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Separatism and Conflict in Catalonia

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 6988 words Published: 26th Feb 2019

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The following research paper focuses on Catalonia’s desire for Independence. The study was carried out on a week-long field school in Barcelona, Northern Spain. Throughout this study, the history, culture and politics and the evolved landscape of the city was analysed. These aspects were analysed to enable us to get a vivid understanding of the conflict that has taken place in Catalonia throughout its struggle for independence. Through this analysis three main themes surfaced, these were memory, difference and separatism. The main aim of the research carried out through surveys was to answer the following question: “Will Catalonia resort to violence to achieve independence?” A mixed methods approach was used in order to get answers from participants, it was a suitable method because high quality information and opinions were established.

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The history of Catalan separatism is complex. Giner (1984) has stated that “Modern Catalonia is the outcome of the unification of numerous great and intricate sets of long-term historical phenomena”. Catalonia is a member of Spain’s self-governing societies in the Northeast of the country whose history is somewhat separate from that of Spain, in that large fragments of Spain were historically ruled by the crown of Castile, authoritatively speaking barbaric Spanish, and Catalan was part of the crown of Aragon, officially speaking old Catalan. Catalonia is an area which is rich in separatism, an area which is longing for its own independence from Spain. The following paragraphs will analyse and discuss the separatism that exists in Catalonia in Barcelona.

 To describe separatism, one would say that it is the promotion or practice of separation of a particular assembly of people from a superior body because of factors like ethnicity, religion, or gender.  Separatism is continuously occurring throughout Europe. A prime example of a separatist area is the region of Catalonia within Barcelona. Catalonia, who is proud of its own identity and language, is one of Spain’s wealthiest and most industrialised regions, and also one of the most independent-minded. However, since 1714, Catalonia has struggled to maintain its own culture, language and territory (Mantlethought.org, 2017).

There are three key events that have led to the emergence of Catalan separatism, the 1705 War of the Spanish Succession, Catalonia’s support for rival claimant to the Spanish throne, and Franco’s Dictatorship. Archduke Charles of Austria of the House of Habsburg, against King Philp V from the House of Bourbon, resulted in the suppression of its parliament and traditional liberties upon the latter’s victory (BBC News, 2017). In the 19th century there was somewhat a revival in Catalonia. At this point in its history, Catalonia was the leader of industrialisation within Spain and had experienced a cultural revitalisation, here commenced a movement to revive Catalan culture and language, which resulted in the rise of Catalan nationalism.

After the formation of a political union with the Aragon regions in 1137, Catalonia arose and seized extensive economic and political control through the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Then, in 1479 came the replacement of a single monarchy after the unification of Aragon and Castille.  These houses then amalgamated in the late fifteenth century, a period that also marked the deterioration of the old Catalan language.

Succeeding eighteenth-century political manoeuvrings in Castile caused the Spanish War of Succession in which the regions in Catalonia were in support of the Austrian contender for the crown. Catalonia merged into Spain which resulted in the inhibition of its language and governance. This then lead to the appearance of Catalonian nationalism towards the end of the nineteenth century as numerous cultural movements began to insist more recognition (Breen et al., 2016).

The Commonwealth of Catalonia was first established in April 1914, and devoted a large amount of finance to infrastructure, cultural and scientific institutions. It was then solidified in 1925. A fraction of independence was granted during second Spanish Republic, 1931-1938 (Breen et al., 2016).

In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and Franco’s progression of power, the Catalan language, political organizations and cultural codes including its anthem and flag were further suppressed. In November 1971, a large number of cultural and political leftist protestors gathered together and established the Assembly of Catalonia, encouraging the restoration of independence and recognition of Catalan culture and identity (Breen et al., 2016).

Research Context

It has been said that separatism is primarily associated with nationalism and nationalist ideologies. A nation is an assembly of people who have the belief that they are comprised of a ‘single people’ on the basis of a cultural or historical criteria, such as a shared language (Flint, 2017).

Members of a nation share common ideas about their origins and hope for a common destiny. They possess common national symbols including customs, language and religion, and oftentimes are unaware of the fact that their country’s narrative may be built on myths.  They are often committed to a certain territory over which they attempt to gain authority, or even the capacity to deal with their own country’s matters. Nationalism therefore, is the theory that each nation has the right to a state, thus having the right to govern a portion of territory. The geopolitics of nationalism has resulted in millions of deaths as people fought to create a state for their nation and defend their states in the name of national defence, against genuine and alleged threats.

Separatism, secession, irredentism, self-determination, independence, sub-state nationalism are many of the words that are used interchangeably to describe the conflicts that exist between states and would be sub-state. This sort of conflict is nothing original even with the arrival of globalisation, transnationalism and the influence of multinational associations. Separatist schemas continue to be a powerful political force and a challenge to present-day global borders.

