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An analysis of the current Catalonia-Castile standoff

October 17, 2012


Recently in Barcelona a sea of 1.5 million people marched through the streets. Interestingly enough none of the flags of the marchers carried the familiar Spanish flag but instead one of red and yellow stripes with a blue triangle to the left, imprisoned in which is a lone star. It was the flag of Catalonia and the Catalan protestors in Barcelona were marching to demonstrate, as the President of the Catalan parliament Artur Mas put it, Catalonia’s “right to self-determination” (Barley, 2012). Catalan elections have been pushed forwards to 25 November and the vote is widely perceived as the deciding factor on whether Catalonia will declare independence (ibid).

Catalonia, which is linguistically distinct from Castilian Spain, the administrative centre of the nation, has been incorporated into the Spanish state for three centuries. The amount of autonomy given to the region has varied significantly:  from retaining an independent judicial system in the 1700s-1800s, through the linguistic and symbolic repression of the Franco era to the current day where Cataloniai enjoys the status of ‘autonomous region’ (Payne, 1971: 20-21; Vilalta, 2006: 21; Guibernau, 2003: 125).

This article will seek to analyse the motivation behind the independence movement, whether independence is feasible and the likelihood of independence occurring.

Catalonia’s currant status and the 1978 Constitution

Catalonia’s currant status stems from the 1978 Spanish Constitution that was created after Franco’s death. Spain was divided into 17 autonomous regions. Historical nations such as Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia could immediately start the process to full autonomy, while other regions which were artificially created (Madrid, La Rioja) had to fulfil a 5 year period of ‘restricted autonomy’ (Guibernau, 2003: 125). Each region has a regional legislative assembly, deputies are elected based on proportional representation and usually the leader of the majority party assumes the regions presidency (ibid). Catalan and Basque governments provide education, health, housing, agriculture, transport and cultural enrichment, with the Spanish government holding exclusive control over defence, international relations, general economic planning and justice (ibid).

Freedom and money

The current push for complete independence seems to be motivated primarily by economic issues. Opinion polls show that the number of Catalans in favour of independence has doubled since the start of the recession in 2008 (Burgen, 2012). Catalonia is Spain’s wealthiest province and generates 18.7% of Spain’s GDP, the region also contributes more to the central government than it receives in government funding (Barley, 2012). In 1997 the non-secessionist Catalan president, Jordi Pujol, was able to increase the amount of tax revenue Catalonia retains to 30%, however the imbalance remained (Guibernau, 2003: 126). Post Eurocrisis demands for increased fiscal autonomy have been refused by Madrid and many of the protesters describe the refusals as unfair and the lack of fiscal autonomy as an obstacle to Catalonia’s potential development (Burgen, 2012; Barley, 2012). The Catalan president, Artur Mas, proclaimed during the demonstrations: “if Catalonia were a state we would be among the 50 biggest exporting countries in the world” (Govan, 2012).

Unfortunately the European debt fiasco has precipitated a crisis of fiscal sovereignty on the national level, with nations such as Greece, Spain and Portugal relinquishing control and submitting to austerity to ensure that they can be kept afloat by bailouts. It is unlikely that Madrid will allow Catalonia complete independence when Spain is facing losing control of its own finances. Catalonia has its own debts, yet these may stem from the redistribution framework implemented by Madrid.

This raises another issue of Catalan independence: how will the withdrawal of Spain’s richest region affect the finances of a nation in the middle of a debt crisis, and how will this affect the poorer regions of the nation? Regions such as Extremadura only produce 1.6% of Spain’s wealth and only manage to stay afloat due to income from wealthier states such as Catalonia (Tremleyt, 2012). Catalans are already viewed by some sectors of Spain as rich, spoilt and forever playing the victim and the demand for independence may seem unreasonable when the region already retains 30% of its tax and has more autonomy than other regions of Spain, excluding the Basque Country (Burgen, 2012; Guibernau, 2003: 125). The Catalan marchers demanding greater benefits at the expense of those regions that rely on Catalan revenues, especially during difficult financial times, may cause the independence movement to be perceived as a bourgeois plot to defend their comparative wealth.

