Updated: January 27, 2023Published: January 26, 2023
Catalonia is one of Spain’s wealthiest regions. It has been part of the country since it first existed. However, there have been several episodes of disagreements and attempts at independence throughout history.
Like many other autonomous communities, it enjoys self-government thanks to its Statute of Autonomy. Over the centuries, Catalan culture has developed a singular and universal identity that is national and cosmopolitan at the same time.
In this article, I’ll relate the events in Spanish history regarding the Catalan Conflict with Spain, summarized in 5 main questions. After reading this, I hope you get a broader outlook on the topic, considering that this is not an opinion article but rather an informative one.
Get ready because we must take a few steps back in history to understand the whole thing.
What is the origin of the Catalan Conflict?
The region of Catalonia has been part of Spain as long as the concept of Spain has existed in history, except for a brief period in the 17th century when it was de facto under the sovereignty of the King of France.
The first counties in Catalonia’s territory were Barcelona, Gerona, Ampurias, Roussillon, and Urgel-Cerdanya. And were constituted between the end of the 8th and the beginning of the 9th century.
At the end of the 9th century, the decline of the Carolingian empire led to a de facto independence of the counties of the Marca Hispanica, which became hereditary.
In 878, Wilfredo el Velloso, the first autochthonous “Conde de Barcelona,” came to power with his own dynasty.
Later in 1137, it was the dynastic union between the county of Barcelona and the kingdom of Aragon with the marriage of Barcelona’s count and the daughter of the Aragon Kingdom.
Catalonia did not exist as a political or administrative unit at that time, and the union was between the county of Barcelona and Aragon.
The first significant Conflict between Catalonia and the royal power occurred in 1640, during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648).
Here, Spain lost its status as a European hegemonic power in favor of France.
In 1640, Catalonia came under the protection of France, and from 1641 the King of France was also Count of Barcelona.
Then, Spain separated a part of Catalonia from France with “The Peace of the Pyrenees” in 1659.
The next episode of major confrontation occurred due to the War of Succession (1701-1713).
The houses of Bourbon and Austria were supported by France and the Holy Roman Empire against each other. These fought over the Spanish throne after Charles II’s death, which had no descendants.
A war started, and there also were battles in several European countries.
The troops of Philip V, the first king of the house of Bourbon, won the war. It culminated with the capture of Barcelona on September 11, 1714.
It was prohibited to create any law or specific institutions in Catalonia. Excepting Civil Law. This was imposed as a consequence of supporting the House of Austria.
After it, the three civil wars, known as the Carlist Wars, confronted liberals against traditionalists for dynastic reasons throughout the 19th century, which devastated Catalonia. Still, this confrontation was not one against the other since both sides had supporters —like in any other part of Spain.
In the second half of the 19th century, a boom in nationalism took place throughout Europe. Mainly because of the romantic movements that exalted the historical, cultural, and ethnic roots of European people.
These doctrines led to the emergence of modern nationalism in the Basque Country with the creation of the Basque Nationalist Party in 1895.
It also happened in Catalonia, where the Catalan nationalist ideas of Valentí Almirall concretized in the creation of the first of the Centre Catalá in 1882 and then of the Catalanist Union in 1892.
Both are considered the fundamentals of political Catalanism. This movement developed in the following years and led to the creation of various parties.
Later in 1922, Francesc Maciá created Estat Català, the first pro-independence party, direct predecessor, and inspirer of today’s pro-independence movements.
In 1914, the Mancomunitat de Catalunya was created. It grouped the Diputacions of the four Catalan provinces into a single entity.
Therefore, it became the first properly Catalan institution since 1714.
This movement was encouraged mainly by the industrial and commercial bourgeoisie that developed in Catalonia and the Basque Country at the time. Opposing the static and ineffective central power of the Bourbon Restoration.
It got even worse after Bourbon Monarchy’s decline, the crisis of 1898, and the loss of Cuba.
The arrival of The Second Republic allowed nationalist parties to consolidate and grow in power.