Though separatism in Catalonia is new, nationalism is not. Tensions between Spain and Catalonia have been notoriously strained since Catalonia came under Spanish rule in 1714 during the War of Spanish Succession. In the 19th century, the nationalist movement developed and demanded greater independence for Catalonia. The movement later dealt with the problems Catalonia faced throughout the 19th and 20th centuries including the dictatorships of Miquel Primo de Rivera and Francisco Franco. Franco’s dictatorship had a major impact on Catalonia, with their culture and language being suppressed, because of the practice of the Catalan language and expression of Catalan culture being prohibited. The people of Catalonia struggled to possess their own identity separate from Spain during this time. After the death of Franco in 1975, the nationalist movement began moving in a different direction. As the first decade of the 21st century came to a close, the movement developed further as nationalists began demanding independence. Tensions remain between Spain and Catalonia in relation to the use of their own separate language and carrying on with their own culture. Many separatist movements follow a mostly diplomatic direction that focuses on the practice of culture and tradition to activate support and drive onward with their own plans (Breen et al., 2016).  It is difficult to tell if Catalonia will take a violent route in order to reach independence, however it was evident in our surveys that the people of Barcelona do not think that their country will.

Separatism has always remained a fundamental part of the character of Europe. It is continuously argued that separatist movements are rising in many European states, reinvigorated by a backdrop of economic crisis and political uncertainty (Bieri, 2014). A quantity of these separatist movements are linked with violent campaigns for independence (e.g. the Basque Region, Corsica) while others including Scotland and Catalonia have followed a mainly peaceful route that has concentrated on the use of culture and heritage to mobilise support and drive forward separatist agendas (Breen et al,. 2016). There are thought to be around 45 active separatist movements across 30 countries with their political aspirations and methodologies all being very diverse. An integrated European Union was at one point according to Liable touted as some kind of ‘magical elixir’ which could quieten the demands of separatist organisations and curb unrest among national minorities. Perhaps separatism is a resurgent force across Europe, separatism according to Bieri has been reinvigorated in part by an all-encompassing impact of the economic crisis and pervasive political uncertainty throughout the EU.

It has been said that separatist movements either pursue independence within their central states or to form independent states. Separatist movements are protruding within the European Union, which is now estimated to have over 40 separatist parties (EFA, 2014). The most noteworthy of these movements include Scotland in the United Kingdom, Catalonia and the Basque Country in Spain, and Flanders in Belgium (Bieri, 2014). Separatism in the European Union appears contradictory at first, the European Union is frequently looked upon as a “post-sovereign” system and perhaps a model for globalization (Mathews, 1997).  The European Union resulted from the economic and institutional integration of European states in the decades following World War II (Jones, 2012). While the European Union isn’t a state itself, it is capable of intervening the national laws and policymaking decisions of its member states (Krasner, 2009). Under the European Union, Europe’s economy has assimilated into a single market under one currency, the Euro. Despite being so highly integrated, separatist movements are not only emerging but have the potential to destabilize the European Union (Dayton, R. 2015)  Bieri has stated that separatism has been revived in part by the all-inclusive influence of the economic crisis and prevalent political ambiguity throughout the EU.

Other than Catalan separatism, another sovereignty well known for their desire for independence, is Scotland. Scotland ceased to be an independent state in the early 1700s. Unique heritage, culture and civil society was not diluted by the union with England, and this is something the people of Scotland passionately wanted. Scottish nationalism as a political force did not intensify until the 1960s, with the Scottish Nationalist Party winning a by-election. The discovery of oil in the North Sea inspired nationalists to think more aggressively about separatism. Debates about devolution gained momentum during the 1990s and under a labour government the Scottish parliament was formed in 1999. 2007 elections saw the SNP make significant gains at Labour’s expense and Salmond became the First Minister. Further electoral success in 2011 led to calls for a referendum and in 2012 it was announced that a referendum would be held in 2014. This was purposely set to coincide with the 700th anniversary of the victory of Scottish forces over English invaders at the battle of Bannockburn. The result of the Scottish referendum returned a marginal victory for the No campaign. However, the advent of Brexit has once again instigated a push for independence.

Catalonia, in their fight towards independence, has developed various issues over the years. These include Language, Culture and Self -governance.

Tensions over language in Catalonia, particularly from an educational perspective, persevere and in recent years have been intensified. At the same time the political struggle between the Catalan and the Spanish central governments has also increased. Woolard and Frekko (2013) have pointed out that the present debates resemble those of past decades, and thus one could have the notion that nothing has changed in the sociolinguistic makeup of Catalonia (Soler-Carbonell, Gallego-Balsà and Corona, 2016).

