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History of Catalonia's Conflict with Spain

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Published: 4th Nov 2020 in International Relations

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Those that are unfamiliar with the Catalan independence movement believe that it is recent, but Catalans have been fighting for independence for centuries. The roots of the modern Catalan independence date hundreds of years back to when the region was called the County of Barcelona. Today, the people who support the Catalan independence movement are trying to split away from Spain and declare the region the Republic of Catalonia. The height of this decadelong building conflict occurred October 1st, with the efforts to keep the conflict peaceful continuing to this day. The independence movement today is one that is largely built on a Catalan identity and the perception that an independent Catalonia would benefit the economy of the region.

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The roots of the modern conflict between the Catalonia and Spain comes from a historical independent Catalonia. The borders between Catalonia and the its neighbors have changed drastically since its use as buffer zone by the Carolingian dynasty to hold back the Moors to today as an autonomous region of Spain. The region that is now called Catalonia has its origins as a vassal of the Carolingian dynasty that became mostly independent after Guifré el Pilós united several feudalistic regions of Barcelona. (Sabaté, 2016) The area that was united was called the County of Barcelona but remained unrecognized as a separate country by the Carolingian dynasty. (Sabaté, 2016) This new independent region of continued to grow economically and slowly incorporating nearby cities of Girona and Osona during the 10th century (Sabaté, 2016) As can be seen on in the top left corner of Figure 1, the County of Barcelona included territory that was over the Pyrenees and in modern day French territory. This de facto independent County of Barcelona became the Principality of Catalonia which became united with the Kingdom of Aragon through a marriage of families (Sabaté, 2016).

Figure 1 (Sheperd, 1911)

The Kingdom of Aragon continued its expansion, but forcefully by taking the Valencia and the Balearic Islands as can be seen in the bottom right corner of the Figure 1 (“King of Aragon”, 2019) The Kingdom of Aragon became fully independent after King Louis IX of France signed the Treaty of Corbeil in 1258, which gave legitimacy to the Kingdom of Aragon because King Louis gave up claims to land in Catalonia in exchange for giving the Kingdom of Aragon giving up claims to land in Southern France. (“King of Aragon”, 2019) The marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 united the Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile and formed what is thought of today as Spain. (Alcoberro, 2009) Throughout the Kingdom of Aragon and the creation of Spain, Catalonia always had an aspect of independence of governments. Catalonia had a full legislative body, its own judicial body, and financial rights of its General Court. (Alcoberro, 2009) It kept this independence from the rest of Spain until the War of the Reapers when Catalonia rebelled against Spain during a war between Spain and France. (Ranum, 1965) Spain required Catalonia to give men and money for the war but they refused. This might have been partially because the identity of Catalans is more closely aligned with France or it was purely a strategic move by Catalonia with the thought that France would win the war. Either way, the results of this decisions were that Spanish troops were placed in Barcelona and King Philip took control of important military points in Catalonia. (Ranum, 1965) The Treaty of the Pyrenees ended the war as well as give Catalan land past the Pyrenees to France.

The next great loss of autonomy for Catalonia occurred after the War of Spanish Succession. Catalonia sided with Archduke Charles against Philip V of Spain and the city of Barcelona was besieged by Philip V for 14 moths until the city surrendered on September 11th. (Alcoberro, 2009) The one of the results of not siding with Philip V was the Nueva Planta Decree which took away all the rights the government of Catalonia had before and declared that the monarchy of Spain had full control of the region. (Alcoberro, 2009) In 1931, Catalonia tried to get its autonomous rights back by declaring itself a republic but any hopes for autonomy were shut down when the civil war started in 1936. (Vallverdu) After Fransico Franco took power, Catalan culture, language and autonomy were heavily repressed. When the Franco regime ended it was decided that Catalonia should have autonomy. After much debate between Catalan leaders and the government of Spain a statute of autonomy was agreed to in 1979. It gave Catalonia the power to have a Generalitat that can self-regulate, enact laws that deal with tourism, welfare, transportation amongst other things. The Generalitat and the State both had power over social security, education and the state retained exclusive powers over defense, international relations and immigration. (Edwards, 1999) One crucial aspect of this Statute was that it declared Catalan as a nationality. (Generalitat de Catalunya, 2014) This helped to give Catalans legitimacy in their desire for a nation and a historical reason why they deserve autonomy.