On April 14, 1931, hours before the Spanish Republic was proclaimed, Francesc Macía, who had won the elections two days earlier, declared from the balcony of the Catalan State Palace:
“With all cordiality, we will try to integrate the Catalan Republic within the Iberian Federation.”
The republican authorities convinced Maciá to stop his initiative in exchange for the promise of a Statute of Autonomy. It came to fulfillment in 1932 and restored the historical institution of the Generalitat, which had been born in 1932.
At no time was there a right of self-determination, nor was it recognized by the Republic.
Then, the President of the Generalitat, Lluis Companys, proclaimed the creation of the Catalan State “within the Spanish Federal Republic” that still didn’t exist with such federal character.
The initiative lasted ten hours until the army overcame the rebels’ small resistance. It resulted in 46 people dead and more than 3,000 people arrested. Among them, almost the entire Catalan Government with its President.
The Catalan Parliament was closed. However, the Generalitat was restored when the Popular Front came to power in February 1936.
That year, the military uprising gave rise to the Spanish Civil War, and Catalonia aligned itself with the Republican side. Their triumph marked the end of the Catalan institutions in 1939.
Then, with the arrival of Franco, Catalonia entered almost 40 years in which they lost all the conquests of self-government and the dissemination of the Catalan language.
Then Franco died, and it was time to restore democracy again in Spain.
In the meantime, the Generalitat was provisionally reestablished in September 1977, with its President, Josep Tarradellas, in exile.
This restoration was produced before the approval of the Spanish Constitution. At that time, it lacked any legal basis in the legislation, which was still that of the dictatorship.
Timeline of the Recent Events (1978-2023)
In case you want a more descriptive definition on the events, here it goes:
The Spanish Constitution was submitted to a referendum of December 6, 1978. And according to what it says:
“It is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation. The common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards. Which recognizes and guarantees the right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions that comprise it and the solidarity among all of them.”
This was approved by 90.5% of voters, with a turnout of 67.9% in Catalonia.
Consequently, the Statute of Autonomy was enacted in December 1979.
It definitively restored the Generalitat and all the Catalan institutions, giving them, in practice, more power than they had ever had, at least since 1714.
From April 1980 to December 2003, The President of the Generalitat was Jordi Pujol from April 1980 to December 2003. He was the head of Convergence and Union, a coalition of two center-right Catalan parties. During that time, it supported different governments in Madrid, both left-wing and right-wing, contributing to stability.
The loss of power of the center-right CiU nationalists in 2006 marked a turning point in Catalonia’s relationship with Spain.
The tripartite Government set in motion the drafting of a new Statute of Autonomy to replace the one approved in 1979 and to access a higher level of self-government.
The Parliament of Catalonia approved the new Statute in September 2005 with a majority of 88.89%. Approved by the CiU and opposed by the Popular Party (PP), Spain’s main right-wing party.
As established by the Constitution, the Statute had to be subsequently approved by the Spanish Parliament. But in this process, significant changes were introduced that lowered the modifications to the text approved in Catalonia.
Then, a new text returned to the Catalan Parliament in March of 2006. It was approved again with a narrower majority (71.85%).
The Statute entered in vigor, but the PP continued to oppose it and filed an appeal of unconstitutionality to the Constitutional Court on most of the new Statute. First directly and then through the five Autonomous in which it governed.
This modification of the first approved Statute meant the beginning of a political rupture in Catalonia. Later called the “sovereignty process.”
In February 2006, the first significant pro-sovereignty protest supporting the “right to decide” of the “Catalan nation” took place in Barcelona in February 2006.
In June 2006, the Statute was submitted to a referendum and was approved by 73.2% of Catalans. However, only 48.9% participated in the process.
In December 2007, there was another protest called “The Platform for the Right to Decide,” supported by the ERC party.
The CiU went from autonomist to sovereignist. Mainly driven by the need to regain power and created a solid political and electoral force with the ERC.