Democratic consolidation resulted in a renewed state nationalism that saw in the last wave of territorial reforms the culmination of the autonomic model set up in 1978, and the current context of economic crisis has reinforced the debate on the necessity of introducing recentralization policies for economic and efficiency reasons (Keating, 2009).  Thus, after 30 years of democracy and devolution the question of self-governance and self-determination remains at the centre of the political debate in Catalonia and Spain.

Thus, it is clear that much of the separatism that now exists in Catalonia has stemmed from historical grievances centred around cultural and linguistic identities.

Part B


In the formation of this report, a mixed methods approach was used which involved both quantitative and qualitative surveys being carried out. This proved to be both a successful but challenging approach. One of the main challenges being language barriers. Although the participants were passionate about their views, it was difficult to get sufficient information from them as they had limited English. A number of people refused to respond as they didn’t understand what was being asked of them. The interviews were carried out over a number of different areas scattered across the city of Barcelona.

Culture within Barcelona

The museums of Barcelona are perhaps the best way to explore and get a better understanding of Barcelona’s Culture. Museums became symbols of the shared social memory establishing the ‘imagined community’ a space where the nation could present itself, to itself and to others (Anderson, 1983).   El Born Cultural Centre is a prime example of this. The Born Centre Cultural is now a Cultural Centre that is in “El Born”. El Born is a quarter that was part of the old Barcelona when the city was inside the walls, it is now a significant place to visit for its historical burden. Where we find nowadays the Born Centre Cultural, it was an old market of iron built in the 19th Century. Some years ago, it was originally planned to build a new library for the city of Barcelona, and when they started constructing, a tercentenary ruins were found inside that floor. These were the ruins of the houses and streets of the people who lived during 1700, the century that lived the Spanish invasion which made Catalonia to be part of Spain until nowadays where there is a longing for independence from Catalans.

El born is categorised as a public space which aims to attract multiple audiences into a conversation about Catalonia’s past, present and future. For an example, the centre employs a trilingual style to its exhibits and artefacts with signposting in Catalan, Spanish and English, with guide books available in French, German and Dutch. The political utilisation of external visitors is arguably just as important as the mobilisation of the city’s residents (Breen et al., 2016)

The cultural and emotive meaning that the people gave to this ruins must be remarked. In Catalonia, the following proverb exists: “Roda al món I torna al born” which means “Visit the world and come back home”. Ironically, the word “born” means “home” to them. This sentence, in fact is the one that is being used for the campaign about the Born Cultural Centre in order to capture the connection between the past, present and future that exists in this space. When visiting the site we were able to imagine the daily life of Spanish ascendants and, in most cases, how they earned a living.

El Born Cultural Centre, taken on Tuesday, 28th March, 2017)

Interior of the El Born Cultural Centre. This represents the layout of the houses in Barcelona during the 1700’s.

During the visit to the El Born Cultural Centre, we carried out a survey investigating various aspects of this very important cultural museum. The interviewees appeared to be very passionate about the centre, saying that it attracts hundreds of visitors on a daily basis, some of them being the people of Barcelona themselves. When asked what the role of the cultural institution was, one interviewee replied that it was “to preserve the history of the succession war”. She went on to say that “it is a real-life representation of what life was like during this time, how difficult it was during the war, it shows how small our living space was and how little we had”. When asked whether heritage plays a role in the Catalan separatist movement, she replied “Yes, it is the reason why there was a war”.

Landscape within Barcelona:

Landscape is the outcome of a collective revolution of nature. It is the cultural translation of a society on a particular portion of nature, and this translation is not only material, but also spiritual, ideological and symbolic. In this sense, landscape acts as a hub of meaning and symbolism, and produces a sense of belonging and a territorial identity that is predominantly strong in some nations (Nogué and Vincente,2004).  Landscape has been described as a concept that is hugely saturated with cultural and, above all, ideological implications (Peet, 1996). The landscape can be understood as a dynamic code of symbols that speak of the culture of the past, present and maybe also the future. The semiotic legibility of a landscape or the ease with which its symbols can be decoded, can be complex to a greater or lesser degree, but is always linked to the culture that produces the symbols (Nogué and Vicente, 2004).