The long history of Catalonia helps to explain the deep roots behind the modern independence movement. Many cultural identifying Catalans think of their region as one that had been historically independent before 1714 and it deserves the independence that it had before that. The historical independence of Catalonia expresses itself in many ways, with Catalan identity being a large aspect of support for independence. Catalan people who identity as only Catalan prefer independence 74% of the time while those who identify as equally Spanish and Catalan want independence under 20% of the time (Boylan, 2005). The roots of the conflict between Catalonia and Spain is a product of not only cultural differences between the two but also economic frustrations from people in Catalonia. The economic frustrations come from the effects of the global recession in 2008 and the taxation policy of Spain. Catalonia can tax property transaction, electricity and other small things while the Spain taxes corporations, insurance and customs. (Boylan, 2005) The Spanish government’s tax revenue receives 19% of it from Catalonia and allocates 14% back to Catalonia. (Boylan, 2005) As well, the Catalan economy has a very high debt to GDP ratio, in 2007 it was 8% and by 2012 it has increased to around 25%. (Boylan, 2005) Research done by Boylan has found that the economic frustrations between Catalonia and Spain do have an impact on support for independence.  Understanding that the economic struggles of the region helps to explain why since the recession of 2008 support for independence has increased greatly. 

The modern durable peace period of the conflict on the independence of Catalonia occurred since its statute of autonomy in 1979 but around 2006, the durable peace period started to develop into a period of stable peace. In February of 2004, leaders in Catalonia decided that a new statute of autonomy that gave more rights to the Generalitat de Catalunya should be implemented.  (Colino, 2009) In 2005, a draft of the new statute of autonomy was being argued in Catalan parliament with language describing Catalonia as being a nation, and more rights autonomous rights being given to the government of Catalonia. In response to keep this potentially unconstitutional statute from being passed through, the central government of Spain offered Catalonia a higher percentage of the tax revenue if the statute would reduce the amount of powers given to the government of Catalonia. Although the deal offered by the government of Spain was rejected, a statute that was agreed to by both the Catalan Parliament and the Spanish Parliament was agreed on. The statute contained language in the preamble that suggested Catalonia was a nation, while the statute of 1979 suggested Catalan was only a nationality. (Generalitat de Catalunya, 2014) As well, article six of the statute states that “Catalonia's own language is Catalan. As such, Catalan is the language of normal and preferential use in Public Administration bodies and in the public media of Catalonia and is also the language of normal use for teaching and learning in the education system.” (Generalitat de Catalunya, 2014) The financial changes in the statute gave Catalonia more revenue from central taxes and the central government will invest more money in infrastructure projects in Catalonia. (Colino, 2009) This new statute passed the Catalan parliament and the Spanish parliament March 2006. In order for it to pass, referendum was held to determine if the people of Catalonia wanted the new statute and 74% of the population voted that they wanted it. (Kolçak, 2017) After getting passed with widespread support the Popular Party contested the statute with the Constitutional Court. (Calamur, 2017) In 2010 the court came to a decision finding that the Statute was unconstitutional for various reasons. The Constitutional Court had specific problems with the inclusion that Catalan is the native language of Catalonia, because it would suggest that Catalan is not equal to Spanish which violates the constitution. (Spanish Constituional Court, 2010) As well, the court determined the statute to be illegal because it defined Catalonia as a nation, the ability of the Government of Catalonia to create local taxes as well as others. (Kolçak, 2017)

