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Catalonia (part 1)- Origins of a Discontent

This is the first half of a two-part article about Catalonia and its independence movement. It is based on the article published by me in the Winter 2019 paper edition of Rostra Economica.

Catalonia is an autonomous community in north-eastern Spain, self-designated in its Statute of Autonomy as a nationality, with 7.5 million inhabitants. It accounts for roughly 15% of Spain’s population and 20% of its GDP. It is also the autonomous community with the fourth-highest GDP per capita in Spain. The official languages in Catalonia are Spanish, Catalan and Aranese in the small region of Val d’Aran.

The last years have seen an increase in the support for the independence of Catalonia. Recently, some of the pro-independence protests have escalated in violence after the Spanish Supreme Court decided on 14 October 2019 the conviction of nine accused Catalan politicians and activists for the crimes of sedition, misuse of public funds and disobedience after their participation in the illegal Catalan independence referendum on 1 October 2017. They were convicted to jail sentences between 9 and 13 years.

To understand this movement, its origins and popular support, we must explore Catalan history and the definition of the Spanish State. It’s critical to understand how a lack of dialogue between Catalan and Spanish society and, in particular, politicians, led to the current situation of profound division of Catalan society and of political instability in Spain. The Catalan issue has had deep impacts in Spain and has contributed to an increased division between “Two Spains” (“Dos Españas”) and to the emergence of the far-right party VOX as the third-biggest party in the general elections of 10 November.

Despite the calls for independence by a large part of Catalans, Catalonia was never an independent state. However, it has had some degree of self-government for most of its history.

We can first recognize Catalonia during the “Reconquista” period when in the 10th century the County of Barcelona absorbed several other Catalan Counties. In 1137, the County of Barcelona united with the Kingdom of Aragon. Catalonia would thereafter be known as the Principality of Catalonia and would be the economic centre of the Kingdom of Aragon. During the time of the Kingdom of Aragon, Catalonia kept its own institutions like the Catalan Courts, the Catalan Constitutions and the “Generalitat”, the Government of Catalonia, which allowed the region to have some degree of autonomy from the central power of the king.

In 1469, King Ferdinand of Aragon married Queen Isabella of Castille forming a Union between the Crowns of Aragon and Castille and the basis for modern-day Spain. Despite this union, Aragonese and Catalan institutions, like the Generalitat were respected until the beginning of the 18th century.

The War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714) ended with the rise to power of the Bourbon kings and with the Nueva Planta Decrees, Spain became a centralised kingdom and local Catalan institutions were abolished. This event is of such historical importance that the National Day of Catalonia is celebrated annually on 11 September, remembering the fall of Barcelona to the Bourbon army on 11 September 1714 and the loss of Catalan institutions.

This led to an increased homogeneity between Catalonia and the rest of Spain and to a decline of the Catalan language, despite efforts to promote Catalan during the 19th century. The late 19th century saw not only a revival of Catalan nationalism, but also the industrialisation of Catalonia and the immigration of many people from other parts of Spain to work in the flourishing industry.

During the Second Spanish Republic (1931-1939) there was a brief proclamation of a Catalan Republic by Francesc Macià as a state within an Iberian Federation, that nevertheless led to the first Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia in 1932. This wasn’t the first unsuccessful declaration of a Catalan Republic (the first was in 1641 during the Reaper’s War) and would be repeated by Lluís Companys, the president of the restored Generalitat, in 1934.

The year 1936 saw the beginning of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) between the Nationalists of General Franco and the Republicans. This bloody conflict resulted in at least 500,000 dead and scarred the Spanish people. The execution of the president of the Generalitat, Lluís Companys, in 1940 left a big imprint in Catalan nationalists who keep on invoking his memory.

From 1939 to 1975 Spain lived under the fascist regime of the “Caudillo” Francisco Franco. During the Francoist regime, Catalan institutions were abolished and the Catalan language was sidelined in favour of Spanish.

After the death of Franco in November 1975, a new period called the “Transition” began and the Generalitat was re-established in 1977. With the Constitution of 1978, Spain became a democratic state under a Parliamentary Monarchy that recognized the right to self-government of nationalities and regions (that was accepted in a referendum by 92% of the Spanish people and by 95% of Catalans). This led to the creation of 17 autonomous communities that encompassed the whole country and not just the “historical nationalities” of Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country. Thus, in 1980, the first elections to the Catalan Parliament took place and they were won by a Catalan nationalist party that has governed the region for most of the last 40 years.

Despite the autonomy of Catalonia, the powers of the regional government are limited, especially regarding financing. The current Spanish political subdivision has never been completely accepted by all, in Catalonia or in Spain, as some prefer a more centralised government and others a truly federal Spain, while some defend a higher degree of autonomy only for historical “nationalities”, like Catalonia.

The increasing will for further autonomy led to a change in the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia in 2006, which was approved by 78% of Catalans in a referendum. This reformed statute reinforced the Catalan language as the main language of Catalan administration, permitted the creation of delegations of the Generalitat abroad and extended the powers in matters of financing.

However, this Statute was contested by several neighbouring autonomous communities and by the centre-right party Partido Popular (PP) for alleged breaches to solidarity between regions, among other reasons. In June 2010, the Constitutional Court of Spain ended up rewriting 14 articles of the Statute and dictating the interpretation of 27 others. This event marked a clear change in Catalans’ opinion about independence. This decision served to illustrate the independentists’ arguments that Catalans were trampled by the centralist government in Madrid and that Catalans’ institutions were overruled by the Spanish State.

This Court decision and the austerity measures implemented after the 2008 economic crisis triggered the first local “popular votes” on independence and massive protests every 11 September that reached attendances of over one million people. With the Spanish Constitution guaranteeing the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation” and the lack of dialogue from the PP government led by Mariano Rajoy, the Catalan “Generalitat” unilaterally decided to call a referendum on the independence of Catalonia as a republic for 1 October 2017.

In the next part of the article, we will present the developments in Catalonia between October 2017 and January 2020 and discuss the possible political solutions to the current state of divisiveness.


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