Catalonia’s Resurgent Independence Movement (9/24)     Print Email

By Owen Phelps, European Affairs Editorial Assistant

While Catalonia’s zeal for independence from Spain was temporarily sated last year after an unofficial referendum was called on the Catalan National Day in 2014, the ante has been raised higher recently, as independence leader Artur Mas has declared that the results of the Catalonian Parliamentary election this month (September 27) will serve as a vote on whether or not Catalonia will become its own state.

Artur Mas has claimed that a win for his party, Junts pel Si (Together for Yes) and allied parties will begin a process of an 18-month independence plan. Even though the Spanish Supreme Court has outlawed territorial secession as “unconstitutional,” Mas has boldly declared that the regional elections will serve as the “official” referendum in lieu of an “in or out” vote: “There won’t be a declaration of independence, but the start of a process of dialogue…” Some believe that the aim of Catalonia’s separatist movement is not to garner total independence, but to secure further concessions from Spain over greater control of tax subsidies, and monetary policies.

The financial firm Credit Suisse has posited that, regardless of the vote, Catalonia will shy away from full independence, citing recent polls showing that support for independence has dwindled from 50% to 40% in two years. Still, Artur Mas’s party is expected to secure 63 – 67 seats in the Catalonian parliament, though needing 68 in order to form an absolute majority. Other pro-separatists parties allied with Mas are expected to tip the balance in favor of independence, with the radical CUP (Popular Unity Candidacy) making up the difference. Together, the pro-independence coalition is expected to take 72 seats in the 135-seat Catalonian parliament.[i]

The issue of Catalonian independence is a richly complex puzzle, steeped with economic grievances, and historical malaise towards Castile (Spain’s center of power). One of the most egregious issues is that Catalonia feels unfairly burdened by Spain’s beleaguered economy - while receiving much less in return.[ii] Tax records tend to support the pro-independence claims. In 2010, the Catalans provided Spanish coffers with 61.87 billion Euros in tax revenue, while receiving only 45.33 billion Euros in return. Independence leaders have also asserted that 8% of Catalonia’s GDP is funneled to Madrid. To compound the matter, the Spanish government’s policy of austerity has been deeply unpopular among Catalans, and further evidence of Spain’s flagging economy. At the height of Spain’s recession, Catalonia saw its economy shrink by 0.8%, while the Spanish national economy contracted by 1.2%. Unemployment among the regions of Spain (25% nationally) were the lowest in Catalonia, which reached 20% during the Euro crisis. Catalonia boasts a per capita GDP of €26,666 (19.7% higher than the national average).[iii]

Yet economics is not the only driving force behind Catalonia’s push for secession. The turbulent history that binds the two regions is an important factor. As a region in the kingdom of Aragon during the medieval period, Catalonia was pulled into the Spanish orbit via the marriage between King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile in 1469. Initially as part of Spain, the Catalans enjoyed significant autonomy to preserve its treasured language, culture, and traditions.

However, as time passed the economic, military, and political power of Spain began to gravitate towards Castile. Bitter over losing their equal footing with the Castilians, Catalonia began a revolt which culminated into “The Reaper’s War” where Catalonia attempted to establish itself as an independent Republic. Relations further deteriorated when Catalonia backed the losing Habsburg side during the War of Spanish Succession, and Barcelona was conquered by the Castilians in 1714. After the war was concluded, the victorious king Philip V suppressed Catalonia’s political institutions. The Catalan language – a pillar of Catalonian identity – was banned. Fractures between Spain and Catalonia were further deepened under the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, who took control of Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War, and repressed many Catalonian institutions.

Yet despite their turbulent history, recent relations between Catalonia and Madrid have been rather positive. Enjoying a high degree of autonomy and self-government, the Parliament of Catalonia is able to draft new legislation, pass laws, implement public policy, and approve of budgets.

If Catalonia should declare and secure independence, it faces numerous obstacles: Artur Mas has claimed that Catalonia will be eligible for EU accession, and that the nascent nation may be able to find a stable currency in the Euro. However, gaining membership to the EU may be far more difficult than Mas anticipates, not least because of Spain’s expected opposition. But tough opposition may also come from Belgium, and Great Britain – each of which has its own secessionist movements. As UK Prime Minister David Cameron warned recently, if Catalonia were to vote for independence, it would be at the back of the list for EU accession: “If one part of a state secedes from that state, it is no longer part of the European Union and has to take its place at the back of the queue, behind those other countries applying to become members of the EU.”[iv]

Furthermore, Spanish and Catalan relations could also sour, impelling Spain to exact high tariffs on Catalan goods, thus blocking Catalonia from a convenient and important trade partner. The questionable legality of Catalonia’s independence could scare away investors and businesses, and may cause companies to stay clear from Catalonia if conducting business in the region comes at the expense of business within the remainder of Spain.

Spain is no stranger to ethnic squabbles, but the challenge of Catalonian independence poses a considerable risk to the Spanish government. Despite its small size, and modest population of 7.5 million, Catalonia boasts an economy on par with Portugal, accounting for 18.8% of Spain’s economic output (higher than that of Madrid’s 17.6%) The loss of this economic powerhouse would be a crippling blow to the country, which is just edging out from a long period of economic downturn. Worse still, Madrid would have to scramble to redistribute its debt of 836 billion Euros across a smaller, poorer population, and would have to negotiate with the Catalan government as to who owes how much of the burden.


[i] “Catalan independence: Voters head to polls in ‘de facto referendum’ on seceding from Spain,” The Independent, September 22nd, 2015.

[ii]“Catalan independence parties look set to win most seats in election,”The, September 7th, 2015.

[iii] “Labour Market Information: Spain – Catalonia,” The European Job Mobility Portal,

[iv]“Britain’s Cameron: Independent Catalonia would be out of EU,”Yahoo News, September 4th, 2015,