We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

Unpacking Catalan Politics: The Push for Independence

An exploration of the volatile history of Catalonia’s pursuit of independence from the Spanish Monarchy.
Catalan flags wave against the backdrop of Barcelona’s bustling streets, as the quest for independence continues to shape the region’s political landscape. (Photo Credit: Kippelboy, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

Independence for Catalan has long been a contentious topic, with debates over its right to political and economic autonomy dating back to the region’s incorporation into the Kingdom of Spain in the early fourteenth century. In more recent history, the push for Catalonian independence has intensified. 

In 2006, the Spanish Monarchy enacted the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia and granted the region greater autonomy, which temporarily quelled the debate. However, dissatisfaction with the low level of autonomy granted to the region has grown throughout the last decade due to several political and economic circumstances, reinvigorating the push for complete autonomy. 

This intensified push for independence culminated with the Catalan independence referendum, held on October 1, 2017, that sent the Spanish nation into a constitutional crisis. The referendum declared illegal by the Spanish constitutional court, led to widespread protest and police violence, drawing international condemnation and raising questions about the nature of self-determination and democracy in the twenty-first century. 

In 2017, Enric Millo, the Spanish government’s senior representative to the region of Catalonia, said “The co-existence is broken” in an interview with Catalonia’s TV3, following the outbreak of violent protests following the failure of the referendum. This moment, while certainly not the most bloody or the most recent example of conflict between Catalonia and the Spanish government, stands as a turning point in the history of this tenuous relationship. The negotiations to formally integrate Catalonia that had been arranged before this event were put on hold indefinitely.

The aftermath of the referendum saw a polarized society, with the issue of Catalonian independence acting as a catalyst for a broader culture war in Spain. On one side, supporters of the independence movement argued that the region’s unique language, history, and culture justified a distinct national identity, along with the self-governance that accompanies it. On the other side, opponents to the independence movement feared that allowing a secession would undermine the integrity and stability of the Spanish Government, as well as set a dangerous precedent for other Spanish regions with separatist sentiments like the Basque country.  

Economically, the debate over Catalonian independence raises crucial questions about the stability of the region and Spain as a whole in the future. Catalonia accounts for a significant portion of the Spanish gross domestic product (GDP), meaning its secession could have profound economic consequences for both the region and the country. 

Catalonia currently accounts for 24.6% of the Spanish national GDP yet Catalonia only occupies 6.3% (32,144 km sq) of Spain’s territory. Perhaps the most important part of its contribution to the national economy is the foreign investment that it attracts. Last year, Catalonia exported 65.2 billion euros worth of goods and drew in approximately 37 billion euros worth of foreign investment, representing around one-quarter of the total foreign investment in Spain. 

Given this, it is clear that the region is a valuable economic asset to Spain. Proponents of the push for the increased integration of Catalonia into Spain cite its powerful economy as one of their primary reasons. The rest of their argument, from an economic standpoint, has to do with the instability that secession has been shown to bring. 

Among some native Catalonians and economists opposed to the complete secession of Catalonia, there remains a fear of economic instability that stems from questions surrounding the admission of an independent Catalonian state to the European Union (EU). If not admitted, the main concern is capital flight, where businesses divest themselves of Catalonian industries and move their headquarters to ensure that they remain within the favorable EU legal framework. This capital flight, to a certain extent, has already been seen with some major banks and manufacturing companies moving their domiciles out of Catalonian in anticipation of a Catalonian withdrawal from Spain. 

As a part of the EU, Catalonia stands to benefit from access to the EU’s single market and many other international economic agreements that Spain is a part of. The people of Catalonia also benefit from economic safety nets put in place by the Spanish government. Independence, in many ways, jeopardizes Catalonia’s relationship with the EU and the formation of a new state will almost certainly involve complex and constant negotiations regarding currency and national debt. 

Advocates for independence view these fears as largely unfounded and a sentiment propagated by the Spanish government to paralyze the independence movement. The significant capital flight withstanding, Catalonian remains Spain’s third wealthiest region, falling short only to Basque Country and Madrid, the nation’s capital. It also has generally less income inequality and a lower unemployment rate compared to the rest of Spain–at 13.5% compared to the national average of 17.2%.

This stark contrast highlights the root behind the resentment Catalonians have for Spain. Many Catalonians feel that Spain is weighing down Catalan’s economy and preventing its growth by sapping wealth out of the region to fuel infrastructure projects elsewhere in the country. 

In an interview with the BBC, Pro-independent economist Santiago Niño-Becerra said, “Transitions are always bad, but in the long term and medium term the balance of earnings and expenditures will be profitable in Catalonia,” referencing the numerous economic studies that conclude that an independent Catalonian economy would be successful. However, many of these studies rely on the assumption that an independent Catalonian economy would bear none of the Spanish national debt, last recorded in 2022 at a record 339.3 billion USD, upon its exit. 

