Catalonia is an area along the eastern-most region in Spain, housing 7.5 million residents, and accounts for 19% of Spain’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). You may have heard a passing mention of Catalonia, but you definitely know its capital: Barcelona. Catalonia was, at one point, its own nation, with its own culture. Starting with the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, a handful of battles, wars, revolts, revolutions, even momentary annexation from Napoleon, Catalonia began integrating with Spain.
Throughout most of its association with Madrid, Catalonia was given autonomy, with the exception of the tyrant dictator General Francisco Franco, who murdered thousands and terrified millions of Catalans during his reign. “Catalonia was treated little differently during the Spanish civil war when Barcelona was bombed by Franco’s rebel air force, killing 1,300,” writes Geoff Cowling. “Catalonia’s elected President Lluís Companys was forced to flee into France. He was extradited by Franco and shot in 1940 at Montjuic Castle overlooking Barcelona.” After Franco died in 1975, Catalonia adopted the Spanish Constitution in 1978, integrating with Spain while maintaining cultural individualism.
The reason you’ve been hearing so much about Catalonia lately is that their regional government (called the Generalitat of Catalonia), led by Carles Puigdemont, called for an independence referendum last month. “Their grievances are old and bone-deep, reawakened by political movements, both in Catalonia and in Madrid, magnified by partisan news media on both sides, and accelerated by the Spanish government’s blunt, reflexive clampdown,” writes Ellen Barry.
According to their Constitution, the referendum is illegal.
“Spain’s democratic constitution of 1978, which was approved by more than 90% of Catalan voters, gave wide autonomy to the regions but affirmed ‘the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation’. Only the Spanish parliament can change the constitution. Mr Puigdemont’s referendum is therefore illegal, and Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s conservative prime minister, is determined to prevent it taking place.”
The vote took place and passed on Oct. 1 with 90% of the vote supporting independence. However, only 43% voted with those refusing to back independence boycotting the vote. Regardless, the referendum passed, the courts and Spanish government ruled it illegal, and Madrid didn’t react well to the news:
Tensions between Spain and the north-eastern Catalonia region continue to mount, days after the vote was marred by violence involving national police. The Spanish High Court said it had begun an investigation into key Catalan figures on Wednesday on suspicion of sedition – inciting rebellion against the state – including the head of Catalonia’s regional police.
King Felipe (yes, Spain is still a monarchy) leveled significant accusations against Catalonia.
“They have tried to break the unity of Spain and its national sovereignty, which is the right of all Spaniards to democratically decide their lives together,” he said. “Given all that – and faced with this extremely grave situation, which requires the firm commitment of all to the common interest – it is the responsibility of the legitimate state powers to ensure constitutional order and the normal functioning of the institution, the validity of the rule of law and the self-government of Catalonia, based on the constitution and its statute of autonomy.”
On Tuesday, Oct. 10, Puigdemont (the Catalan President), and regional leaders officially signed their declaration for independence, however, announced that implementation would be delayed several weeks, allowing time for talks between Puigdemont and Madrid. Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has already announced that he will not speak to any Catalan leaders until secession plans are dropped.
So where do things go from here?
Placating anxious lawmakers becomes extraordinarily difficult with nearly 25 major companies announcing plans to leave. We’re not talking about GameStop or Chipotle either. Caixabank, the largest in Catalonia and third-largest in Spain, is planning to move their headquarters to Valencia. Telcom Cellnex and Abertis, a major infrastructure organization, have announced their intentions to move their headquarters from Barcalona to Madrid.
There’s also limited international support.
United States President Donald Trump, who referred Prime Minister Rajoy as President… twice… said it would be wrong for Catalonia to vote for independence (though we’re not exactly sure if he was remotely aware of the issue).
Europe is extremely concerned.
Catalonia’s independence leads to a weakened Spanish economy. Madrid would become an obstacle for Catalonia to join the European Union, who is about to lose Britain. Scotland is playing attention, as they’re mulling another independence referendum against the United Kingdom, which would allow them to re-join the EU. However, it only gets complicated from there.
The Catalonian situation has put the upcoming Brexit negotiations in a tough spot: on one hand there is a strong temptation to use a possible support for a unilateral Scottish independence as a Brexit negotiation card. On the other hand, Europe knows that if it were to accept a fast track for Scottish EU membership, Catalonia would be entitled to a similar treatment.
If denied this, Catalonia could seek economic and political support from the UK, and the UK could offer it, if only to destabilise the EU in retaliation for its refusal to heed its Brexit demands.
Yes, things could get extremely fucking messy.