The rejected of this statute of autonomy produced an escalation from stable peace to unstable peace when over one million people in Barcelona protested in the streets and tensions between leaders was high. The Convergence and Union party saw this massive support of increased Catalan autonomy as a way gain more political power as the party leans towards Catalan nationalism. The party saw that Catalan identity was a large factor in wanting independence but by also claiming the bad economy was due to Catalonia being a part of Spain would bring in not Catalan identifying people to support independence. The party largely spread its information about how the Catalan economy would benefit if it had full fiscal autonomy. (Kolçak, 2017) The elections in November of 2010, resulted in the Convergence and Union party winning 62 of the 135 seats. The leader of the Convergence and Union party, Artur Mas tried negotiating for full fiscal independence but the talks with Mariano Rajoy got nowhere. Protests for independence of the region continued and the party switched from a focus on fiscal autonomy to a full independence from Spain. (Kolçak, 2017) Figure 2 highlights the growing desire of complete independence from Spain. The new majority of independence supporters in the parliament tried to hold a referendum on independence but were blocked by the Spanish courts, so instead they held a non-binding referendum on support for independence. (Kolçak, 2017) The results were 80.8% percent in support of secession. (Kolçak, 2017) The issue of independence was continuing to slowly escalate with pro-independence parties gaining more support.

 Figure 2, (Kolcak, 2017)

The support for secession continued into the snap elections of 2015 where, after the Convergence and Union party dissolved, a coalition of independence supporters called Together for Yes won a majority of parliament. (Kolçak, 2017) The winning of the coalition was the Catalan people showing that the majority were in favor of independence from Spain. This new coalition of secessionists passed a motion that contained plans for independence such as creating government institutions, a constitution and not being subjecting to rulings from the Spanish courts. (Badcock, 2015) The relationship between leaders in Catalonia and leaders in Spain became threatening when the Constitutional Court of Spain declared the motion unconstitutional and threatened criminal charges against those who do not follow court rulings. (Kolçak, 2017) These escalations of tensions between the government of Catalonia leaders and the central government of Spain highlight the unstable peace that existed between the two. To improve talks of independence, Carles Puigdemont was chosen as Catalan president in 2016. (Kolçak, 2017) His strategy for independence was to arrange an independent Catalonia that Spain agreed with. Part of this negotiation strategy was Catalonia creating a Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was determined illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court, but the ministry was never stopped. (Kolçak, 2017) In order to show the world, that the secession from Spain and the creation of a Catalan republic was the will of the people, leaders in the Catalan government decided to hold a legally binding vote on secession from Spain.

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This legally binding vote led to the height of the curve of conflict, with the October referendum resulting into a slight crisis. Before the vote took place, the Constitutional Court of Spain declared it needed to be suspended and could not continue. (Muro, 2018) The Spanish government took steps to prevent the referendum from happening by sending police to confiscate ballot boxes to prevent the vote. (Dowsett, 2017) This highlighted the seriousness of the situation because now the central government was using physical force to prevent the secession of Catalonia. This use of physical force was only increased on October 1, when the vote took place. The Spanish government sent national police to enforce the Constitutional Court decision that the referendum could not take place. (Muro, 2018) This resulted in hundreds of voters getting assaulted by the national police. Over 2.3 million voters were able to cast their ballots of the referendum though, with 92% voting for independence but it was protested by anti-secessionists and received only 42% of voters. (Muro, 2018) After the referendum, Puigdemont declared Catalonia to be independent from Spain and the Catalan parliament declared independence as well on October 27, 2017. (Muro, 2018) The use of force by Spain highlighted a major difference in the power between Spain and Catalonia. Catalonia has no military force that could enforce its declaration of independence.

