Catalonia: County or Country?

Over the last 30 years the separatist movement in Catalonia, headed up by the Republic Left of Catalonia Party, has grown from a minority pipe dream to being one of the main issues dominating political life in Catalonia and Spain. Sunday’s referendum and the police violence that accompanied it has catapulted the issue onto the word stage and promises to be yet another headache for a Europe still struggling with low growth, a shaky Euro, Brexit and illegal Mediterranean migration. However, the question of independence and autonomy has been a part of Spanish and Catalan politics for far longer than the last few decades. In fact its a debate that is roughly 300 years old and has caused a great deal of problems for much of that period.

The question on many peoples lips is why does Catalonia want to split from Spain? The answer lies, to a greater extent, in how Catalonia and modern Spain came to exist and particularly in relations between Barcelona and Madrid over the last 300 years. Catalonia, a traditional hotbed of political discontent has maintained a very strong and distinct identity and has sought to reclaim its autonomy ever since it was lost at the beginning of the 18th century. The following article seeks to provide an accurate timeline of events from the birth of the Catlan nation up until the modern day, and in doing so display why so many Catalans desire an independent Catalonia.

In the Beginning.

The people of Catalonia can trace their cultural and ethnic identity back to the 9th century, before they even had political independence, to the rule of Charlemagne and the creation by the Emperor of counties in northern Spain and southern France. These counties, known as the Marca Hispanica, were intended to act as a buffer against the Moorish Caliphate on the Iberian Peninsula. In the beginning the leaders of these counties were appointed by Charlemagne and his successors but over time as Carolingian influence waned the positions became increasingly hereditary and Frankish dominion had ended by the death of Count Borrell in 991.

Foremost amongst Charlemagne’s sixteen creations were Pamplona, Jaca, the Basque County and the County of Barcelona. Jaca and Pamplona were the foundations of the Kingdoms of Aragon and Navarre whilst Basque would ultimately subsumed into the Angevin Empire and Kingdoms of Castile and Navarre. Barcelona’s position on the coast, the prestige afforded by its history and the size of its defences and population enabled it to dominate and absorb the surrounding counties to create the Principality of Catalonia, one of the most powerful Christian kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula for the next six centuries.

Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 and used defensive buffer zones to protect his expansive Empire.


Catalan institutions and national identity were firmly established when the county was joined by marriage to the Kingdom of Aragon in 1137. This dynastic, but not political, union was created by the marriage of Raymond Berengar IV of Barcelona and Queen Petronilla of Aragon. The union was further cemented by the accession of their son Alfonso II in 1162 who ruled both as count of Barcelona and King of Aragon. As it was not a political union both Aragon and Catalonia retained their own separate governments, institutions, laws and tax systems, in other words they were still two separate countries. The modern equivalent would be the 16 Commonwealth Realms who share Queen Elizabeth II as head of state. As the fortunes of the Crown of Aragon increased further territories were incorporated and by the 15th century a large confederacy existed stretching across the Mediterranean and included the Kingdoms of Majorca, Valencia, Naples, Sardinia and Sicily as well as the Dutchies of Athens and Neopatrias in Greece.

To the west of Aragon the Kingdoms of Castile and Leon had unified in 1230 to create the Crown of Castile so when Ferdinand II of Aragon married Isabella I of Castile in 1469 nearly all of the modern Kingdom of Spain was unified under in a familial union of Crowns. This familial union was cemented into a personal union upon Ferdinand’s death in 1516 when his grandson, Charles I became King of Castile and Aragon, thereby creating the Crown of Spain.

A Thalassocracy – A primarily maritime realm. The crown of Aragon gained and lost territory but was one of the most powerful Mediterranean powers during the medieval period. 


As Spanish economic interest focused more and more on the economic potential of the New World interest in the Mediterranean waned as did the importance of Catalonia. Only Castile was allowed to trade with the American colonies as they were Castilian territory so the spoils of empire were not shared equally by the constituent parts of the the Spanish Crown. However, the territorial and political integrity of Catalonia was not truly challenged until the 17th and 18th centuries when disagreement between the Kingdoms erupted into open conflict.