Catalan Romantic Nationalism and its relation to the Spanish State

Catalonia’s history of repression, especially under Franco, has allowed independence-orientated individuals to present Catalonia as a victim under the yoke of Madrid. A few recent events have allowed Catalonia to retain this identity of victimhood. A Statute of Autonomy, supported by 90% of the Catalan parliament, was modified by the Spanish parliament to comply with the Constitution before it was approved (Guibernau, 2012). The Statute was endorsed by the Catalan people in June 2006, but it was challenged by the conservative Popular Party (PP) in Madrid and the Spanish High Court (ibid).  The High Court issued a verdict in June 2010, supressing 14 articles of the Statute and modifying 30 relating to symbolic, financial and judicial aspects (ibid). This provoked protests of up to one million people in Barcelona (ibid). The fact that it was the conservative Popular Party that opposed the Statute of Autonomy is significant. The conservatives in Spain have often opposed the regionalism of the nation, while the Popular Party was founded by a member of Franco’s cabinet.

More recently a high profile case emerged in which a Catalan lawyer was assaulted, physically and verbally, for refusing to talk to a Guardia Civil officer in Castilian (Help Catalonia, 2012). The Guardia Civil has long been a symbol of Franco era repression and has been used as a tool of Castilian hegemony over the regions of Spain, especially Catalonia and the Basque Country.

Actions such as this legitimise the claims of secessionist organisations such as Help Catalonia, which in response to the Guardia Civil assault case argued:

“We at Help Catalonia wish to denounce this occurrence, and the fact that things like this still happen in modern-age Spain, as they have been happening for the last 300 years since Catalonia was invaded by Spain.” (Help Catalonia, 2012)

An analysis of the history of Catalonia reveals this statement to be not entirely true. Roosen’s argues that: “the study of ethnic phenomena reveals how far ethnic ideology and historical reality can diverge from each other; how much people feel things that are not there and conveniently forget realities that have existed…” (Roosens, 1989: 161).

Traditionally the narrative has been that during the War of the Spanish Succession, Catalonia backed the Hapsburg claimant Charles (Laitin et al, 1994: 5-8). When Charles was defeated by the Bourbon claimant, Philip, who was supported by Madrid, Catalonia’s old privileges as an autonomous province were erased and Catalan was banned from the King’s court (ibid).

However evidence shows that the Catalan aristocracy had by this time adopted Castilian as a language to mark high birth as it allowed them to operate within the King’s realm and distinguish themselves from the peasantry (ibid). Laitin et al note that: “if Catalans admitted that their language died due to the strategic decision of Catalan elites to extract resources from the Spanish state, it would be hard to construct a populist movement for separation from Spain” (ibid: 10). Similarly many Catalanists forget that it was Madrid’s protective tariffs which allowed Catalonia to become one of the most industrialised regions in the state (Payne, 1971: 22).

It was, in fact, during the renaixenca (renaissance) of the mid to late 1800s that nationalist historiographers such as Prospero Bofarull and Victory Balaguer interpreted the historic decline of Catalonia as a Castilian conspiracy (ibid: 18). The more recent history of repression under Franco’s regime has helped reify this interpretation of Catalonia’s history. The risk then is that Madrid decides to revisit the strategy of repression due to financial necessity.

Unfortunately such a turn of events is looking possible though not probable. Certain elements of the army have requested to intervene militarily in Catalonia, a prospect the Catalan parliament took seriously enough to ask the European Commission what measures the EU would take should Madrid use force to subdue Catalonia (Catalan News Agency, 2012). The government has wisely remained silent and not pursued this course (ibid). Any action by the military could easily turn an economically motivated protest into a symbolic struggle for liberation and legitimise armed groups.

A new nation creates new foreigners

Another major issue is that 40% of Catalonia is not Catalan but descended from Spanish immigrants who sought refuge in Catalonia during the Civil War (Burgen, 2012). Spain’s current Constitution protects these people from foreigner status by acknowledging the will of the “Spanish nation to protect all Spaniards and the peoples of Spain in the exercise of human rights, their cultures and traditions, languages and institutions” (Guibernau, 2003: 124). The Constitution also acknowledges the plurality of nationalities within the Spanish nation, making the state a nation of nations (ibid). But, should Catalonia become independent, it may become a nation-state, defined by Gellner as a state that makes ethnicity and polity congruent (Gellner, 1983: 42). Under such a state the Spaniard minority would be foreigners, outside the ethnic group and thus outside the polity.

