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Struggles and Triumphs: Catalonia's Quest for Independence

Catalonia exists as an autonomous community within Spain (Öner, 2019, p. 32). Catalonian roots emerged in the Middle Ages; during this time, Catalans created their own language, traditions, and culture (Öner, 2019, p. 32). From its foundation of independence efforts in the 12th century to the recent events in the 21st century, the story of Catalonia’s quest for autonomy has been one that has been shaped by historic events and continual differentiating political landscapes (Guibernau, 2013, p. 9). Its journey of independence has been highlighted by periods of determination, nationalistic pride, and formidable challenges.

Figure 1: Map of Catalonia (Orange Smile, n.d.).
Background of Castilian & Catalonian Tensions

The push for Catalonian independence can be traced back to 1137 when it established itself as a self-governing community (Guibernau, 2013, p. 9). While amicably working with the nearby region of the Crown of Aragon, Catalonia developed its own framework of legalization, institutions, politics, and territorial rights (Guibernau, 2013, p. 9). According to Aragon, starting from that moment Catalonia turned into a completely “separate political identity” (Guibernau, 2013, p. 9). This framework was officially recorded as the “Catalan Usatges of 1150” which codified their culture, customs, and independent status (Guibernau, 2013, p. 9). Ultimately, this set the stage for Catalonia’s trajectory towards full autonomy within the larger context of Spain, a process that would unfold over the next thousand years.

From the 16th century, Catalonia and Spain have developed animosities towards one another (Guibernau, 2013, p. 10). In the 16th century, the marriage of Isabel of Castile and Fernando of Aragon led to the development of the Spanish state, which prioritized Christopher Columbus’s journey to the Americas and Spain’s tensions with European powers (Narotzky, 2019, p. 34). While the Spanish (Castilian) state focused heavily on external issues, its power grew through the “colonization of the Americas” (Narotzky, 2019, p. 34). As a result, Catalonia suffered the consequences of the Spanish state’s tensions with other European powers, including Austria and France (Narotzky, 2019, p. 34).

Figure 2: War of the Spanish Succession (Frithowulf, 2022).
Impact of the Spanish War of Succession on Catalonia

The 18th century saw heightened tensions between Catalonia and Spain during the Spanish War of Succession, a contest for the Spanish throne between Austrians and Bourbons (Guibernau, 2013, p. 10). Catalonia zealously supported the Austrians in their pursuit of power, yet it was Philip V of the Bourbon dynasty who rose to the throne (Guibernau, 2013, p. 10). As a result of supporting the losing side, which lost on September 11, 1714, Philip V won the Spanish throne and declared that same day the language of Catalan to be illegal and replaced it with the official language of Spain, Castilian (Guibernau, 2013, p. 10). Moreover, this date bears immense significance, marking the date that Catalonia was forced to relinquish their “self-governing institutions” that had stood steadfast for “nearly seven hundred years” (Santisteban, 2013, p. 34). As a result, a nationalistic Catalonian holiday was created in 1886, highlighting this defeatist day, known as the “Day of the Feast of the Catalan Nation” (Santisteban, 2013, p. 34). This shift from independence to dependence endured until the end of the nineteenth century.

A transformation from defeatism to political autonomy appeared in the late 19th century in Catalonia (Santisteban, 2013, p. 34). In 1885, Catalonia presented a constitutional framework to the King of Spain (Santisteban, 2013, p. 34). As a result, in 1892, the Catalan Regional Constitution was approved that entrenched Catalan as the designated language of Catalonia once again while also establishing a Catalan educational system, and permitting political self-governance (Santisteban, 2013, p. 34). Ultimately, the transition from the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century was restructuring for Catalonia (Santisteban, 2013, p. 34).

Figure 3: Cotton industry in Catalonia during the 20th century (Wikipedia, 2023).