The Catalan Revolt of 1640 snowballed into a 19 year long conflict known and the Reapers War (Guerra dels sequadors). The revolt was sparked by opposition to Castilian troops stationed in the north of the Principality and the use of resources in the 30 years’ war against France. The Catalans very quickly overcame the forces loyal to King Philip and formed a republic under the protection of the French. The majority of Spanish forces were stationed elsewhere in Europe and the strategic value of having troops on the Iberian Peninsula ensured thernewed independence of Catalonia for nearly two decades. King Philip made peace with France in the treaty of Pyrenees which assured Castilian dominance south of the mountains. Philip secured the majority of Catalonia for himself and his successors but Catalonia north of the Pyrenees; Russillion, Conflet, Vallespir and Cascir were given to France. Territories Catalonia has never been able to reclaim.

Philip V grew up in the court of Louis XIV who’s authoritarian style of centralised monarchy stood in steep contrast to the decentralised state of the Spanish crown to which Philip was raised.

During the Spanish wars of succession the diminished Crown of Aragon, along with the rest of the Spanish crown first accepted the Bourbon claimant, Philip, Duke of Anjou against the Hapsburg candidate, Archduke Charles. However Aragon sided with Archduke Charles in 1706, an act that would have lasting consequences. In 1711 Archduke Charles, succeeded to the Habsburg thrones on the death of His elder brother, Joseph I, Holy Roman Emperor becoming Emperor Charles VI. His accession meant that rather than securing the balance of power within Europe, as the Grand Alliance had intended, Charles as King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor would replace European Bourbon hegemony with Habsburg supremacy. Charles’s accession influenced Great Britain and her allies, then in a strong military position, to enter negotiations with France and Spain which eventually resulted in a series of treaties including the Treaty of Utrecht which recognised Philip as King of Spain so long as he rejected any claim to the French throne, thereby protecting the European balance of power.

After Aragon, and Catalonia in particular, switched sides part way through the conflict Philip V promulgated the Nueva Planta decrees in 1707, seeking to centralise authority in Spain and limit Catalonia’s ability to rebel against him. The main participants in the Spanish war of succession had withdrawn their troops in 1713 leaving Catalonia to stand alone against Philip V. With its laws and customs usurped Catalonia opted to continue resistance until Barcelona was captured in 1714 by forces loyal to the Bourbon monarch.

The Nueva Planta Decree of 1707 and implemented over the next 9 years was designed to and had the effect of bringing about a recognisable and broadly functioning politically centralised Spanish kingdom. The Decree declared the laws of Castile being the most praiseworthy in all the universe’ had to be followed in all the territories of Aragon. The decrees did not recognise internal boarders, save from the Basque country, recognised no distinction between Castilian and Argonese citizens and liquidated the independent institutions of the countries that made up the Argonese crown. The prominent Hispanic languages such as Latin and Catalan were suppressed in favour of Castilian. The biggest change to Catalan life was the imposition of Castilian laws.

In just a few years Catalonia lost its territorial integrity, its political freedom and had its cultural identity suppressed by Castile. The kingdoms, principalities and duchies of the Spanish crown were not brought together as one into a centralised Spain, rather they were conquered, occupied and ultimately absorbed by an ascendant Castile.


Following the Defeat of Catalonia the King ordered that Catalan flags and symbols should be burned.

Napoleon, Carlists and De Rivera

Despite loosing their autonomy under Bourbon rule, Catalonia did benefit from their economic policy which ended Castile’s exclusive right to trade with Spain’s American colonies. New markets helped the Catalan textile industry expand and began the process of industrialisation ahead of much of the rest of Spain. This prosperity created a broader middle class which in time became politically active and resurrected Catalan nationalism as part of the national debate.

The Napoleonic wars and the resulting annexation of Catalonia by France as well as the guerilla aspect of the peninsula war brought an end to the region’s prosperity. Recovery would be slow as Spain suffered the loss of all but a few of its overseas territories and experienced a long century of instability. The recurring civil wars and political gridlock only ended with the victory of the nationalist forces and the construction, by Franco, of an oppressive dictatorship strong enough to quell opposition after the 1936 Civil War.

