By guest blogger Jane Johansen

This is the million dollar question here in Catalunya at the moment – and there really is no clear answer.  It is complicated:  resentment towards the Spain and the central Madrid government is centuries old – and not helped by modern injustices – yet common sense says it is better to be part of a larger economy.

Something that surprises many people is how large the Catalunya is.  Geographically it stretches almost 800 kilometres along the Mediterranean coast from Valencia in the south to Perpignan in the north, and inland to where it meets the central region of Aragon and Andorra.  The Catalan nation has existed since the 12th century, so not some modern, trumped up phenomena; and the Catalan language is spoken by some 11 million people: obviously being the language of mainland Catalunya, but also the Balearic Islands, Andorra and Alghero in Sardinia, which was once ruled by the Catalan/Aragonese dynasty formed by a marriage between the Principality of Barcelona and the House of Aragon, at which time Barcelona became the region’s main port for both trade and conquering forays across the sea.

In the late 15th century the marriage between the King of Aragon and the Queen of Castile strengthened Spanish rule and finally provoked the first Catalan revolt which took place in the mid-seventeenth century, and resulted, with some help from France, in the creation of the first Catalan republic.  This didn’t last long as the area was soon recaptured by the Spanish army.  The later Treaty of the Pyrenees ended the wider Franco/Spanish war in 1659, at which time the northern part of Catalunya – the region of Roussillon – was ceded to France, with the rest remaining Spanish.


At the beginning of the 18th century the War of Spanish Succession saw the Crown of Aragon side with the Bourbon Philip V to form a united Spain, and for the first time Spanish became the only official language with all other languages, including Catalan and Latin, being removed from all governmental and legal documents.  Towards the end of the 19th century Catalunya had become industrialised and was one of the wealthiest regions of Spain.  This led to a revival of Catalan culture and nationalism with the four mainland regions (Girona, Barcelona, Lleida and Tarragona) forming a Commonwealth in 1913. Democracy returned to Spain in the 1930s under the Second Spanish Republic and the Generalitat of Catalunya was formed, only to be swept away once more after the Spanish Civil War and the advent of General Francisco Franco.  During the Franco years Catalunya was once again repressed with Spanish the only official language throughout Spain and Catalan only permitted within the four walls of private homes – if then.  Franco still remains a contentious figure. Whilst Catalan culture and language were forced underground, his policy of situating much of Spain’s industry in the region, so it was close to France in order to export, meant Barcelona was again Spain’s gateway to the world as well as one of the largest industrialised metropolitan areas in Europe.  Catalunya also benefited from the first waves of mass tourism in the 1960s and 70s, with many European visitors heading for the beaches of Tossa, Lloret de Mar and Salou so it became by far the wealthiest region in Spain.


Following Franco’s death in 1975 Spain gradually returned to democracy.  Catalunya has since gained some political and cultural autonomy and is now one of the most economically dynamic communities of Spain – which is where the current problems lie.  Whilst Catalunya is called an autonomous region, one area over which they do not have control is finance.  Unlike the Basque region which collects its own taxes and pays a levy to Madrid, in Catalunya Madrid collects the taxes but only returns a relatively small proportion to the region.  Any major projects must be funded from Madrid.  Catalans feel they generate much of Spain’s wealth and yet must continually go cap in hand begging for funding.  A prime example is the electricity grid in Barcelona which is now so antiquated it fails regularly, particularly in summer.  The Catalan Government has been petitioning Madrid for the funds to upgrade it for years but so far without success.  Catalans also feel their money is propping up the rest of the country and yet they are treated as second class citizens.

Catalan nationalism has been gaining strength for the last decade.  Every year more and more Estelada Blava flags (with a white star for independence on a blue triangular panel within the yellow and red striped flag – illustrated below) are visible, hanging from balconies and lamp-posts.  The Catalan National Day (11 September) is a focal point for the separatist movement with rallies and protests organised alongside cultural celebrations.  Perversely the 11 September “celebrates” a major Catalan defeat – when the city of Barcelona fell at the end of a fourteen-month siege in 1714.

In the last two years there have been two significant votes.  The first, a referendum, on 9 November 2014, was really a “toe in the water” for the independence movement.  Vaunted for two years as the opportunity to give the Catalan government a mandate to negotiate with Madrid and surrounded by considerable hype, it was intended to gauge support for independence but the result was inconclusive.  The Spanish government declared the referendum illegal and unconstitutional, and whilst the result was that 80% of those who voted did so in favour of independence, but less than 30% of those eligible to vote actually did so.

Possibly more important was the election of the Catalan parliament in September this year.  Again it was turned into an opportunity for the separatists to woo the voters, and this time the alliance of pro-independence parties – called Junts pel Si (together for yes) – won a slim overall majority.  But all is still not sweetness and light.  There has been much internal wrangling as to who would be the new President.  The incumbent, Artur Mas, was reluctant to relinquish the post he had held for five years, but it has now been agreed that Carme Forcadell will take over.  Forcadell is strongly linked to the independence movement but has promised to form an inclusive government for everyone – all eyes are now on her to see if she succeeds.

We are probably one step closer to an independent Catalunya than we were this time last year, but if you talk to local people most are not militant republicans – they are normal people with the same aspirations as anyone else.  What I believe they would REALLY like is a lot more respect and appreciation from Madrid, and the ability to control the region’s finances, but without taking the huge step into the unknown of becoming fully independent.  If such a compromise could be agreed I am certain it would be in the interest of all concerned.

Jane Johansen
28 October 2015

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