The fear of becoming a minority played a significant role in the Yugoslav Wars as the Presidents of the seceding republics, such as Tudjman, defined their state as a nation and thus defined citizenship along ethnic rather than civic boundaries. This provoked a violent response from the Serbs and legitimised Milosevic’s slogan of ‘all the Serbs in one state’ (Sell, 2002: 110).

The likelihood of independence

In spite of the large numbers that joined the protest, Barley argues that the chances of independence are unlikely (Barley, 2012). In spite of the economic arguments espoused by protester and politician alike, there are some realities barring the economic viability of independence. Catalonia is cut off from capital markets and has requested a five billion euro loan from Madrid to help with its 40billion euro debt (Barley, 2012; Govan, 2012). Should Catalonia remain cut off from potential creditors after independence it would be unviable, and the request for the loan has made this clear, giving Madrid leverage.

Furthermore, while many Catalans argue that Catalonia would be in better economic shape if it was declared independent, this is probably not true. States often see credit evaporate after declaring independence due to a lack of a credit history: Catalonia’s poor finances mean that investors and lenders are unlikely to take the risk (Lacalle, 2012). Yet there is a chance that these obstacles may not halt the drive for independence.  The main danger is that Madrid may be enticed to use force to retain its highest earning province. Given the recent history between Castile and Catalonia and the nationalist reimagining of their older history, such a move would evaporate the economic arguments for and against independence and create a more irrational discourse of emancipation and liberation.




Barley, Richard. 2012. Madrid Struggles With Homage to Catalonia. Wall Street Journal ( Copy available from author.

Burgen, Stephen. 2012. Catalan independence rally brings Barcelona to a standstill. The Guardian website ( Copy available from author.

Catalan News Agency. 2012. Catalan Euro MP’s askthe European Commission to give an opinion on recent military threats by Spanish nationalism. Catalan News Agency website ( Copy available from author.

Gellner, Ernest. 1983. The transition to an age of nationalism. In Nations

and Nationalism. Oxford: Blackwell

Govan, Fiona. 2012. Catalonia calls snap elections in independence drive from Madrid. The Telegraph website ( Copy available from author.

Guibernau, Montserrat. 2012. The rise of secessionism in Catalonia has emerged out of the will to decide the region’s political destiny as a nation. The London School of Economics and Political Science Blog ( Copy available from author.

Guibernau, Montserrat. 2003.Between Autonomy and Secession: the accommodation of minority nationalism in Catalonia. Pp 115-134 in The Conditions of Diversity in Multinational Democracies, edited by Alain G Gagnon, Monserrat Guibernau and Francois Rocher. Quebec: The Institute for Research on Public Policy.

Help Catalonia. 2012. Guardia Civil Assaults Man for Speaking Catalan. Help Catalonia website ( Copy available from author.

Lacalle, Daniel. 2012. Catalonia: bailout and junk bond. El Confidencial website ( Copy available from author.

Laitin, David D, Sole, Carlota and Kalyvas, Stathis N Kalyvas. 1994. Language and the Construction of States: The Case of Catalonia in Spain. Politics Society 22: 5-29.

Payne, Stanley. 1971. Catalan and Basque Nationalism. Journal of Contemporary History 6(1): 15-51.

Roosens, Eugene E. 1989. Creating Ethnicity: The Process of Ethnogenesis. California: Sage.

Sell, Louis. 2002. Slobodan Milosevic and the Destruction of Yugoslavia. North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Tremlett, Giles. 2012. Catalonia leader threatens to draw EU into independence row with Spain. The Guardian website ( Copy available from author.

Tremlett, Giles. 2012. Spain’s poorest region suffers 32% unemployment. The Guardian website ( Copy available from author.

Vilalta, Arnau Gonzalez i. 2006. The Catalan Countries Project (1931-1939). Institut de Ciències Polítiques i Socials. 






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  1. I think you’ve done a really interesting piece of writing on the situation here in Spain/Catalonia, Daniel. The final part about the future of credit and capital markets becoming worse after independence would be a big worry. It’s hard to imagine a scenario much worse than the current one. I would suggest that this is an important point that will hardly be raised at all in the current election campaign. As a whole, they are all too busy competing for the pro-independence vote.

