Catalonia’s intractable separatist conundrum

The Catalonia crisis in Spain drags on, with the population in the region split over the question of independence. And while Madrid officially opposes secession, the current national government relies on the votes of separatist parties to maintain power.

Catalan President Jordi Pujol and Carl Zeiss CEO Lothar Spaeth
Jordi Pujol (L) visits with Lothar Spaeth, CEO of Jenoptik Carl Zeiss, 1991. During his 23 years as president of Catalonia, Mr. Pujol focused on building a Catalan national identity through emphasizing the Catalan language. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • The Catalan independence movement has a long history
  • The most recent crisis remains at a stalemate
  • It will be difficult to find a way to increase Catalonia’s autonomy

The independence movements within Spain are not an isolated phenomenon in Europe. Going back to the end of the Cold War, identity crises have arisen in places like the United Kingdom (Scottish separatism) and Italy (the original Northern League party and its separatist rhetoric) or post-Tito Yugoslavia (now several individual countries). It was a kind of new Spring of Nations for regions that wanted to cut ties with the larger states to which they belonged. Unlike Scotland and many Italian regions, however, Catalonia has never been an independent entity.

The Catalan independence movement is fragmented: a significant number of Catalan citizens would prefer that their home remain part of Spain. Another factor to consider is the Spanish Constitution, which does not condone secession, much less of a culturally and economically critical region like Catalonia.


Facts & figures

Catalan nationalism

Catalan nationalism – a drive for a Catalan state independent of the Kingdom of Spain – is a phenomenon with deep historical roots. Support for independence among the Catalan population, however, has varied greatly over time, especially since the late 19th century. Those nationalist aspirations have also grown stronger or weaker depending on the politics in Madrid.

Spain, as a united entity, dates back to the marriage of Fernando II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile in the mid-15th century. The unification process was completed in 1521 with the annexation of Navarre.

Contemporary beginnings

The first steps toward secession came following the Spanish Disaster of 1898 (the Spanish-American War and Spain’s subsequent loss of many of its overseas territories). The movement gained momentum in 1922 when Francesc Macia (1859-1933) founded the Estat Catala political party. With the rise of the Second Spanish Republic, his new party, the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC by its initials in Catalan), won local elections. He became president of the Generalitat of Catalonia, an autonomous entity within the Spanish Republic.

Lluis Companys succeeded Macia as president of the Generalitat. In 1934, Catalonia’s autonomy was suspended after the region rebelled against the center-right government of Alejandro Lerroux. Autonomy was briefly regained during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). With the victory of General Francisco Franco, Catalan separatism was abolished and Companys executed for his alleged war crimes.

The 1978 constitution allows for regions to gain significant autonomy.

The desire for independence declined substantially during Franco’s authoritarian regime. After his death in 1975, Spain made the transition to a constitutional monarchy. The current constitution was approved in a referendum in 1978. In Catalonia, more than 90 percent of voters cast their ballots in favor of its adoption. Radical groups such as the ERC had opposed it.

Spain has a long history of secessionist movements, not only in Catalonia, but also in the Basque Country and Galicia. The 1978 constitution declares “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation,” but does allow for a system in which regions can gain significant autonomy. Such a regime was implemented, and Catalonia’s Generalitat recovered its authority under the presidency of Josep Tarradellas.

The results were mixed. Such a substantial concession of power to the regions effectively quieted talk of separatism and reduced violent terrorist activity. However, the regional governments were able to institute policies that emphasized local “nationhood.”


Facts & figures

A map of Catalonia in Spain
Catalonia accounts for about 16 percent of Spain’s population and about 20 percent of its gross domestic product. © macpixxel for GIS

Enter Pujol

Jordi Pujol, leader of the nationalist Convergence and Union (Convergencia i Unio, CiU) coalition, was elected president of the Generalitat in 1980 after his party won the regional elections. The CiU initially defended the concept of Catalonia as a nation within Spain. In the 1984 election, it won an absolute majority of seats in the Catalan parliament and maintained control over it for the next two decades.

Mr. Pujol ruled Catalonia for 23 years. During this time he implemented a policy of “Catalanizing” the public administration and focused on building the pillars for Catalan independence. The CiU, using its absolute majority in the regional parliament and its control of the regional government, resorted to two key tools: language and education.

Catalan became the primary language for instruction in Catalonia. The more than 14,000 teachers who were unable to give instruction in that tongue were purged. At the same time, Mr. Pujol crafted a historical narrative in which Madrid was Catalonia’s primary enemy, responsible for the region’s woes.

President Pujol became the hero of Catalonia nationalism. He played cat and mouse with Madrid, negotiating support for majorities in the Spanish parliament as a trade-off for more power for Barcelona.

