Why do Catalans want independence from Spain?

Nearly 2.2 million Catalans voted in the October 1 referendum to decide whether Catalonia wanted independence, but Spanish leaders continue to block momentum.

Where it all began

The region of Catalonia, situated in the north east of Spain, is an autonomous region with its own political, legal and cultural structures dating back centuries.

The Catalan language is not a dialect of Spanish and is spoken by nine million people in Catalonia, Valenica, the Balearic Isles and Andorra.

Catalans claim you can trace their region forming as a separate state back to the 11th and 12th centuries.

Spain as a nation was formed through the marriages of noblemen and women.

In 1162, the Count of Barcelona Ramon Berenguer IV married Princess Petronilla of Aragon, creating a region that became known as the Crown of Aragon.

The Crown of Aragon grew to cover Majorca, Valencia, Sicily, Sardinia and Naples.

In the 15th century Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon married, forming the unity that bound the foundations of Spain.

Castille (Spanish) became the preferred language for the court and literature, but Catalan was still used as the spoken language.

In 1640, Spanish King Philip IV forced Catalans to fight in the 'War of the Spanish Succession', prompting rebellions against the crown.

The war ended in the victory of Philip the V of the French House of Bourbon and in 1714 Catalonia was bombarded and fell to the Franco-Spanish army.

Philip oppressed the Catalan state and the remaining Crown of Aragon region and unified them under what we now refer to as Spain.

Fast-forward to the 19th century and a Catalan architect known as Antoni Gaudi trailblazed the cultural movement known as 'Renaixença' or the 'Rebirth'.

The bloody consequences of the Spanish Civil War still reverberated around the nation.

In 1936, a military coup to overthrow the Republic started the civil war. The Nationalists received help from Italy and Nazi Germany.

Under the Franco rule, Catalonian autonomy, language and culture is claimed to have been suppressed from the end of the Civil War in 1939 through to 1975.

Spain holds its ground

The Government of Spain ruled a statute of autonomy for the Catalonia region in 2006.

The statute allowed the regional government - known as the Generalitat - to have more power in tax, judicial matters and a stronger say with immigration.

However, in a bitter blow sections of the statute were challenged by the Spanish constitutional court and eventually overruled on June 28, 2010.

The court found there was no legal right to recognise Catalonia as a nation, claiming: "The constitution only knows one nation, Spain”.

It also found the language should not hold prominence over Castilian Spanish.

Following the bitter blow in 2010, an estimated 1.1 million protestors marched in Barcelona for Catalonia to be acknowledged as a nation.

This followed a wave of instrumental and peaceful marches on September 11, known as 'La Diada'.

Two years later, between 600,000 to one million pro-independence campaigners walked the streets of Barcelona with banners, “Catalonia, a new state in Europe".

In 2013, organisers for Catalonia’s National Day created a human chain stretching 400km connecting the French border and the coastal town of Alcanar.

The following year, an estimated 1.8 million people gathered to create the Catalan flag stretching 11km through the streets of Barcelona.

Activists around the world have praised the peaceful mobilisation of the large scale marches for independence in Barcelona.

Supporters use Catalonia’s National Day – La Diada de Catalunya – to make a political stand.

This day marks the fall of Barcelona in the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714 and the region's subsequent loss of institutions and freedoms.

The 2017 referendum was pushed by the Catalan regional government, but the Spanish court ruled the vote will not go ahead.

Following a legal challenge from the government, Spain's Constitutional Court suspended a referendum law that was fast-tracked through Catalonia's regional parliament in September, 2017.

Police have searched a Catalan printing house and a local weekly newspaper suspected of making ballots for the referendum, while Spain's state prosecutor has opened criminal proceedings against Catalan officials.

Why the push for independence?

Catalans have long seen themselves as fundamentally different to the Spanish and over the last decade the support to secede from Spain has grown.

More than 7.4 million people consider themselves Catalan, which represents 16 per cent of the Spanish population.

Senior lecturer in Spanish and Catalan studies at Monash University, Dr Stewart King, said both financial and cultural reasons have caused the friction.

“There is a financial reason and there is also a cultural reason, which all ties in. When Spain came out of a dictatorship in 1975, one of the things they did was rethink what it meant to be Spanish,' Stewart told SBS World News.

“It went from being an idea that being Spanish was - under the Franco regime - speaking Spanish and having a homogenous culture, to being a pluricultural society, which recognised the differences and languages of all the Spanish regions."