    I also think you are on the mark when you say that “the current push for complete independence seems to be motivated primarily by economic issues.” I have a good friend and staunch independence-supporter involved in the left party C.U.P and he many from his organisation are appalled at how the debate has largely become about how Catalunya “will be richer” if it becomes a fully separate state. The current government under Artur Mas is pushing policies that are exactly what the business sector wants: lower pay for working people and more crappy part-time jobs with exploitative contracts…if they you lucky. This fits with Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy’s declaration that Spain should be part of a Euro “low-wage zone.”

    You also make a very interesting point about the Catalan language being badly affected by the earlier Catalan nobility who wanted to use Castillian Spanish. The Catalan language should survive and thrive for a number of reasons but the challenge for Catalunya is to ensure that other languages, including Castillian, are not suppressed in the way that Catalan was under Franco, most recently. You are right to acknowledge the importance of foreigners to Catalunya’s past and to the future too.

    I have huge doubts about accepting much history as pure fact in this country. There is a lot of politicizing of the past here and too often the truth is sadly still very difficult to discern. You can see an example of what I mean here:

    • Thank you for your comment Brett, having looked at your blog it seems that you are an expert on Catalonia and Spain. This being the case may I ask what would happen to the ownership of Spain’s debt if Catalonia seceded? Would Catalonia retain its 40billion Euro debt? Would it shift some of this debt onto Madrid as it could be argued that the redistributive framework of the central government has added to this debt? Would Madrid shift some of Spains debt onto Catalonia as it would be unable to pay back the current sum without its most productive and wealthiest region?
      I would also be interested to know what you think would be an appropriate course of action to economically stabilise Catalonia after secession.
      Please get back to me with your response as I am keen to learn more about this situation.

  2. I certainly wouldn’t claim to be an expert on Catalonia and Spain. To my mind, experts often have closed minds and have stopped considering others views as potentially equal or better-informed than their own. I just observe and do a bit of analysis, which is (partly) why I called the blog “Standing in a Spanish Doorway.” I simply try to do what George Orwell advised, which is to try to clearly see what is right in front of your nose and then describe it in plain language.

    What would happen to all that debt that Spain has, or Catalonia has, you ask. Who knows! The labyrinth of finance is beyond my comprehension. Even after it has all been shuffled around in dubious accounting, we still would probably not really know. This region is in the red for the next generation or two, at least. Some of the more troubling current figures can be be found in the article I link to in this blog:

    I am no economist either, but we can be certain of one thing – The richest will not be paying any more than they ever have, and the debt burden will continue to be carried by the unemployed, the under-employed and by low-paid workers.

    I look forward to your next blog, Daniel.

  3. As a frequent, annual visitor to Catalunya from the UK I was very interested to learn more about the history between Catalunya and Castille. As I stay in the arty tourist town of Cadaques on the Costa Brava I was not confident I could fully understand the strength of feeling. However I now see that the deletion of any Spanish flag symbol, the flying of Catalan flags everywhere and the graffitisaturng ‘parka en catalan’ is wholly representative of the strength of feeling across the region.

    You raise an interesting question about whether the demand for independence has got stronger post-crisis. My feeling is that there is feeling that Madrid policies and the property bubble in south Spain have undermined the more traditional industrial base of Barcalona and the rest of the region. They are broadly right but the fact is that Catalan banks have needed a bailout and that the region has a debt, the €40bn you highlight. At the same time there is a sense of reality among some politicians that a move towards independence would probably make a bad situation worse. Catalunya might be the world’s 50th largest exporter but it is debatable how keen traders would be to make contracts with a nascent state.

    The debt issue is interesting. The issue is how the debt would be redemoninated. It can go two ways. If the financial markets see Catalunya as akin to Greece then its new currency would devalue instantly and the €40bn debt would balloon in local terms. If however outsiders see Catalunya as a way to invest in Spain without dealing with Madrid – perhaps seeing it as ‘Germany on the Iberian peninsula’ then it could find itself with a strong currency relative to the euro.

    Artur Mas would be rise to take the temperature of the markets if he is determined to ahead with independence.

    • Mr Thornton, having seen your blog and seen your focus on economics (and the list of your clients implies a very high level of expertise), do you have an opinion over which of the two possibilities is more likely? I am not an economist (I have not studied the subject since A-level) and I would love to here your opinion and the reasoning behind it. Furthermore having visited Catalonia recently, did you feel that issues surrounding national identity were eclipsing economic incentives in the drive for independence?

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