Early 20th Century Independence Efforts

Catalonia, rich in natural resources, experienced a period of significant economic expansion in the early 20th century in the sectors of “mining, electricity supply, construction, cement, chemical and metallurgy” (Harrison, 2009, p. 200). Moreover, the cotton industry in Catalonia experienced remarkable growth during this time, becoming the predominant location for cotton in all of Spain (Harrison, 2009, p. 200). Furthermore, in 1932, the first Charter of Catalan Autonomy was passed, lasting seven years (Narotzky, 2019, p. 34). This newfound economic and political independence for Catalonia was cut short when Francisco Franco won the Spanish Civil War in 1939 (Guibernau, 2013, p.10).

At that time, the Catalonian government (Generalitat) was forced to go “into exile,” and Franco’s government killed the Catalonian president, Lluís Companys (Guibernau, 2013, p. 10). As a result of Franco’s ruling, all languages, including Basque, Catalan, and Galician were banned and replaced with solely Castilian (Spanish); moreover, Franco banned all other political institutions in Spain, including that of Catalonia (Guibernau, 2013, p. 10). Any sort of opposition towards Franco’s rule resulted in arrest, imprisonment, and even death (Guibernau, 2013, p. 10).

Figure 4: The Assembly of Catalonia (Assemble de Catalunya) protesting in the streets, 1970s (Bambery, 2021).

During Franco’s regime, those who opposed him started to unearth their beliefs in the 1960s; throughout Spain, individuals formed trade unions, labor movements, and nationalistic parties emerged that were aimed at “re-organizing” their respective territories (Narotzky, 2019, p. 39). In Catalonia, the Catalan Unified Socialist Party (PSUC) began to work with varying labor movements, coordinating efforts that advocated for Catalonian autonomy (Narotzky, 2019, p. 40). Additionally, in 1971, the Assembly of Catalonia was founded (Guibernau, 2013, p.11). Over three hundred individuals living in Catalonia formed this secret nationalistic organization in order to bring about autonomy for Catalonia once again (Guibernau, 2013, p.11). It aimed to re-create the Charter of Autonomy that existed before Franco; however, the assembly did not succeed (Narotzky, 2019, p. 40).

Post-Franco Independence Efforts

When Franco died in 1975, a shift occurred in Spain that buttressed independence efforts for Catalonia. On September 11, 1977, the first large-scale protest regarding Catalonia’s Charter of Autonomy took place in Barcelona with over one million protestors (Narotzky, 2019, p. 40). At this time, the Catalonian government returned from exile, and one year later, in 1978, the Spanish Constitution was passed that reaffirmed Catalonia’s Charter of Autonomy (Narotzky, 2019, p. 40). This became enshrined in the Statue of Autonomy in 1979 (Guibernau, 2013, p. 13). Under this, Catalonia functioned as a “self-governing community,” which embodied its own “nationality” where the powers of the Catalonia government maintained legitimacy from this Statue of Autonomy (Guibernau, 2013, p. 13).

Figure 5: The first Catalonian Parliament elects Jordi Pujol as president in 1980 (El Nacional, 2023).

The first president that resulted from the first democratic election in Catalonia in 1980 was Jordi Pujol, who was head of the Convergence and Union party, “a social-democratic nationalist party” (Guibernau, 2013, p. 14). From 1980 to 2003 Pujol served as the president of Catalonia (Antentas, 2020, p. 636). Pujol focused his efforts on creating a “more homogeneous Catalan nation” that encompassed the Catalan language as the predominant language in all aspects of society (Colomer, 2017, p. 952). Furthermore, during his presidency, Pujol furthered the discussion of moderate autonomous efforts by encompassing Catalan “identity and culture” to be the epicenter of Catalan society (Antentas, 2020, p. 635).

