We examine the history behind Catalonia’s struggle for independence.
While the violence yesterday in Catalonia is still fresh, and to many unexpected, it has centuries of history behind it. To many people on the outside, the Catalan quest for independence may seem strange, but the most important thing to know when looking at the independence debate is that the concept of Spain never really existed at all historically.
Sounds weird, right? But Spain is made up of many different regions, all with their own distinct language and cultures. The Spanish most people learn in school is Castilian – the capital of which of course is Madrid, the capital of Spain as a whole. However, there are four other languages recognised as co-official: Basque, Aranese, Galician, and of course Catalan, which is spoken by 17% of the population.
Spain is currently made up of 17 autonomous communities, the largest of which, (by population) is Andalusia, followed by Catalonia. Each community has its own president, and many, Catalonia and the Basque Country (Euskara) in particular have centuries of distinct history, culture and language.
So, here is a timeline of some of the most important moments that led up to the protests and subsequent violence yesterday:
Medieval era and Age of Exploration
For centuries, Catalonia was part of the kingdom of Aragon. However in 1469, Ferdinand II married Isabella I of Castile, uniting their kingdoms. Yet, they were still separate states. In 1659 Aragon ceded Northern Catalonia to France, and to this day, many inhabitants of this part of France identify as Catalan, especially in the area around Perpignan. This is also likely to contribute to the strong sense of Catalan regional identity. Part of the reason for the dominance of Castile however specifically relates to Christopher Columbus and the Age of Exploration (so that’s another thing you can blame him for). Colombus and other explorers were funded by Castile, and during the 15th and 16th centuries the Castilians began to shift their focus from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic and the New World, undermining the economic and political influence of the Catalans. Moreover, the only port licensed to trade with America was Seville, further limiting the influence of Catalonia.
September 11 1714
After a war of succession in the early 18th century, the Catalans and Barcelona surrendered to the Bourbon King Philip V of Spain. They signed the Treaty of Utrecht on September 11 1714, and, bar a brief period of suppression (more later), this has been recognised as the National Day of Catalonia since 1886. Determined to punish Catalonia, Philip sought to exert control and introduced the Nueva Planta decrees (1716), supressing the historical independence, privileges and institutions of Catalonia. This established Spain as a centralised state with Castile at the centre. This was also the start of Castilian’s dominance as the official language of Spain. However, Catalonia did experience economic, population and agricultural growth during the 18th century, as well trade routes, laying the way for the industrialisation that was yet to come.
Napoleonic Wars (1812-1813)
During the Napoleonic wars the French invaded Catalonia, with little resistance from the official Spanish army, although there was popular resistance throughout Spain. What is notable from this period however, is that Catalonia was annexed to France in 1812. Not only that, but in 1809 Napoleon created the Government of Catalonia and reinstated Catalan as an official language.
Turn of the Century
The beginning of the 19th century was incredibly politically unstable and marked with multiple civil wars, as well as the short lived First Spanish Republic (1873-1874). However, towards the end of the century and the beginning of the 20th, the ideals of Catalan Nationalism began to grow in popularity, alongside the Catalan workers movement – and the ideals they followed were socialism, syndicalism and anarchism. In 1913, they saw a partial victory with formation of the Catalan Commonwealth, allowing more freedom for Catalan culture, especially the use and regulation of the Catalan language. This carried on until 1925, when the Catalan bourgeoisie went along with pro-centralist dictator Primo Rivera, due to the agitation, strikes and anarchy created by the workers. Rivera then abolished the Commonwealth of Catalonia and started a policy of oppression with regards to the Catalan culture.
Second Spanish Republic 1931
After the fall of Rivera, Catalans changed tactics, voting in municipal elections for left-wing pro-independence candidate Francesc Macià, founder of Estat Català. The party achieved a spectacular victory in the municipal elections, two days before the proclamation of the Second Spanish Republic. After a brief proclamation of the Catalan Republic (14–17 April) by Macià, the Generalitat of Catalonia was revived as an autonomous government, and a September 1932 statute of autonomy for Catalonia gave a strong, though not absolute, grant of self-government.
Spanish Civil War 1936-1939
However, Catalonia’s returned independence was brief. Civil war broke out in 1936 between a variety of ideologies, but principally, between the left-leaning Republicans and the far-right Nationalists, who were led by General Francisco Franco. The war broke out in 1936 after a group of generals declared war on the recently elected leftist government. The Nationalists, supported by aristocratic conservatives, eventually won, leading to the dictatorship of General Franco and the oppression of Catalonia (and the other regions’) independence.
