Spain's Smoldering Separatists

By | Updated July 28, 2017 11:07 PM UTC

Spain is still fighting a battle that tore it apart more than three centuries ago. The wealthy northeast region of Catalonia is once again agitating for independence, citing grievances that go back to the War of Succession. Decades of political and legal fights to win recognition for their distinct traditions and language have left many Catalans infuriated. The separatists want to create a new country, which would have an economy the size of Finland or Portugal. The standoff is straining the bonds that have held Spain together for more than 500 years. It’s also fueling a debate about whether the dismantling of older nations is a logical evolution of the European Union.

The Situation

Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia's regional president, has pledged to hold a binding independence referendum Oct 1. in a fresh attempt to push the secession movement forward after six years of demonstrations. Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy says the plan is unconstitutional and has blocked the region’s efforts to hold a vote. Since he took office in 2011, Rajoy has been embroiled in persistent clashes with Catalan separatists, who have sought to foment a backlash against control from Madrid by arguing their region gets a raw deal from the Spanish tax system. Rajoy is seeking support from his traditional rivals, the Socialists, as well as liberals from Ciudadanos for a common stance to counter the latest Catalan challenge. The tug of war has periodically rattled the market for Spanish and Catalan government bonds, as the region has 16 percent of Spain’s population, or 7.5 million people, and makes up a fifth of its economy.

Source: Spain's National Statistics Institute

The Background

The problem was there from the start. The marriage of Fernando of Aragon to Isabel of Castille in 1469 brought together two kingdoms that formed modern Spain. After the last Hapsburg king died in 1700, wealthy families around Barcelona opposed the French candidate to rule. Their defeat brought King Felipe V to the throne and consolidated power in Madrid, fueling an enmity that has smoldered ever since. Catalonia unilaterally declared independence from a chaotic Spain in 1934, though the breakaway lasted less than a day because Spanish forces bombed the regional government’s offices. After the civil war ended in 1939, dictator Francisco Franco banned the Catalan language. The region won back control of its health, education and language policies after Franco’s death in 1975, although it didn’t get the tax-raising power awarded to the Basque Country, where terror group ETA has killed more than 800 people during its own four-decade campaign for independence. Catalonia was given more powers in a 2006 law that included references to the region as a separate “nation” and guaranteed its share of public investment. When parts of that were struck down in 2010, many Catalans began to ask whether their future lay outside of Spain. They were encouraged by nationalists in Scotland, who fought and lost a referendum on independence from the U.K. in 2014. The votes have emboldened other separatists from places like Flanders and Venice, where smaller nationalist groups aspire to dismantle European states forged in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Argument

Politicians are persistently using history to stir up rancor. Spanish nationalists argue that Catalonia has always been part of Spain, while Catalans trace their independent identity back to the 13th century. The country’s 1978 constitution doesn’t allow any region to vote alone on independence: Either all of Spain votes on the Catalan question, or no one does.  All the main political groups are considering some form of constitutional re-think as the basis for a settlement. It’s unclear what the consequences would be if Catalonia pushed ahead with independence. European Union leaders have warned that it could be excluded from the bloc and cut off from using the euro as its currency. Spanish banks have threatened to leave the region and the head of the country’s national soccer league says Barcelona’s team could be kicked out if Catalonia breaks away.

The Reference Shelf

  • Bloomberg News published five charts showing the economic impact of Catalan independence.
  • “Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past,” a book by Giles Tremlett.
  • Official English translation of Spain’s 1978 constitution.
  • Catalan government’s website and the Spanish government’s website.
  • Bloomberg News QuickTake on Scotland’s independence bid.

First published Oct. 14, 2014

To contact the writers of this QuickTake:
Ben Sills in Madrid at
Esteban Duarte in Madrid at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Leah Harrison at