• Anya

The Catalan Protests: Part One

Updated: Apr 26, 2020

On October 1st, 2017, an historic independence referendum took place in Catalonia. This referendum, while technically illegal, was the catalyst for a series of independence-related events that lead to the present day.



Catalonia, whose capital is Barcelona, is a relatively large region within Spain that accounts for 16% of Spain’s total population, but 19% or nearly one-fifth, of Spain’s total GDP. Similar to Quebec in Canada or Scotland in Great Britain, Catalonia has its own culture, set of beliefs, and language. These collectively contribute to Catalonia’s identity.

From 1939 to 1975, General Francisco Franco took over as dictator of Spain, during which time the Catalan language was banned in public and the government of Catalonia was suspended. While supposedly in an attempt to promote unity and nationalism, these actions unjustly suppressed an identity which caused much animosity towards the government. Once General Franco died, Spain became a democracy and Catalonia was declared an autonomous region of Spain. In 1978, the now current Spanish Constitution was made official. In it, it called for the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation” .



Since 1978, Catalans have enjoyed a high degree of autonomy and have been able to express their own culture and language. Sentiments towards independence remained low until the 2008 global financial crisis where unemployment rates rose, and economies around the world fell in a recession. Another reason for growing independence sentiments was when “reforms aimed at increasing sovereignty in Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy, its equivalent of a constitution”, were cut down. All of this led to 2017 when an independence referendum was announced by Carles Puigdemnot, the leader of Catalonia at that time. However, this referendum was illegal as it went completely against the promotion of unity in Spain as stated in the Constitution. This led the central government in Spain to ban the referendum from taking place. This denial of a vote to Catalans, further angered supporters of independence and as a result more support for the independence movement was gained.

Researchers, Nafees Hamid and Clara Pretus of Artis International, conducted a study of “the underlying psychology of the Catalan independence movement to better understand what could strengthen or weaken it”. They found that the sacred values (values that some people would die for) of the Catalan independence movement were “the right to vote for independence and the protection of Catalan identity” . This is why the denial of a vote actually had an adverse effect on the central government as it strengthened the independence movement, which it wanted to weaken. This is also why the researchers as well as others, criticize the Spanish government for declaring the referendum illegal for ultimately making Catalans feel a reduced sense of voice in the affairs of Catalonia.

On October 1st, 2017, the day of the independence referendum, people went to the polling stations anyway, only to find police sent by the central government in Madrid, blocking them. This provoked violence from citizens and police. In the end, the voter turnout was about 43%, of which 90% were in favour of independence . This can be further analyzed to note that the silent majority of Catalans did not vote. Also, it is most likely that people who did vote were people who had chosen who they were going to vote for. As well, they probably felt a strong way towards independence, as it was an independence referendum. Lastly, they had to be willing to push through the police. It is important to question the result of this vote as it only represents a portion of Catalans.



Nine days after this illegal referendum took place, on October 10th 2017, the Catalan government declared independence from Spain. Miquel Iceta, leader of the Catalan Socialist Party, mentioned that only two-fifths of the parliament voted in favour of independence stating that, “a minority cannot impose itself on a majority” . However, Carles Puigdemont remained firm that all they wanted was a “scottish-style referendum where both views were able to put their view forward” even if everyone voted against independence. After formally declaring an illegal independence from Spain, crowds formed in rallies of support and happiness outside parliament. As crowds shouted chants in support of the actions of parliament, there were also those who showed dismay at their actions, one man calling it “the result of an extended manipulation which does not reflect the will of the Catalan people”.

As a result of this “Declaration of Independence”, the central government in Madrid gave Puigdemont a deadline to state their intentions with more clarity. After failing to meet that deadline, Madrid imposed direct rule over Catalonia - an unprecedented step in recent Spanish history. Eager to protect the Spanish Constitution of “indissoluble unity”, the central government put nine independence/separatist leaders to jail, awaiting trial. Carles Puigdemont, as well as some others, quickly fled to Belgium in an attempt to escape jail time.

The European Union as well as most countries around the world did not recognize the new independent state of Catalonia. The EU and other countries side with Spain due to the economic advantages, but also because there are other separatist movements in Europe and if Catalonia was to be acknowledged, then that would mean the EU would have to acknowledge other states.



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