French occupation and the exile of Ferdinand VII ended effective royal government until well after the Peninsula war had concluded. Numerous juntas formed in Spain and in her overseas Empire with varying degrees of control over over their respective territories which generally corresponded to the old kingdoms and principalities. Usually consisting of military officers, local aristocracy and clergy they eventually formed themselves into the ‘Supreme Central and Governmental junta of Spain and the Indies.’ This proxy government met on the 25th September 1808 but a number of defeats resulted in its dissolution on 29th January 1810. It was succeeded by a 5 man regency council that convened the Cortes which most territories did not recognise and who constructed the controversial 1812 constitution shortly before Ferdinand was restored to the throne.

The 1812 constitution introduced constitutional monarchy, almost universal sufferage, a modicum of federalism in the colonies and peninsular Spain as well as extending citizenship to many natives of the Americas.

An ineffectual sovereign, one of Ferdinand VII’s first actions as monarch was to revoke the 1812 constitution and return Spain to a centralised absolute monarchy, again quashing Catalan autonomy. He was an ineffectual monarch who’s reactionary and counter-revolutionary policies deepened the divisions within Spain, prompting the Trienio Liberal in 1820 which briefly reintroduced the 1812 constitution before a French intervention in 1823, backed by the Crowned heads of Europe. His death in 1833 began the Carlist wars that would be fought into the 20th century between supporters of Ferdinand’s younger brother, Carlos, Count of Molino and his infant daughter, Infanta Isabella.

Philip V had implemented Salic law which prohibits women inheriting titles and so with no male heirs Ferdinand’s brother, Carlos, Count of Molino had expected to become King. However Queen Consort Maria Christina persuaded the king on his death bed to revoke the law. Catalans and the Basques were generally strong supporters of the Carlist cause because of promised to reintroduce a modicum of regionalism that Catalans and other areas felt they deserved as distinct Iberian nations. Carlist uprisings took place in 1839, 1846 and 1872 and all received strong Catalan support. However, the Liberals won all of the Carlist wars and the infanta did become Queen before being forced into exile in 1870, after a reign marked by widespread corruption, political instability and an expansion of the bureocracy. She was replaced by Amadeo I of the Italian House of Savoy  who reigned for 3 years before declaring Spain ungovernable and abdicating.

Amadeo I (1845 – 1890) He abdicted due to political instability brought about by Carlist uprisings in Catalonia and other northern regions which had sparked republican revolts is cities across Spain.

The first republic was formed and lasted all of a year before Isabella’s son, who she had abdicated in favor of in 1874, was elected King by the Cortes. King Alfonso XII’s reign brought a modicum of political and economic stability but he would die aged just 27 after a reign of only 11 years and the throne went to his as yet unborn son. This period from the accession of Alfonso XII to the exile of his son (1874-1931) was known as the restoration. 

The baby would become Alfonso XIII and during his long infancy and reign Catalan nationalism would grow and win its first victories. The Renaixença, or rebirth had begun in the 1850s against the backdrop of general instability of the Carlist wars and had focused on rebuilding and reinforcing the Catalan identity by promoting the Catalan language and culture. The Spanish state had never succeeded in entirely eradicating regional identities and languages and Catalonia  had maintained a particularly strong sense of its political and cultural heritage.

Calls for autonomy and recognition of Catalonia grew and were complemented by strike action. On 18th December 1913 formation of the Commonwealth of Catalonia was approved by the Cortes Generales. It had relatively little autonomy but it was the first time since 1714 that Catalonia was recognised as a single political unit. Moves to expand autonomy followed quickly and by 28th January a ‘Statute of Catalonia’ received approval from the assembly and the people via plebiscite. It was never implemented because a rapidly changing socio – political environment brought about a coup and a dictatorship that opposed regionalism.