Secondary actors such as France, did not recognize the declaration of independence as legitimate. (Marlowe, 2017) This is because it would set an example to the Frances own regions that have independence movements like the island of Corsica and Breton that if a referendum shows the public prefers independence, they are allowed independence. Other actors have interest in it for the same reason but because they are more geographically distant. For instance, Serbia heavily supported Spain with this conflict, because of the current conflict between Serbia and Kosovo. On the other hand, regions that are autonomous supported Catalonia. The Consiglio regionale della Sardegna (regional council of Sardinia) supported Catalonia declaring independence, perhaps both because of a large segment of its population supporting independence for itself but also a strong presence of the Catalan language on the island. (Catalogna: odg Consiglio, 2017)

After the referendum, the peace enforcement part of the curve of conflict was started. The goal of the Spanish government was to keep Catalonia as part of Spain. One response to the declaration of an independent Catalan state, was that the Spanish parliament invoked section 155 of the Spanish Constitution which states that “If a Self-governing Community does not fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the Constitution or other laws, or acts in a way that is seriously prejudicial to the general interest of Spain, the Government, after having lodged a complaint with the President of the Self-governing Community and failed to receive satisfaction therefore, may, following approval granted by the overall majority of the Senate, take all measures necessary to compel the Community to meet said obligations, or to protect the abovementioned general interest.” (Art 155, CE)

The merger of the crowns, sealed with the marriage of Ferdinand II of Catalonia and Aragon to Isabel I of Castile in 1469, preserved the political and institutional sovereignty of the kingdoms. Only foreign affairs (diplomacy and/or warfare) came to depend on the higher instance, which the other Courts labelled the Spanish or Catholic monarchy. As several authors have pointed out, the merger of the crowns followed the Catalan-Aragonese model of confederation, as opposed to the Castilian version, which pursued a more standardising, assimilating model.1 This was coupled with the essentially pactist Catalan Aragonese political model, in contrast to the fundamentally authoritarian model of the Castilian government.

Thus, the constitutional regime deployed successively in Catalonia until 1714 included such guarantees as the full legislative and fiscal sovereignty of the General Court or Parliament; judicial sovereignty expressed through the Audiencia (or Tribunal) of Catalonia; and the existence of an arbitrating institution, the Tribunal de Contrafaccions or Constitutional Tribunal, whose composition was equally divided between the king and the local institutions “of the land”. This tribunal resolved institutional conflicts, claims against actions by the authorities deemed unconstitutional and other similar grievances. These institutions and the legal practices derived from them were grounded on a longstanding juridical-political literature which had yielded fully consolidated political values, the most important of which were the characterisation of sovereignty as a pact between the king and “the land” (pactism); the supremacy of the law, to which govern

Prime Minister Rajoy took full usage of this article and revoked all Catalan autonomy, dissolved the Generalitat de Catalunya and declared that a vote to reelect officials would be held in December. (Muro, 2018) As well, the central government tried enforcing the peace by arresting 12 independence leaders and putting out an arrest warrant for Carles Puigdemont who had fled Catalonia. (Minder, 2019) The results of the December 2017 election showed that for now, Spain’s effort to curtail the independence movement had not succeeded with secessionist parties winning a slight majority of the seats, but the anti-secessionist parties won a majority of the vote. (Dewan, 2017) After the elections, Rajoy gave back the autonomous powers to Catalonia from the 1979 statute of autonomy. (Jones, 2019) This marks the continuation of the unstable peace, although with a continued support for independence, and no change in autonomy, it begs the questions of how long that unstable peace will last.

Although the current situation is in the peacekeeping mode, support for Catalan independence remains high in the people in Catalonia and there is always the possibility for tensions to escalate between Spain and Catalonia again. The relationship between independence leaders and the government of Spain is hostile after the arrests of other independence leaders. European countries will continue to watch the conflict in Catalonia closely because of its implications for their own regions and the future precedents it could set for Europe. Without any tentative plans for the future of Catalonia, and the peace enforcement actions of arresting independence leaders only stoking support of independence, the conflict in Catalonia has a high probability to repeat itself on the curve of conflict.

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