The architecture of Barcelona has clearly evolved parallel with Catalan architecture. Within Catalonia both physical and concrete cultural heritages have been used repeatedly in the past to justify and promote a culturally distinct peoples and region (Mellon, 2008). The majority of this has taken place against the background of Catalonia’s intervention of its place within Spain and as an aspirant autonomous region. Espelt and Benito (2005) have argued that this process of heritage development emerged during a period of ‘national and cultural reawakening’ in the late nineteenth century, for example, the glamorized physical and visual appearance of Girona was successfully created. A similar process of reconstruction or re-edification took place in Barcelona. The landscape has changed dramatically over a period of time due to urban reconstruction and autocratic regimes. Catalans aim was to have a different landscape to that of Spain’s and therefore modernization occurred. Modernization is linked closely with urban aesthetics and beautification. Each leader set off to celebrate by political order by means of the building of urban and architectural settings with regards to embodying the ideology on which a new era is based and to commemorate the political achievements and purposes of his autocratic regime (Cavalcanti, 1997).

The urban characteristics that exist in the city along with its tourist appeal are not purely the result of the Modernist period or a recent dramatic transformation. In fact they are the result of an extensive and riotous historic evolution.

The following are the most note-worthy landscapes within Barcelona. Each uphold a remarkable and significant history, and through decoding the landscape, visitors at these sites are able to find out more about the history of the area.

Parc de la Ciutadella

Perhaps the most beautiful landscape of Barcelona can be found in Parc de la Ciutadella. After a seize which lasted thirteen months, Barcelona fell to the army of King Philips V throughout the war of the Spanish Succession. In order to keep secure control over the city of Barcelona, the Bourbon king built the biggest fortress in Europe, a star-shaped citadel or ‘Ciutadella’. An enormous part of the Ribera region was destroyed in order to make room for this fortress. The neighbourhood was rebuilt thirty years later at another location as ‘Barceloneta’ (authorSTREAM, 2017).


 A distance from the inner city lies Barceloneta. This is deceptively called the Fishermen’s Quarter, an area which was in fact born as a result of a political, military decision. It was in this area that the inhabitants of La Ribera were repositioned when their own homes were destroyed to make way for the building of Felipe V’s fortress La Ciutadella. The four cubes represent the size of homes around this shanty area. This mark of remembrance is a significant example of Barcelona preserving its history for the future generations. This residential area is now a very attractive mix of traditional and modern; washing can be seen hanging along narrow balconies, while bars and restaurants have developed the night life (Insightguides.com, 2017).

The Eternal Flame

Another important example of Barcelona preserving their history is the Eternal Flame. Located on Fossar de les Moreres, it burns to commemorate those that died during the War of the Spanish Succession 1713-1714. It is a place that marks abundant symbolic importance where the mass of history takes centre stage. This monument stands as a reminder. It is of great meaning to the Catalans themselves. In the year 1989, it was the architect Carme Fiol who revealed the victims’ burial site by destroying the buildings that had stood there, and covered the whole ground with ‘brick as red as the blood that had been spilt’. This is another prime example of the Catalans preserving their history for the future.


The most earliest monumentalisation of Barcelona in the introductory decades of the twentieth century can be seen as a method designed to relocate the city as the capital of the region. The succeeding Modernista buildings of Domenech, Puig and Gaudi demonstrated the uniquely Catalan architectural expressions of identity and aspiration. These extremely glamorized nineteenth and early twentieth century discourses are now being displaced by more pragmatic agenda-led narratives that are being used to justify and promote territorial conflicts where landscape and built heritage are presented as ideological cornerstone (Breen et al., 2016).

La Sagrada Familia has been described by Hughes as Barcelona’s Eiffel Tower. It is of extreme importance to the people of Barcelona. Despite the re-imaging of the city, it still is the emblem of Barcelona. Gaudi’s work, including the Sagrada Familia  are all particularly resilient Catalan symbols as they were constructed during a period of great significance for Catalonia, during which contemporary Catalan nationalist thought and praxis was founded (Scholars-on-bilbao.info, 2016).

Perhaps the most outstanding part of the landscape in Barcelona is the Barcelona Gothic Quarter. The Barcelona Gothic Quarter was re-constructed in the twentieth century. Even though historic monuments, hypothetically, refer back to past eras, in many cases they were produced recently. In Barcelona, feudal buildings were restored in a gothic style, while other historic buildings and facades were moved stone-by-stone into the area and ordinary residential houses were removed and replaced by seemingly historic buildings. As a result, the new Gothic Quarter look as if it is a space which is completely medieval but was actually re-built between 1927 and 1970. This regeneration was meant both as an example of the invention of tradition in the context of Catalan nationalism and as a way to promote the city through remarkable historic monuments (Gant, 2013).