In 1990, the language of Catalan was acknowledged by the European Union (Öner, 2019, p. 35). During the same year, the Law of the General Education System (LOGSE) was passed; this permitted all schools throughout the country of Spain to learn Spanish history through the eyes of “freedom, diversity, and plurality” (Santisteban, 2013, p. 36). Consequently, schools in Catalonia began incorporating the history of Catalonian independence endeavors dating back to the 12th century, along with comprehensive coverage topics of all historical conflicts that Catalonia had with the central state of Spain (Santisteban, 2013, p. 36). Rather than address any events regarding internal conflicts in Catalonia, schools in the Catalan region solely “stressed conflicts over Spanish centralism” (Santisteban, 2013, p. 36). This created a narrative of hostility and grievances towards the Spanish state. Ultimately, Catalonia wanted to promote nationalism and “awareness” of what constitutes being a Catalonian in their curriculum (Santisteban, 2013, p. 36).

Figure 6: Classrooms in Catalonia (Catalan News, 2022).

Throughout this period, the central government of Spain recognized Catalonia’s curriculum. However, intervening in their curriculum would have required concessions from each of the regional territories of Spain, including Galicia, Basque Country, and Catalonia (Santisteban, 2013, p. 37). Consequently, the central government was unable to receive support from any of the regions and they had no choice but to refrain from taking further action (Santisteban, 2013, p. 37).

Early 21st Century Independence Efforts

The transformation of the Catalonia government occurred in 2003 with a shift from the nationalist right to the left when Jordi Pujol’s rule ended and Artur Mas’s began (Santisteban, 2013, p. 38). At this time, a shift in educational policies followed in Catalonian schools (Santisteban, 2013, p. 38). Rather than teach history through nationalistic lenses, schools were forced to shift to a “plural identity” approach in 2007 (Santisteban, 2013, p. 38).

Simultaneously, in 2006, the Catalan Parliament drafted an updated new Statute of Autonomy, reflecting more left-wing policies (Narotzky, 2019, p. 41). In 2010, it was passed (Narotzky, 2019, p. 41). The new Statute of Autonomy described Catalonia as a place that was not its own “nation” (Narotzky, 2019, p. 41). Furthermore, it stressed that any sort of fiscal issue was one that required central state intervention (Narotzky, 2019, p. 41).

Figure 7: Protest held in Barcelona in 2012 regarding Catalonia autonomy where individuals formed a human chain (Suescun, 2017).

In response to this statute, demonstrations began to emerge in Barcelona (Narotzky, 2019, p. 41). With no changes occurring in government, on September 11, 2012, the holiday of Catalonian nationalism, hundreds of thousands of individuals took to the streets of Barcelona and formed a “human chain” demanding Catalan independence (Colomer, 2017, p. 963). They termed the demonstration, “Catalonia, a new state in Europe” (Öner, 2019, p. 38). Efforts continued in 2014 and 2015 with massive demonstrations urging the Catalan government to create a fully autonomous nation outside of Spain (Colomer, 2017, p. 963).

Background & Events Leading up to the Catalonia Independence Referendum

Reflective of the past demonstrations, in 2016, the Catalan Parliament began to prepare a referendum focused on “self-determination” from the central state of Spain (Narotzky, 2019, p. 46). However, this referendum was not legally permissible, and the Spanish government declined to concur with it (Narotzky, 2019, p. 46). However, the following year, in 2017, the referendum continued, albeit without any “procedural guarantees” (Narotzky, 2019, p. 46).

In 2017, Catalonia held their official independence referendum termed, “Catexit,” where 43% of the population participated (Öner, 2019, p. 40). This controversial referendum was regarding creating an “independent Catalan state” that Spain rejected to adhere to the year prior (Öner, 2019, p. 39). The question they asked the Catalonian population was, “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state in the form of a Republic?” (Narotzky, 2019, p. 46). Those in the Catalan majority of the Parliament were in favor of this; yet, those in the minority of the Catalan Parliament as well as those in the majority of the Spanish Parliament were in fierce opposition (Narotzky, 2019, p. 46). Once the central government of Spain realized this was going to be put into action, they intervened (Narotzky, 2019, p. 46).

Figure 8: Spanish police block off hundreds of voters from voting in the independence referendum in Catalonia, 2017 (ABC News, 2017).

