The Unrest in Catalonia, Explained

Why are the Catalans upset? How many want independence? How can this end?

Barcelona Spain demonstration
Catalans celebrate their National Day in Barcelona, Spain, September 13, 2012 (Fotomovimiento)

Protests continue in Catalonia against the imprisonment of nine of the region’s separatist leaders.

Tuesday night was quiet, probably because it rained heavily, but I don’t expect this to peter out soon.

In case you haven’t been following the news, or don’t know much about Catalonia to begin with, here is an explainer to get you up to speed.

The basics

  • Catalonia is the northeasternmost region of Spain. It is also the second richest, after the region around Madrid. It has a GDP per capita of €31,207 against €25,063 for Spain as a whole.
  • Under the Crown of Aragon, what is now Catalonia was one of the two main polities on the Iberian Peninsula, the other being Castile. The two were ruled in a personal union between 1469 and 1701, when Aragon and Castile picked opposing sides in the War of the Spanish Succession. Castile won the war and abolished the Crown of Aragon, and with it Catalonia’s autonomy. It was restored under the Second Spanish Republic (1931–39), abolished again by Francisco Franco, and restored again after his death in 1975.
  • Catalonia has its own culture, with distinctive art and architectural styles, cuisine, literary traditions, holidays and festivals.
  • Around a third of the population speaks Catalan as their first language (which was banned under Franco), but it is the primary language of Catalan institutions and in Catalan schools.

What has happened?

For the first time in decades, demonstrations for Catalan independence have turned violent.

576 protesters and 283 police officers have been wounded in altercations. Some 300 protesters have been arrested. Four have lost an eye to rubber bullets. 65 journalists have been attacked, mostly by police.

A general strike was held on Saturday, in which, according to local police, half a million Catalans took to the streets of Barcelona. (Catalonia has a population of 7.5 million.)

The regional capital has suffered the worst. City authorities put the damage of burned trash cans and destroyed street furniture at €2.7 million. The provincial capitals of Girona, Lleida and Tarragona have also seen clashes between protesters and police.

What triggered the protests?

On October 14, Spain’s Supreme Court sent seven former members of the devolved Catalan government and two prominent civil society leaders to prison for nine to thirteen years. They had been found guilty of sedition and, in the case of the politicians, misuse of public funds for organizing an unsanctioned independence referendum in 2017 and subsequently declaring Catalonia’s secession from Spain.

The nine were acquitted of the most serious charge, rebellion, because prosecutors could not prove they had incited violence.

Three more former Catalan ministers were convicted of disobedience and fined €60,000 each.

A European arrest warrant has been reissued for former regional president Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium after declaring Catalonia’s independence in 2017 to escape arrest.

The background

The Supreme Court ruling was the last straw. Many Catalans feel Madrid has ignored their wishes for too long and now their only recourse is independence.

At the height of the economic crisis, the Catalan government asked Spain’s for more control over the region’s finances in order to avoid spending cuts. They were refused. Catalan leaders for years asked for a legal referendum on independence. They were told the Constitution forbids this. Year after year, hundreds of thousands of Catalans — as many as 1.5 million in 2012 — turned out to demonstrate for self-determination without so much as a kerfuffle. In election after election did the separatists win a majority. And still the Spanish government would not give an inch.

Catalonia controls its own cultural policies, education system, health care and transportation, but few of its taxes. This was regulated in an autonomy statute in 2006, when Spain was governed by the Socialist Party.

The Constitutional Court (which is separate from the Supreme Court) overturned parts of that statute in 2010, when it agreed with Spain’s conservative People’s Party that Catalonia had been given too much power.

When Catalan leaders asked the Spanish government — led by the People’s Party from 2011 to 2018 — for renegotiations, they were turned down. The prime minister at the time, Mariano Rajoy, wouldn’t even meet with the Catalans, much less negotiate.

How many Catalans want independence?

Two million Catalans voted in 2017 to leave Spain, but most opponents of independence boycotted the referendum.

Polls suggest that about one in two Catalans want their own state. The number has seldom been over 50 percent.

The share falls to 35-40 percent when Catalans are given the option of becoming a federal state inside a reformed Spain.

Only 25-30 percent are happy with the current level of autonomy while 5-8 percent believe Catalonia should have less self-government.

Independence supporters tend to be middle-class and are overrepresented in small cities and the countryside. They are more or less equally split between the center-left and the center-right, but their politics are more progressive and pro-European than the rest of the population’s. The Catalan working class is largely drawn from other parts of Spain and has little affinity with the separatist cause.

Whatever their views on independence, 70 to 80 percent of Catalans want a (legal) vote on independence.

The cost of independence

Independence would be disruptive. It would mean not only leaving Spain, but leaving the EU — and Spain could veto Catalonia’s admission as a new member state.

Catalonia makes 12 percent of its money from tourism. A third of its exports go to other parts of Spain with most of the rest going to the EU. Losing unimpeded access to the Spanish and European markets would almost certainly throw Catalonia into a recession. It could continue using the euro informally, but it would be kicked out of the European banking system. Catalan banks would probably move their headquarters to Spain. (Some did temporarily in 2017, when Spain suspended Catalonia’s autonomy in the wake of the referendum.) Without the ultimate guarantee of the ECB, Catalonia would almost certainly pay higher interest rates on its debts.

There would also be a human cost. 470,000 EU nationals live and work in Catalonia. (I’m one of them.) 1.3 million residents were born elsewhere in Spain. Many will have family and friends in other regions. Even if Catalonia kept its borders open, Spain could impose controls and visa requirements.

What is your view?

The poll numbers I cited earlier suggest there is still a third way: a new autonomy statute for Catalonia that gives the region more power, approved by Catalans in a referendum.

That way, secession is taken off the table but the Catalans get to have their say.

Ideally, that would be part of a broader effort to federalize Spain to protect all regions and nationalities, including the Basque Country and Valencia, from Castile’s centralizing instincts. At a minimum, it would give the Catalans the same tax-and-spending powers the Basques have.

Either would require Spain’s current prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, to show statesmanship, rather than give in to public pressure to publish the Catalans.

It would also require Catalonia’s ruling parties to climb down from their independence-or-nothing position.

I’m not optimistic. The conflict has been allowed to go on for so long that people are drawn to extremes. In the rest of Spain, it is now the mainstream right-wing position that Catalan home rule should be suspended indefinitely. In Catalonia, formerly nationalist parties have become separatist and the two largest civil society groups, whose leaders are in prison, have lost control of the streets to smaller and more radical organizations.