The discussion of debt absorption is not new in the slightest, and it almost always leads to an escalation of political conflict between the Spanish political class, based in Madrid, and Catalan government officials in Barcelona.

Many of these differences, while exacerbated by conflict over economic decisions, are rooted in historical cultural tensions that shape the modern relationship between Catalonia and Spain. The root of the contemporary conflict between the leadership of Catalonia and Spain can be traced to the early 18th century, when the War of Spanish Succession came to an end with the defeat of Catalan forces, fighting for independence

Following the war, the newly seated Bourbon monarchy imposed Castilian language, culture, and customs, with the goal of gradually integrating Catalonia. This imposition of what many Catalonians, then and now, believe to be a foreign culture was not met with support and marks the beginning of the modern independence movement. 

To some extent, Spanish culture can be considered “foreign” to Catalan, despite the many glaring similarities. The Catalan language, while sounding similar to an untrained ear, is distinct. Catalan is a romance language like Spanish, however, it is not a subset or dialect of Spanish. In terms of structure, Catalan is much more similar to Italian and French than it is to Spanish. In fact, Catalan was developed independently from Spanish, and is derived from Latin, the language spoken by their Roman colonizers who last ruled the peninsula in 19AD. 

“This fundamental difference in the roots of the cultures is why Catalonia and Spain cannot exist without tensions while Catalonia is still a part of Spain,” said Jordi Matons, Catalonian native and former long-time resident of Barcelona. 

In New York City, the quest for Catalan independence inspires local demonstrations, reflecting global support for the movement. (Photo Credit: Liz Castro, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Subsequently, the Franco Dictatorship (1939-1975) that sought to suppress regional identity in favor of a unified national identity deepened the rift between Catalan and Spain. “Under Franco’s Regime, you could not speak Catalan, you had to speak Spanish. To us, the way we were treated under Franco’s rule was just another example of how the ruling class in Madrid has put their boot to the neck of Catalonia,” said Matons. 

After the death of Franco in November of 1975, marking the end of his dictatorship, there was an “explosion of the expression of Catalonian culture,” said Matons, which represented a way to reclaim the losses to the culture after decades of suppression. Accompanied by this outbreak of cultural expression was a surge in the independence movement. To appease these calls for independence, the Second Spanish Republic, (Spain’s current government) while crafting its constitution included provisions that gave Catalonia partial autonomy, in 1978. However, many Catalonians still argue that these provisions are insufficient and that nothing short of complete independence would give the region the economic flexibility that the people desire. 

The modern state of affairs within the independence movement has seen significant developments and shifts in public sentiment toward a more polarized viewpoint. The coalition between the two major separatist parties fractured in October 2022, which many see as the beginning of a new era for the independence movement. The split was the result of differing visions of the future between the Junts per Catalunya Party, which advocates for a unilateral approach to independence, and the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), which supports dialogue with the Spanish Government.

“This marks a real change in the movement and I think it’s a big mistake for the independence movement. It absolutely weakens the movement, and makes clear communication almost impossible,” said Matons. 

One event in the near future that may disrupt the status quo is exiled separatist and former President of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, running to lead Catalonia once more in the May elections. Puigdemont has been living in self-exile in Belgium since leading the failed push for independence in 2017. If he manages to secure victory, he claims that he will return to Catalonia, despite the current warrant for his immediate arrest in Spain. With this massively important decision hinging on future elections, the future of the Catalonian independence movement is anything but decided. 

However, one thing is certain: the modern state of the Catalonian independence movement is in flux. While protests and polarization are on the rise, there is still a significant push for dialogue instead of discourse and cooperation instead of conflict. The challenge that lies before Catalonia and Spain lies in navigating their complex relationship and reaching a new consensus that can accommodate the aspirations of all sides within a democratic framework.

“This fundamental difference in the roots of the cultures is why Catalonia and Spain cannot exist without tensions while Catalonia is still a part of Spain,” said Jordi Matons, Catalonian native and former long-time resident of Barcelona. 

About the Contributor
Nicholas Anderson, Staff Reporter
Nicholas Anderson is a Managing Editor and Advisory Editor for ‘The Science Survey.' What draws him to journalism is the way that diverse and interesting articles can be so compelling while simultaneously educating the reader, something that he hopes to achieve in his own writing. Additionally, with the recent rise of misinformation, Nicholas believes that the reliable, relevant information present in journalism remains paramount to the goal of fostering a well-informed society. Photojournalism is essential for creating an environment within the story that fosters the reader's imagination and intrigue. Excellent photography can make a world of difference by allowing the author to represent their ideas in a way that makes them more tangible to their audience. Nicholas’ propensity for exploration and investigation follows him wherever he goes. He loves to travel, seeking out unfamiliar things at home and abroad. Nicholas is a voracious reader, a determined student, and an athlete, all three of which challenge him and continue to shape his perspective. As of this moment, Nicholas hopes to pursue a career in public health, but he knows that journalism, more specifically the skills that he aims to develop through journalism, will follow him everywhere he goes.