While Franco’s fascistic tendencies are still hotly debated by historians, he was without a doubt pro Spanish nationalism and authoritarianism (and pro stealing babies from single mothers). This led to the repression of Spain’s cultural diversity. Even though Franco was himself Galician, the government revoked the official statute and recognition for the Basque, Galician, and Catalan languages that the Second Spanish Republic had granted them for the first time in the history of Spain. Any other language than Castilian was forbidden in schools and any legal documents written in anything other than Castilian were considered null and void – a language supremacist policy UKIP would get behind. This, combined with the popularity of mass media created exclusively in Castilian, as well as the introduction of a national curriculum, hugely limited opportunities and proficiency in the learning of Spain’s other regional languages.
After Franco’s death democracy was restored – and so was the monarchy. Today they exist side by side. The monarchy fulfils a similar position to that of the British monarchy. In 1978, a new constitution was introduced, and it is to this that people are referring when they say that the Catalan independence referendums are unconstitutional, as it asserted the: “indivisible unity of the Spanish Nation”. However, the same constitution also acknowledges “the right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions which form it”. Pro-independence campaigners recognised the hypocrisy at the time and opposed it. However, the constitution was adopted after a referendum, but was then followed by a Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia in 1979. It was also around this time that Catalan was recognised as a co-official language.
In 2006, the government attempted to introduce a new Statute of Autonomy, one which recognised Catalonia as a nation, gave Catalan the same level of importance as Castilian and also meant that Catalonia would no longer be responsible for the finances of the other autonomous communities that make up Spain. It was hoped to be some consolation prize. However, Parliament amended the statute as these clauses were viewed as unconstitutional (back to the “indivisible unity of the Spanish Nation” stuff). When the amended statute was upheld, the opposition party, Partido Popular (pro Spanish nationalism) challenged the Statute’s constitutionality in the Spanish High Court of Justice, in a case that lasted four years. The court ruled that 14 of the statute’s clauses were unconstitutional, while others should be interpreted restrictively. The clauses were among those judged unconstitutional in July 2010, and the next day, saw a protest demonstration.
The Scottish Referendum gave some in Catalonia hope – after all the situations are similar in many way. However it was arguably due to the popularity of Catalan Independence part that lead to the insistence that an independent Scotland would not be allowed to remain in the EU – Former President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso cited Spain’s unwillingness to recognise Kosovo (formerly part of Serbia) as a country as an example. After all it makes sense that the Spanish were wary of an independent Scotland. Much of Spain’s wealth comes from Catalonia, and as seen by the attempted amendments to their Statute of Autonomy, they are unwilling to bear the financial burdens of less wealthy areas of Spain.
With this in mind, a referendum on Catalan independence was proposed. However, the court ruled that the referendum was unconstitutional and so was changed to a ‘process of citizen participation’. This ‘citizen participation’ then took place in November 2014, which saw an 81% vote in favour of Catalonia as an independent state. That said, voter turnout was only 42%, which could arguably be seen as majority against both independence and the referendum itself. Some of the people behind the referendum, including Artur Mas, the then president of the Generalitat of Catalonia faced criminal charges, while Catalonia was no closer to any kind of resolution.
2017 Referendum and Violence
The October 1st referendum turned into one of the most violently anti-democratic scenes Europe has witnessed for some time. The police confiscated ballot boxes and brutally assaulted people who attempted to vote. Firefighters even used themselves as a wall between voters and police to try to stop the violent repression. The referendum had been suspended by the country’s constitutional court, and the Spanish president went as far to say the referendum never happened. The European Commission has also been clear that under Spain’s constitution the vote was illegal. Yet, Catalonia has declared the result in favour of independence from Spain. The Catalan government claims 90% of those who voted backed independence. Questions of the legality of the referendum though were quickly forgotten when videos and images emerged of the lengths the police were willing to go to suppress the vote. Within a day there were protests against the violence, as seen above.
And despite the 90% vote in favour of Catalan independence, the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy claimed that ‘no referendum has been held in Catalonia [yesterday]’. But if history has shown anything, this is not an issue that will go away, and Spain will have to truly face up to the issue of Catalonia’s independence before history repeats itself.