro independence supporters/ separatists using:

Lack of respect

Some believe that there is little respect for Catalan’s language and culture further south. They want to promote their own language and their own identity and believe that the sentimental links with the rest of Spain have eroded and are past saving.

The economic crisis of 2008 as well as a perception that perhaps the national government is not as considerate of the regional differences as it might be, has resulted in increasing pressure towards secession.  

A stronger economy in Catalan

It is argued that Catalan is financially stronger than the rest of Spain and propping up an ailing Spanish economy. There are some grounds for arguing that it is a relatively rich region, but it is still in debt.

Some Catalans believe that their region transfers more money to central government than it receives the benefit of. They consider that they are supplementing the coffers of the poorer regions of Spain and that much more of what’s collected in taxes should stay in the region.   

Spending decisions

It is argued that an independent Catalonia would have more control over how money is spent. At the moment Catalan tax payers pay into Madrid every year. A payment that they feel is not sufficiently reflected in the benefits they receive within their own part of the country.

Some Catalonians feel that the welfare state has not received sufficient priority in the spending decisions of the government and feel resentful at public money they believe is being spent on bank bailouts and backhanders.  

Shedding the legacy of Franco

There is a feeling that the legacy of Franco is not being shifted quickly enough. Bureaucracy and corruption are still a feature of Spanish political life, something which the pro-independence supporters feel that Catalan can better shed on its own.  

It is argued by separatists that retreating from Madrid would provide them with the opportunity to build a better infrastructure and enable it to look outwards towards its relationship with the rest of the world. To some extent they perhaps feel that the crimes of the civil war remain unchallenged.

Reasons against

Just as separatists in Catalan feel that there are strong arguments for them going their own way, so many people feel that they must stay firmly within Spain.

Catalonia needs Madrid

There are those who argue strongly that Catalonia does not have the reserves with which to become an independent country and that it is far more reliant on Spain than it would like to think. Separation could leave them both stumbling and that the ‘better together’ anthem is just as applicable here as it was in Britain during the Scottish referendum.

The argument runs that Catalan is not ready to cope with self-government. It has also had more than its fair share of scandals, runs a debt and doesn’t really have a government that is sufficiently mature   to run the region as a country.

Uncertainty over the EU

The EU has stated that a separate Catalan would not automatically become part of the EU. They would have to negotiate their membership according to the Lisbon Treaty 2004. This would have a knock on effect too as foreign investors would stay away. It has been pointed out that Catalonia should accept supporting other, poorer parts of Spain on the same basis that the richer parts of Europe have been bailing Spain out too.

Hostility with Spain

The unresolved issue of a referendum is causing increasing bad feeling between Barcelona and Madrid. However, some feel that to have this rift formalised could raise problems such as border control, boycotting of goods and other hostilities between the two countries that would be to the advantage of neither.

Impact on others

If Catalonia was to become independent then there may be segments of other countries which would also seek their own nationality. Such breakaway groups, it is argued, will not help Europe to find its feet again. It is suggested that we benefit from expanding rather than contracting circles of cooperation.

To vote or not to vote

However arbitrary borders might seem to be they do impede the movement of products, people and information. In other words, they matter and will do for some time to come.

The British government took a very different decision to Spain. David Cameron, rightly or wrongly, decided that the Scottish people should be given opportunity to vote. The issue of whether to hold a referendum is perhaps almost separate to the issues of independence themselves.  

Whatever the arguments on either side, this part of the country has put forward a powerful message. It wants the right to vote, even if this is against the current Constitution. However, it is argued that the Constitution could be changed and the referendum could then take place legally. Rajoy has made it very clear that he will not even consider such a legitimate vote taking place.

Like Scotland, were Catalonia given the chance to vote they might  well find the prospect of standing alone just a little too scary to contemplate. The worry is that refusing them the opportunity to take that decision could make all of ship Spain tip below its critical line.

More information

A Catalan history of Spain – interactive

See all

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