In 2003, a left-wing coalition gained power. A new Statute of Autonomy was drafted and in 2006, it was approved in a referendum by a vast majority of Catalans. Spain’s national government refused to recognize the legislation, however, and appealed to the Spanish High Court of Justice to resolve the impasse. After several years of discussions, the court rejected the statute as unconstitutional.

Second crisis

That prohibition reopened the second Catalan crisis and paved the way for greater radicalization. This new phase of the nationalist process pitted Catalonia directly against Madrid.

In September 2013, the “Catalan Way” was formed: a human chain comprising about 1.6 million people across some 400 kilometers of the region. A nonbinding “self-determination” referendum was held on November 9, 2014. More than 80 percent of those who voted supported Catalonia becoming an independent state, but the turnout was less than half of the registered voters.

For now, all the parties seem unready to negotiate, and a stalemate remains in place.

In January 2016, Carles Puigdemont took office as president of the Generalitat. During his swearing-in, he refused to pledge loyalty to the king or the Spanish constitution. The escalation continued, with Mr. Puigdemont announcing another referendum for October 1, 2017.

The Madrid government, headed by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the center-right People’s Party (PP), ordered the police and the Civil Guard to intervene. Violence followed. Some 43 percent of registered voters participated in the referendum, with 90 percent of those casting their ballots for independence.

On October 27, the Catalan parliament ratified a document establishing Catalonia as an independent republic. In response, Madrid suspended Catalonia’s local home rule. New elections were held in December 2017. Even though the three pro-independence parties won a slim majority together, they had no way to overcome the obstacles to secession.

The situation remains critical. For their responsibility in the illegal referendum, several high-ranking pro-independence politicians were arrested and sentenced to between nine and 13 years in jail. Multiple demonstrations followed, but the National Police and Catalonia’s autonomous police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, suppressed them.

Now the situation seems to be in a deadlock, as the Catalan separatist parties – the ERC, Together for Catalonia, (Junts per Catalunya, or JxCat, the former CiU) and the radical Popular Unity Candidacy (Candidatura d’Unitat Popular, CUP) – want full independence. On the other side, Spain’s main national parties – the PP, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), Citizens (Ciudadanos) and Vox – oppose independence. The far-left United We Can (Unidas Podemos) party favors another referendum but has not yet clarified whether it would support Catalonian secession.

For now, all of these parties seem unready to negotiate, and a stalemate remains in place.

National question

All this is unfolding in a European Union member state. Until now, Spain appeared to have made a successful transition from an authoritarian regime to a constitutional monarchy. Catalonia has about 7.5 million inhabitants, 16 percent of the total Spanish population, and accounts for about 20 percent of Spain’s gross domestic product (GDP).

The Catalonia separatist crisis has become the central issue of Spanish politics.

The Catalonia separatist crisis has become the central issue of Spanish politics. The new government of socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and his coalition partner Second Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias, (a Marxist and leader of the Podemos party) was confirmed in January 2020 after several weeks of negotiations. The government won parliamentary support by a thin margin: 167 votes for, 165 against and 18 abstentions. The abstentions came from the ERC, which now has the fate of the left-wing coalition in its hands.

On the other side of the political divide is the new nationalist right-wing party, Vox, which has become the third-largest party in the Spanish parliament (52 of the 350 seats) since its founding in 2013. It has gained traction largely due to its firm opposition to Catalan separatism, which contrasts with what many Spanish consider a soft stance from the traditional conservative party, the PP.

The Catalan issue has therefore become a national question for Spain upon which much of the country’s politics in the near term will depend.



The Sanchez government now relies on separatist groups from the Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia for support. The moderates within these groups vote with the PSOE-Podemos coalition, while the more extremist elements, such as those in the ERC and Euskal Herria Bildu (the Basque pro-independence party) prefer to abstain.

Prime Minister Sanchez must therefore perform a very tricky balancing act. Some pro-independence politicians have given him their support on the expectation of further negotiations and the release of what Catalan separatists consider political prisoners. However, a moment will come when both sides will have to articulate their stance more clearly.

Many Catalan citizens consider themselves Spaniards and want to remain Spanish. About an equal number want independence. So what comes next?

The military and security forces have contingency plans to deal with the possibility of another attempt at secession. The plans include a blockade of the Port of Barcelona and denying flights to and from Barcelona-El Prat Airport.

A more optimistic scenario would see the creation of a formula for substantial decentralization without independence that could save face for both sides. Finding such a recipe is complicated: Catalonia already has significant autonomy – extending it any further could mean de facto independence for the region.

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