The Background to the Contemporary Catalan Independence Movement and the Current Conflict
An account of Catalonia’s attempts to escape the clutches of an authoritarian and centralising Spain can begin on many dates and in many places. Wherever the story starts, though, the common themes of identity and finance are always prominent.
In 1640, for example, the main advisor to Felipe IV, Count-Duke Olivares tried to impose the Union of Arms on Catalonia. This involved disproportionate taxation and the compulsory enlistment of young Catalan men to support Castile’s involvement in the Thirty Years’ War. Catalonia’s refusal to comply caused one of the great writers of the Spanish Golden Age, Francisco de Quevedo to say, amongst other things, “As long as in Catalonia there remains a single Catalan, and stones in deserted fields, we have to have enemies and war.”
The disagreement led to Catalonia’s first attempt to extricate itself from the rule of the Spanish Crown and the subsequent Reapers’ War, which lasted from 1640 to 1659. The war ended with the Treaty of Pyrenees, in which Castile handed over the Catalan counties of Rosselló, el Conflent, el Vallespir, el Capcir and the north of la Cerdanya to France.
This early period of Catalan obstinance culminated in another war, The War of the Spanish Succession, in which from 1705 to 1714 Catalonia and Castile supported different pretenders to the throne and consequently were on opposing sides. The conflict ended in victory for Castile and the annexation of Catalonia. Catalan laws, charters and institutions were abolished and Castilian Spanish was imposed as the language of law and government. Many historians consider that the end of the Siege of Barcelona on September 11th 1714 marks the creation of modern Spain.
It has often struck me as sad that both the Catalan National Anthem, Els Segadors (The Reapers) and the National Day of Catalonia on September 11th commemorate defeats rather than victories. It says something about the character of this stubborn underdog nation.
The modern movement in favour of Catalan sovereignty began in the period following the failed First Spanish Republic of 1873-74, when initially the Catalan business classes became frustrated being governed by backward and inward-looking Madrid under the restored monarchy of Alfonso XII. The Bases de Manresa, which were drafted in 1892, can be considered the first manifesto of what became known as Political Catalanism and they led to the creation of the first Catalanist party, the Lliga Regionalista, in 1901.
Increasingly frustrated with Madrid’s economic conservatism and military authoritarianism, the Lliga Regionalista managed to group the four Catalan provinces of Barcelona, Girona, Tarragona and Lleida, into the Mancomunitat or Commonwealth of Catalonia in 1914. The Mancomunitat heralded in a period of modernisation but was ended by Spain’s first 20th century dictatorship, which was headed by Miguel Primo de Rivera and lasted from 1923 to 1924.
As has often been the case in modern Spanish history, a right-wing regime provoked a reaction from the left and the Second Spanish Republic came to power in April 1931. During the Republic, the Catalan government attempted to declare independence on two occasions.
Following the declaration of 1931, the left-wing Republican government persuaded Esquerra Republicana leader, Francesc Macià, to back down in return for the restoration of the Generalitat. In 1934, Macià’s successor, Lluís Companys, made a second declaration of independence in response to the right coming to power in what has become known as the Black Biennial. Companys was imprisoned and the Generalitat was abolished.
The left regained power in Madrid in January 1936 and Companys was released from prison and reinstated as President of the Generalitat. These two events led to the Nationalist coup d’etat and the start of the Spanish Civil War on July 17th 1936 and Franco’s victory in 1939 forced Catalanism underground again.
The current conflict between Catalonia and Spain’s central government goes back to the early Noughties, when Spain’s democracy and its system of autonomous communities appeared robust and successful. Catalan legislators decided it was time to ask for some of the competencies that, for various reasons, hadn’t been conceded to the Generalitat during Spain’s transition to democracy following the death of General Franco in 1975 and began drafting a new Statute of Autonomy.
The Estatut, as it was known, would give Catalonia the right to collect its own taxes and the Catalan courts would be the supreme judicial power in the Principality. For administrative purposes, the Catalan language would be placed on a par with Castilian Spanish, which would stil be official, and perhaps most significantly Catalonia would have the right to call itself a nation.
The draft text of the Estatut was passed in the Parliament of Catalonia by 120 votes to 15 on September 30th 2005 and was sent for review to the Spanish Congress of Deputies in Madrid, where it underwent some quite significant amendments. However, the final reading of the Estatut was finally approved by both chambers on May 10th 2006 and subsequently voted into law at referendum by the Catalan people on June 18th 2006.
If this final set of reforms had been allowed, the issue of independence for Catalonia would probably never have become a serious one. At the time, despite a strong sense of Catalan identity, very few people gave much credence to the idea of separating from Spain and independence only had the support of about ten percent of the population.
I used to watch football with some Esquerra Republicana activists and the fact that they supported an independent Catalonia often made them the butt of our jokes. Similarly, in my first book “Going Native in Catalonia”, originally published in 2007, I predicted a bright future for Catalonia and Spain now the Estatut had been passed.
However, even during the review of the Estatut in the Congress of Deputies, the Partido Popular had raised issues of unconstitutionality and particularly offended by the idea that Catalonia could call itself a nation, launched an insulting ad campaign against the Estatut in late 2005. I had become accustomed to the Partido Popular using Catalan-bashing as a vote-winning tactic so when, after the Estatut had become law, they took the text to the Constitutional Court, I paid little heed.