Miguel Prima De Rivera, the Marquis of Estella, became Prime Minister in 1923 on the back of a coup promising to end corruption. Under the slogan of ‘country, religion, monarchy’ he ended the turno system under which the main parties alternated in power via rigged elections and proceeded to suspend the constitution, impose martial law and construct a system of strict censorship. The Commonwealth of Catalonia was abolished on the 20th March 1925 and nationalism in the regions of Spain was opposed. The regime in turn fell in 1930 after its failure to revitalise the country lost it the support of the King and politicisation of military appointments lost it the support of the military. De Rivera resigned on the 26th January 1930 and died in Paris a month and a half later.

The King attempted to restore the Turno system but had lost a great deal of prestige as a supporter of the regime. Municipal elections on 12th April 1931 to replace the regimes officials were seen as a referendum between monarchy and republic. Of the 80,472 seats declared monarchists won 19,035 to the abolitionists 39,248. The King suspended the Monarchy on the 14th and went into exile, eventually settling in Rome. However, he did not abdicate and would not renounce his claim to the throne until 15th January 1941, barely six weeks before his death. Republican sentiment ran particularly high in Catalonia where of 8,771 seats, 6,144 were won by abolitionists and 2,172 by royalist candidates. Indicating not only their opposition to the king but also how the politics of Catalonia had shifted from the right to the left.

Originally Catalan nationalism had two major strands. A conservative Roman Catholic one and a liberal secularist wing. The former was initially more prominent and against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars and the chronic instability Spain faced throughout the 19th and 20th centuries made some headway. The development of the middle classes and the growing influence of Marxist and Liberal ideology contrasted against the repression of governments like Miguel Prima De Rivera’s dictatorship and conservative forces lost the upper hand to the left wing by the end of De Rivera’s dictatorship.

The Republic, Franco and Referendums

Establishment of the Second Republic in 1931 brought with it Catalan autonomy through the statute of Autonomy in 1932. This autonomy was threatened by the Spanish Civil war between the Republicans and the Nationalists. The war was sparked in 1936 by the electoral success of a coalition of left wing parties and resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of Spaniards of all colours and creeds. Catalonia would fight fiercely to defend the republic and Barcelona would become the last Capital in 1937 but by 1939 Nationalist forces had taken effective control of the large majority of the country and Barcelona fell on the 26th January. By the 5th March fighting had broken out between rival republican groups in Madrid, the city fell on the 31st and Generalissimo Franco, leader of the Nationalists declared the cessation of hostilities the next day. As Rivera had done before him, Franco ended Catalan autonomy and restricted the use of Catalan. Only Castilian Spanish was allowed and official documents in any other language were considered null and void. Any opposition to his regime was violently suppressed with upwards of 500,000 people killed by the regime, including 5,000 republicans who had fled to France in 1939 and were murdered in Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria.

Franco’s death in 1975 allowed for a return to democracy and constitutional monarchy which brought with it a return to regional government in Catalonia and other areas of Spain. The Statute of Sau was enacted on the 18th September 1979 and reestablished the autonomous community of Catalonia. The goverment of Catalonia, the Generalitat was given wide ranging powers to govern the region with controls over transport, environment, certain economic issues and various areas of culture. It’s remit was expanded in August 2006 following a referendum on 18th June. For the most part Catalans were satisfied with genuine autonomy as a part of Spain and calls for independence were not supprted by many but legal challenges to the expansion of autonomy opened old wounds and have driven seperatist sentiment.

A legal challenge to the 2006 referendum was mounted by a number of Spanish political parties in 2010 and resulted in the 28th June 2010 ruling by the Spanish constitutional court that rewrote 14 articles of the law and dictated the interpretation of a further 27. The rulings restricted Catalonian claims to nationhood and prompted massive demonstrations in Barcelona, with Catalan President Montilla declaring the ruling an attack on “the dignity of Catalans.” The ruling made many Catalans question whether independence was the only surefire way of securing their autonomy and recognition of their nationhood. 

Massive pro independence demonstrations have been a consistent feature of Catalonia’s separation debate.