Stewart said pressure from various conservative governments has placed pressure on Catalans to restrict the teaching of the language.

“Increasingly many Catalans feel that idea of multicultural Spain has been disappearing recently and that they have been feeling they are less Spanish, because they speak Catalan or they are promoting the teaching of Catalan in their regions," he said.

Another argument for Catalonia’s ability to successfully split from Spain is spearheaded by its burgeoning GDP.

Barcelona’s transformation into one of Europe’s design and biotechnology gateways - and its strong education allure - helps Catalonia remain the strongest region contributing to Spain’s economy at 19 per cent since 2006, according to the OECD.

In 2013, Catalonia’s per capita GDP was 23 per cent above the average for Spain and 17 per cent above the EU average, according to IDESCAT. This would rank it ninth as a nation in the European Union.

The Catalonian region also continues to increase its trade and produces 25 per cent, 65 billion euros, of all exports from Spain.  The majority of exports come from consumer goods and energy and industrial products.

Many in Catalonia view their thriving economy as a strong indicator it would flourish as a sovereign state. Catalans see their economy as a prop for the Spanish government.

Catalans are also dismayed at the perception that the wealthy region receives less spending from the government than other semi-autonomous regions.

Stewart said the government's redistribution of resources has left many in Catalonia frustrated.

“Lots of little things have contributed to it [the push for a referendum] and one is the Catalans feel they are contributing more finances to other parts of Spain. And that money they have had in other parts of Spain has been badly used,” he told SBS World News.

“So they felt like there had been a lot of money which has been wasted and when the cuts came in, particularly following the Global Financial Crisis, many Catalans felt they were being unfairly targeted when Catalonia is one of the wealthiest regions in Spain and is producing more.”

Catalanian taxpayers already lose 8.8 billion euros more than it receives from the Spanish Government and loses 8.5 per cent of its GDP per year, according to Bloomberg Politics, causing friction amongst separatists.

However, it is not uncommon for a government to attempt to bridge the wealth gap and spend more in struggling regions of a nation.

A risk of separating could be the increase in debt owed to Spain. The autonomous government already has the largest Spanish debt for a region, and if it seceded it would have to take on some of the nation’s debt as per international law, according to The Guardian.

It would also be potentially temporarily outside the EU and would suffer from tariffs and a reduction in investment.

Furthermore, creating or fortifying new state structures and administration would be costly.

Separatists argue this could be offset by tax payments being redistributed in the region, according to the Generalitat de Catalunya.

Where to from here?

The October referendum was held off the back of the Catalonian government's voluntary referendum back in Novermber 9, 2014.

Up to 80 per cent of voters supported independence, but turnout was low and the Spanish Government ruled the referendum illegal.

This time round, the Spanish Government has again fervently challenged the legitimacy of the referendum.

It argues, under article 155, as a sovereign nation everyone has the right to vote and the referendum is a unilateral ballot for independence.

“They want to block the referendum because, according to the Spanish constitution, Spain is indivisible. The constitution makes that clear, meaning that it cannot be divided,” Stewart told SBS World News.

“Taking the other side, the Catalans would say this is a democracy and we should be able to have a vote on this.”

“It is not as simple as it is made out by the Catalans.”

More concerning for the Generalitat was the support for independence within Catalonia which appeared to dip in recent months.

A survey from the Generalitat's Center for Opinion showed only 41.1 per cent of Catalans were in favour of independence in June. This dropped 3.2 per cent since March.

The Spanish government attempted to intervene and prevent the referendum taking place under Article 155 of the constitution.

Spanish police officers stormed polling stations and seized millions of ballots in an attempt to prevent votes.

As the world watched on to find out if the referendum would go ahead peacefully, reports and images flew around the world of Spanish police firing rubber bullets at protestors with hundreds of people injured.

The Catalan Government claimed nearly 2.2 million people voted in the referendum and 90 per cent were in favour of splitting from Spain. 

But only 40 per cent of the region voted, with local authorities blaming the Spanish police presence.

Despite the low turn out, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont saw it as a victory and began weighing up the controversial option of announcing independence.

Following the referendum, thousands of pro-Spanish protestors marched through the streets of Barcelona, the heart of Catalonia, for national unity.

On October 10, Catalan leaders signed a declaration of independence from Spain, but Puigdemont immediately put the move on hold.

He said he accepted "the mandate of the people for Catalonia to become an independent republic," but asked parliament to "suspend the effects of the independence declaration to initiate dialogue in the coming weeks".