Catalonia and the Push for Independence

Catalonia’s first push for independence arose in 2017 when its citizens came out in full force to unilaterally demand it. But why do Catalans want to break away from Spain?

Having raged on for more than a decade, Catalonia’s independence movement has completely transformed Spanish politics. As parties within Catalonia are so polarised on the issue, they’ve struggled to build a united coalition in order to achieve real visibility.

In 2019, the pro-independence parties fractured, while Spain’s conservative party Vox doubled its seats in November’s national election. Ultimately, the lack of resolution on Catalonia has fomented this result.

Since then, the Spanish government refused until recently to have open talks with pro-independence leaders. Last October, the Spanish courts have harsh prison sentences (some of up to 13 years) to nine leaders involved in the illegal referendum that took place in 2017. The decision inspired widespread protests and violence, ultimately leading to wider support for anti-government violence, as well as a changeover of polarising identities within Spain.

It’s undoubtedly the country’s biggest political crisis since the death of the dictator General Francisco Franco, restoring democracy in 1975. Will independence ever be given to Catalunya? And what is fueling the great push for independence?

The Context

A semi-autonomous region, Catalonia is found in northeast Spain. The region is home to around 7.5 million people and is rich in culture. Catalonia has its own language, parliament, flag, anthem, and history dating back 1,000 years. It also has its own police force (Els Mossos) and has autonomy in some of its public services.

One of Spain’s wealthiest and most productive regions, Catalonia was suppressed under General Franco before the Spanish Civil War. When Franco died, the region was granted autonomy under the 1978 Constitution.

In 2006, Catalonia’s financial power was boosted, when a new statute described it as a “nation however, the Spanish Courts reversed these powers in 2010. Widespread feelings of resentment and separatism were fuelled by the 2008 financial crisis along with Spanish public spending cuts.

The common sentiment amongst Catalans today is that the Spanish government takes a lot more taxes than it gives back to the region. Budget transfers are complicated, and it’s difficult to gauge how much exactly Catalonia should contribute as a region and how much they get back in services such as education, healthcare, and infrastructure.

In an illegal referendum on the 1st of October 2017, the turnout that voted for independence was only 43%. Online polls leading up to the referendum had predicted that 90% of Catalan voters backed independence.

How Different are Spanish and Catalan Views?

Five years ago, there was much more of a pro-European spirit amongst Catalans. The region once celebrated that it attracted more European students, academics, and entrepreneurs, and start-ups than in other parts of Spain.

Fast forward to today and it’s the pro-independence Catalans who identify the least with Europe. In a survey conducted by The Washington Post, they found that the more people who identified Catalan rather than Spanish, the less they identified as European.

This is probably due to the fact that Catalans are resentful that the European Union didn’t show any support to the independence movement, nor the referendum. In 2014, Catalans were optimistic that the E.U. would act as an objective broker between those for independence nd the Spanish government.

However, the E.U. did side with Spain after the 1st of October’s referendum, which was declared illegal by Spain.

A popular expression amongst pro-independence Catalans is “Madrid ens roba” – Madrid is robbing us, stemming from the belief that Catalonia pays more taxes than they get out of the Spanish state.

To put it into figures, Catalonia makes up 16% of Spain’s population, but 19% of the country’s GDP. In terms of tourism, 18 million tourists that visit Spain annually out of a total of 75 million choose to visit Catalonia. Tarragona has one of Europe’s biggest chemical hubs, about a third of the population has some form of tertiary education.

Could Catalonia be Successful as an Independent State?

Some argue that if Catalonia were to gain a tax boost from independence, they’d have to create new public institutions and run them without the same large-scale economies. In the year 2014, Catalans paid almost ten billion euros than the region received in public spending. Would an independent Catalonia get the difference back?

It’s probably more relevant to discuss Catalonia’s greater concern, which is its public debt. The Catalan government owes €77 billion at the last count of Catalonia’s GDP, €52 billion of which is owed to the Spanish government.

The reason for this is because the Spanish government set up a funding scheme in 2012 to provide cash to the regions, who were unable to borrow money from international markets. Catalonia took €67 billion from this scheme, making it the country’s biggest beneficiary.

If Catalonia became independent, it would lose access to such a scheme, and it would raise doubt as to how much debt the region would be willing to repay after receiving independence. If Spain chose to, it could make life difficult for an independent Catalonia.


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