The situation worsened in June 2010 when the Constitutional Court of Spain declared many of the articles of the Statute of Autonomy invalid.
It introduced new cuts on what had already been approved by the Catalans in the referendum. To the point that almost all the advances on the 1979 Statute were left without effect.
Naturally, a protest was called with the slogan “We are one nation. We decide,” attended by thousands of people, pro-independence flags, and slogans.
CiU won the elections to the Parliament in November 2010, and its new leader, Artur Mas, was sworn in as President of the Generalitat. (although without an absolute majority)
Its main project was a “fiscal pact” to achieve a new and more beneficial tax system for Catalonia.
And it failed. Then it was a massive rally on September 11, called by the so-called National Assembly of Catalonia with the slogan “Catalonia, a new National State in Europe.” This contributed to the CiU pro-sovereignty path.
In January 2013, the Parliament approved the “Declaration of Sovereignty and the Rights of Catalans to Decide over Catalonia.”
It was suspended by the Constitutional Court in May and definitively in March 2014.
Then, the President of the Generalitat announced the call for a referendum on November 9, 2014. Including a question with two sections:
“Do you want Catalonia to be a State?”, “If yes, do you want this State to be independent?
The Constitutional Court suspended the Law and the referendum as a precautionary measure because it would be a non-binding process of citizen participation.
80.76% declared themselves in favor of independence, but only 37.02% of registered voters voted. This has no political effect.
In January 2015, President Artur Mas announced an advance of the elections of September to the Parliament. Which, on this occasion, would be understood as a referendum on the independence of Catalonia, pledging to declare independence within 18 months if the pro-sovereigntist parties won the elections.
The Constitutional Court suspended this resolution which did not prevent the Parliament from continuing its plans.
In October 2016, it passed a resolution demanding the Catalan Government to hold a binding referendum on Catalan independence by September 2017 at the latest.
In June 2017, President Puigdemont announced that the referendum would occur on October 1.
Including the question:
“Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state in the form of a republic? Yes or No.”
Between September 6 and 8, the pro-independence majority in the Parliament passed two laws marking a definitive break with the legal framework of the Constitution and the Statute: “Law on the binding referendum of self-determination on the independence of Catalonia.”
They created the Sindicatura Electoral de Catalunya. It declared that Catalans are a sovereign political subject and exercise the right to freely and democratically decide their political status. So they would proclaim independence two days after the publication of the results if the “yes” votes outnumbered the “no” vote without requiring a minimum turnout.
The Constitutional Court suspended the Law on October 17. Because the rule violated the Rule of Law, the Constitution’s supremacy, the Spanish Nation’s indissoluble unity, and national sovereignty. the
Another attempt was the “Law of Legal and Foundational Transitoriedad and foundational of the Catalan Republic.”
The referendum was held on October 1, despite being suspended by the Constitutional Court. The vote on both laws broke the Spanish legality. It was done by extraordinary procedures without respecting the rights of parliamentary minorities.
In addition, there is a 2/3 majority required for its modification, and it was not reached in any vote.
According to these results, the turnout was 43.03%, with 90.18% of affirmative votes (2,044,038 people).
On October 10, President Puigdemont declared the independence of Catalonia.
No state in the world and no international organization recognized Catalonia’s declaration of independence.
Catalan pro-independence Leaders are accused of:
Crime of sedition
Embezzlement of public funds (9.054.005,8 euros in total)
4 Catalan Politicians were arrested and 3 other left the country, including the former president of the Catalan Government.
The trial of the leaders of the Catalan pro-independence process took place at the Supreme Court in early 2019, and the sentence was announced on October 14.
The politicians condemned by the Supreme Court have not been convicted for defending their ideas, to which they have the right, but for their crimes typified in the Penal Code**.**
Then, in 2022, the Socialist Government of Pedro Sánchez launched the reform of the Penal Code to eliminate the crime of sedition.