After all, the Estatut had been approved by both the Catalan and Spanish parliaments and by the Catalan people at referendum, it seemed unlikely that it could possibly be deemed unconstitutional. How wrong I was.
At the Partido Popular’s behest, the Constitutional Court took four long years to basically roll back all the important reforms included in the Estatut and everything was done in the most humiliating way possible. In fact, it became so clear that, more than a constitutional issue, this was an attack on Catalan identity that in November 2009 twelve Catalan newspapers concurrently published an editorial titled “The Dignity of Catalonia”.
The final ruling of the Constitutional Court came on June 28th 2010, which incidentally cut fourteen clauses that had been allowed in the Andalusian Statute of Autonomy, and the sentence was seen as a direct attack on Catalonia by the Spanish judiciary. The contemporary Catalan independence movement was born.
On July 10th 2010, there was a million-strong demonstration in Barcelona under the slogan “Som una nació. Nosaltres decidim” (We are a nation. We decide.) which was the first massive pro-sovereignty demonstration since the late Seventies. The majority of people still weren’t really calling for independence yet but the atmosphere of tension wasn’t helped by the triumphant tone of many of the headlines as the defeat the Estatut was celebrated by the Madrid-based media.
A familiar pattern had begun to develop of the Partido Popular using the Spanish judiciary to attack Catalonia while often receiving enthusiastic support from large sections of the media. Other sectors of Spanish society, including PSOE and the supposedly progressive media looked on in acquiescence, confirming in many Catalans’ minds the Josep Pla quotation “The most similar thing to a right-wing Spaniard is a left-wing Spaniard.”
In the Spanish General Elections of November 2011, the Partido Popular won an absolute majority and came to power in Madrid under the leadership of Mariano Rajoy. This was a particularly sensitive time. The European economic crisis was at its height and Spain was particularly badly hit. As a result, the left-wing anti-austerity movement, known as the Indignados (the Indignant), had begun street protests across Spain, including Barcelona, on May 15th of the same year.
Shortly before the advent of the Indignados, a series informal local consultations on Catalan independence had been organised in towns and villages around Catalonia. The first of these had actually been held in the small town of Arenys de Munt prior to the ruling on the Estatut but the movement had gathered momentum and on April 10th 2011 Barcelona held a consultation, in which over 1.1 million people voted.
Not surprisingly, the results of all the consultations were massively in favour of independence. Another pattern was beginning to develop. Consultations on independence would be supported by those in favour and boycotted by those against.
In the midst of austerity measures, the Spanish government started a scheme known as the FLA, the Fondo de Liquidez Autonomico (Autonomic Liquidity Fund), which was a way of lending money back to Catalonia at an interest while at the same time crowing about how inefficient the Generalitat was because it couldn’t stick to its budget.
When President of the Generalitat, Artur Mas, asked Mariano Rajoy for access to the liquidity fund to finance the Catalan debt all hell broke loose from the Partido Popular ranks. PP President of La Rioja Pedro Sanz said that “they have the gall to ask [for money] and then keep their television channels and embassies”. PP President of the Community of Madrid Esperanza Aguirre claimed that “Catalonia receives more money than Madrid”. PP President of Galicia Alberto Núñez Feijoo said that “today Galicia pays and Catalunya asks”.
This was pretty rich as Catalonia was paying around 8% of its GDP (around €16 billion a year) more to central government in taxes than it was getting back in investment and led to calls for what was known as the Fiscal Pact, in which Catalonia, like the Basque Country, would collect its own taxes and pay its dues to Madrid, plus a solidarity quota for the poorer regions of Spain.
Not surprisingly, Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular government refused to negotiate and the Spanish press ran stories about how mean the Catalans were. In La Diada, the National Day of Catalonia, on September 11th 2012, just ten months after Rajoy came to power, 1.5 million people came out onto the streets of Barcelona under the slogan “Catalunya, Nou Estat d’Europa” (Catalonia, New European State).
La Diada of 2012 was the first time I, and many people like me, thought that independence for Catalonia wasn’t only a good idea but was actually possible. However, a gesture from Madrid at that time would easily have burst the bubble and the following week, the then President of the Generalitat, Artur Mas, went to Madrid to try and negotiate the Fiscal Pact again. The door was slammed in his face and Rajoy point blank refused any relaxation of Catalan taxes. From that point on, the independence movement had fully solidified and the only question was to find out how many people supported it.
Artur Mas called early elections to the Parliament of Catalonia for November 2012, in which the pro-independence parties won 75 seats out of 135 with about 48% of the vote. The objective was to hold a referendum. This was also rejected by Rajoy’s Government on multiple occasions and three Catalan politicians even presented the case for a referendum before the Congress of Deputies in May 2014. Inevitably, all but the Catalan and Basque MPs voted against.
As a result the Catalan Parliament passed the Law of Consultations, which would allow Catalonia to hold a non-binding consultation, not even a referendum, just to find out the numbers. The consultation was planned for November 9th 2014 but the Law of Consultations was declared unconstitutional by the Spanish Constitutional Court. The name of the vote was changed to Participatory Process, so it was little more than a survey, and went ahead with 2.3 million Catalan participating, 80% of whom voted in favour of independence.
9N, as the consultation was known, was considered a moral victory by the Catalan independence movement and ultimately led to the creation of the Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes) coalition. It was their election victory in September 2015 that set the gears in motion for the referendum on October 1st 2017 and the current conflict between Catalonia and Spain.