This vote warranted stringent security measures as the Catalan police were tasked with monitoring all polling stations in Catalonia, preventing any form of writing, distribution, or voting within their sights (Narotzky, 2019, p. 46). This led to scenes of turmoil and destruction throughout Catalonia. However, despite police efforts, the referendum was a success for Catalonia, with 90.2% voting in favor of secession (Narotzky, 2019, p. 47).

In this turn of events, with 70 out of 135 individuals serving in the Catalan government, a consensus was reached on October 27, 2017, affirming that Catalonia was officially independent (Öner, 2019, p. 40). In response, the Catalan president at the time, Carles Puigdemont decided to take it one step further by initiating the independence process for Catalonia (Narotzky, 2019, p. 47). Puidgemont departed for Brussels to attain support from the European Union; yet, the European Union declined to intervene as they perceived this event as an internal Spanish matter (Öner, 2019, p. 40). Within ten days of Puidgemont's trip to Brussels, the president of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, invoked Article 155 (Narotzky, 2019, p.48). This Article led the president to assume full control of the Catalan regional government and, as a result, he ultimately dissolved the Catalan Parliament; subsequently, Rajoy then called for elections in Catalonia to take place to calm the situation (Narotzky, 2019, p. 48).

Figure 9: Quim Torra becomes the new president of Catalonia after months of turmoil (EITB, 2018).

Throughout the next several months, turmoil persisted throughout Spain. In March 2018, Puidgemont was arrested in Germany and put in prison for over a week (López-Olano & Fenoll, 2020, p. 265). He was shortly released and forced to nominate a new candidate to reside as the new president of Catalonia, Quim Torra (López-Olano & Fenoll, 2020, p. 265). After becoming the new president of Catalonia, Torra attempted to appoint four individuals with legal challenges as government heads (López-Olano & Fenoll, 2020, p. 265). Rajoy, the president of Spain, rejected Torra’s nominations and applied Article 155 to make sure no individuals with legal issues would be part of the government (López-Olano & Fenoll, 2020, p. 265). Torra ultimately signed a new document appointing credible individuals to the government (López-Olano & Fenoll, 2020, p. 265). From there, the Spanish government approved the edict regarding the new individuals, and the new government of Catalonia was formed (López-Olano & Fenoll, 2020, p. 265).

Since Catalonia’s drastic and sudden quest for independence in 2017, the region has been immersed in a dynamic and changing political landscape, necessitating the active involvement of the central Spanish state in its affairs. Overall, the road ahead for Catalonia is fraught with complexities. While the tensions that have defined Catalonia’s relationship with Spain have persisted since the 16th century, the need for a constructive and collaborative approach towards unification is vital to maintaining internal affairs and interconnectedness with the larger Spanish nation.

Bibliographical References

Antentas, J. M. (2020). Catalonia: the national question and labor’s strategic dilemmas. Labor History, 61(5/6), 621–639.

Colomer, J.M. (2017). The venturous bid for the independence of Catalonia. Nationalities Papers, 45(5), 950–967.

Guibernau, M. (2014). Prospects for an Independent Catalonia. International Journal of Politics, Culture & Society, 27(1), 5–23.

Harrison, J. (2009). Early Francoism and Economic Paralysis in Catalonia, 1939—1951. European History Quarterly, 39(2), 197–216.

López-Olano, C. & Fenoll, V. (2020). Media polarization in the Catalan independence process. A comparative study of its treatment by RT. Mediterranean Journal of Communication, 262-271.

Narotzky, S (2019). Evidence Struggles: Legality, Legitimacy, and Social Mobilizations in the Catalan Political Conflict. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, 26(1), 31–60.

Öner, S. (2019). The Relations Between Catalonia and the European Union and Catalan Independence Referendum. Marmara Journal of European Studies, 27(1), 29-51.

Santisteban, A. (2013). Teaching the history of Catalonia: past, present and 'futures.' International Journal of Historical Learning Teaching and Research, 11(2), 33-42. DOI:10.18546/HERJ.11.2.04

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Alexandra Gimpel

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