At the same time as Catalans were smarting from the constitutional ruling Spain was hit hard by the economic crash of 2007-08 and the policy of austerity implemented by the Partido Popular from 2011 onward. The nationalist sentiment was stoked by economic stagnation and massive increase in unemployment. Claims of economic exploitation by Madrid easily fed into the narrative of Catalonia not being a fair partner in Spain and politicians felt confident enough by 2014 to call for an independence referendum. 

Whereas in the UK, Westminster allowed a referendum on independence to be carried out in Scotland, Madrid refused to accept Catalonia’s request, which in part it couldnt due to the Constitution. The referendum was declared illegal by Spain’s constitutional court and instead became a ‘Citizen Participation Process’, much like the one organised online in Veneto in the same year.

The referendum contained two questions; the first asked the voter ‘Do you want Catalonia to become a state?’ and secondly ‘Do you want this state to be Independent?’ The Catalan government announced that 2,305,290 people cast their ballots, roughly 40% of the 5.4 million eligible voters. Of these 2.3 million 1,861,753 voted yes to both questions (80.76%), a further 232,194 (10.07%) supported Catalonia becoming a state but not independent from Spain. The vote was boycotted by supporters of the union because they knew it had no legal basis but 104,760 (4.54%) still turned out to voice their opposition.

Whilst polling would suggest 2014 was the high point of independence sentiment at around 49%, the heavy handed response by Madrid would appear to have generated a strong sympathy vote and boosted desire for independence.

Following the vote the government began a process of preparing for independence that has culminated in the referendum that is causing Spain so much trouble. Again the Spanish government and constitutional court declared the referendum to be illegal but the government of Catalonia pressed ahead regardless and even in the face of extreme police brutality and arrests of many politicians and people involved in preparations millions tuned out to vote.

Whilst the original referendum asked voters two questions the 2017 ballot simply asked voters ‘Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?’ The declared result was with a turnout of 2,262,424 (42.4%) 2,020,144 voted yes (90.09%), 176,565 voted no (7.87%) and 45,586 ballots were left blank (2.03%).


Clearly the declared illegality of the referendum and the violence on the streets encouraged a large number of voters, particularly no voters, to stay away but the strong support to break away is undeniable. The extreme pressure exerted by Madrid through the police forces alone makes the turnout and spread of votes extremely impressive. It would be difficul to argue that the result is a true indicator of public sentiment but regardless the government of Catalonia has declared its intention to honor its pledge to declare independence within 48 hours of a Yes vote.


The government of Catalonia has promise to honor it’s pledge to declare independence within 48 hours of a yes vote. It remains to be seen how Madrid will respond but Prime Minister Rajoy has already declared that a referendum did not take place due to the ruling of the courts.



Catalonia has a very long and very interesting history predating the creation of Spain by centuries, a legacy that the Catalan people have not forgotten. From the moment it was subsumed into a Castilian dominated unitary Spanish state, Catalonia has been a hotbed of political discontent. Catalan Nationalists often like to use the motto ‘Catalonia is not Spain’ and this is very true in a number of ways. They have maintained a distinct linguistic and cultural identity and never lost their desire for recognition. The referendums of recent years were not the beginning of Catalan calls for independence and greater autonomy but potentially the final chapter in a story that has, so far, lasted just over 300 years and has consistently been marked by bloody violence and repression.

It is easy to forget that the majority of the largest European states were created through the conquest of smaller states and weaker peoples, sometimes through treaty but more often by conquest. Some of these states and peoples loose their identities and are peaceably integrated, others exist as autonomous regions, some retain distinct identities and a few regain their independence, often centuries later. There is no particular reason why France, Spain, Italy. the UK or any other state should be immune from secessionist movements in a way that the USSR or Sudan have proven not to be. The same rules apply to countries equally and whilst the way forward for Spain and Catalonia is unclear it is certain that the Catalans will not be letting go of their desire for nationhood any time soon. We can but hope and pray that the violence that is so often a characteristic of the fight for independence and recognition of identity can avoided in Catalonia.

Is often overlooked how moveable nternational borders are and how unstable they can be. The world’s newest Country, South Sudan was created in 2011 and many other proxy states operate without international recognition.


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