This change affectes the leaders of the Catalan pro-independence process in Spain, who were convicted of sedition and embezzlement. This could favor the ERC leader, and Carles Puigdemont, a fugitive from Spanish justice.
What does the Government of Catalonia want?
In short, independence supporters say that Catalonia has its own language and culture. Therefore it is a nation and should be allowed to have its own State. They also say that Catalonia, one of Spain’s richest autonomous regions, transfers too much tax revenue to poorer regions. If they were an independent state, its citizens would enjoy greater prosperity.
How is Spanish society living through the Catalan conflict?
Different positions and ideologies are not new in Catalonia. However, this Conflict is latent in Catalan society, and its a complex and delicate topic to discuss.
Regarding Catalan Society, Most of its political leaders are imprisoned or on the run from justice.
The region has suffered a hard economic impact since many companies left it because of its international image and Government conflicts.
One of the most visible elements of this division is the yellow ribbons and other symbols and messages of solidarity and protest against the imprisonment of pro-independence politicians.
The media and politicians have been in charge of enlarging the myth that the “Catalans hate Spain.” But if you come to Barcelona or Catalonia, you will realize this stereotype is false. Despite everything, many Catalans have parents or grandparents from all parts of Spain. You can find many different opinions in the region.
Besides, as in many other regions, Catalan identity is deeply rooted in society for historical, cultural, and political reasons. Being Catalan is many more things than those listed in this article.
Catalonia definitely has a culture that is both national and cosmopolitan. Their identity has pioneered performing arts, painting, architecture, and literature. This, along with many other deeply-rooted traditions, form part of the intangible heritage by UNESCO.
And, of course, we can’t forget to mention the special care they take to sea and land products that make Catalan gastronomy so iconic, exquisite, and internationally recognized.
If you want to get first-hand information from a Catalan perspective on the Conflict between Spain and Catalonia, always remember to do it with respect and empathy.
What could happen in the future of the Catalan Conflict?
The arrival of the Spanish Government, Pedro Sánchez, brought about a new relationship between the Catalan and Spanish governments. In July, their presidents met in Madrid for the first time in six years.
Also, the idea of Catalan’s exit from Spain threatens its European neighbors. Their support for an independence process that does not have the consensus of the central State and breaks with the country’s Constitution could harm the basis of the European Union itself.
Still, I would like to refer to experts’ opinions on this topic.
“No independence is viable without international support.”
- In a statement to BBC Mundo, Pepe Fernández Albertos, a political scientist at the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC).
“The independence process attracts around half of the electorate of the Catalan population, but not the other half.”
- Political scientist Pepe Fernández of the CSIC
“The division has been installed in Catalan society. This rupture occurred on September 6 and 7. The Catalan Parliament approved the referendum law, and the criminal code does not include what happened as a crime of rebellion. Political and legal responsibilities must be taken, but the measures are disproportionate.”
- Argèlia Queralt, professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Barcelona.
“At the moment, I do not see any intermediate position that could lead to an agreement since it would have to go to a reform of the Constitution. Altering the rule of Law in which Spain is one and indivisible.”
- Eduardo Vírgala, professor of Constitutional Law at the University of the Basque Country.
Some analysts and politicians believe the Conflict could be resolved through a renewed dialogue between the Catalan and Spanish authorities. Including better fiscal deals and more infrastructure spending for the region.
Others say that constitutional reform is also necessary. And that it should have specific articles to protect the Catalan language and culture, approved through a legal and nationally agreed referendum.
Nowadays, there is a lot of debate around this topic. The most important thing is to respect the different opinions and be open to a reasonable dialogue.
I hope this article was helpful, and don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions about Spain. We’ll be happy to help you! :)
Inigo Navarro is a seasoned travel writer with a deep understanding of Spain's cities, culture, people and language. Born and raised in Spain, he has spent years exploring the country and is currently one of the most-read Travel Bloggers about Spain. Inigo is also an experienced digital marketer, a father to 4 beautiful children and a huge Real Madrid Fan. ¡Hala Madrid!