Redevelopment in Barcelona:

The city of Barcelona is an exceptional case study of many of the key themes of urban development and change. It has a large tertiary sector, its traditional manufacturing industries have been declining, and multinational investment has become increasingly vital. The rapid development of Technical Parks for high-tech industry is a modern feature associated with the growth of what is becoming known as the European ‘sun-rise’ belt, along the Mediterranean coast between Valencia and Northern Italy. 

The motivation behind Barcelona’s physical expansion has been the growth of the economy. Remaining factories and workshops in the Poblenou district are being changed into a zone of new technologies (Geographyfieldwork.com, 2017). With some buildings not being in use, they appeared to be covered in graffiti, often expressing the person’s views towards the government. 

Political Landscape:

Landscape results from the collective transformation of nature. It is the cultural translation of a society on a particular portion of nature, and this translation is not only material, but also spiritual, ideological and symbolic. In this sense, landscape acts as a centre of meaning and symbolism, and creates a sense of belonging and a territorial identity that is particularly strong in some nations.  It was proven from the observations made throughout the field study that landscape, understood as the cultural prognosis of a society on a certain space, develops into a fundamental element in the creation process of a national identity, in our case the Catalan identity, both in its late 19th century origins and in its present- day form (Nogué and Vicente, 2004).

It has been noted that the landscape of Catalonia was to play an important role in the building of Catalan nationalist ideology. At the height of the nationalist Renaixenca, Catalonia was delicate to the new aesthetic and symbolic gratitude to landscape, especially mountainous landscape, which was sweeping the rest of Europe. The mountain therefore, became a key figure among Catalan nationalist symbols, part of the “essential landscape” (Nogué and Vincente, 2004).

It has to be said that the dominant cultural symbols that are scattered throughout the city of Barcelona are flags. But to the people of Barcelona, these are more than just a flag. These are representation of what they desire – to remain a united country or an independent Barcelona, a representation of whether they want to remain in the present or progress to a future where Barcelona becomes an independent state from Spain. In Catalonia, the burning of a flag is seen as an offence and oftentimes results in imprisonment.

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Overall, in the city of Barcelona, in terms of single flags displayed, the dominant symbol numerically was the Catalan flag. The Barcelona flag, though numerically second, nevertheless registered a significant presence. A considerable number of balconies displayed both, and the Olympic flag was often added, while a small n umber incorporated the Spanish flag as well. The distribution in the metropolitan area covering the total conurbation of about four and a half million people is more difficult to measure. In both the city and the studied area the nature of displays varied with the character of the district. Where Castillian was the predominant language, that is, in working-class barrios populated mostly by immigrants from the rest of Spain and where socialist sympathies were stronger, Barcelona flags tended to predominate, whereas in the more middle class districts like Gracia, nearer the centre, the flags were overwhelmingly Catalan, with a good proportion of these in this particular case being ‘indepencia’ flags.

Grievance Diagram:

The 7 core grievances that are included in the following diagram are:

  • Government
  • Politics
  • Economic Crisis
  • Language
  • Culture
  • Identity
  • Media

Grievance Core Diagram for Barcelona, it represents the main grievances of the city and it is clear that the most part of these are linked to the divide in political views amongst the people of Barcelona

Qualitative Survey

The first survey carried out on the field work was a qualitative survey, which aimed to establish what fraction of the population wanted independence and what remaining number did not want independence, and whether or not they thought that their country would resort to violence in order to achieve it. From the surveys carried out, 50.58% said yes and 41.27% said no. The remaining 8.14% were unsure.

Social Vulnerability

The second survey that was carried out was the social vulnerability survey, it was carried out to find out what parts of the structure of Barcelona are under threat or at risk. This was completed under the following headings:

  • Social
  • Economic
  • Environment
  • Governance
  • Future threats

The aim of the survey was to establish what parts of Catalonia’s social structure was most at risk.

Social Vulnerability Diagram

Summary of Findings from the Social Vulnerability Survey:

From our analysis of the results from the survey, it was clear that there is a clear difficulty with governance within Catalonia. This can be explained by the struggle of the state to receive legal and financial autonomy. Furthermore, it is clear from the diagram that socially, Barcelona is not at risk. It can be said that in times of crisis, communities come together again as there is an obvious decrease in social cohesion. It is evident from the diagram that politics is the most at risk, so it is essential that steps are taken so as not to increase the vulnerability of the state, and to avoid all potential conflict triggers.

The following is a list of potential conflict triggers:

  • Further suppression of identity.
  • A continuance in the unequal distribution of wealth.
  • Negative perceptions displayed through the Media.

In terms of lessening social tension in Catalonia, it would be suggested that:

  • The government address their financial issues and perhaps restructure their economy.
  • Encourage the media to become more open minded so as not to create negative perceptions of Catalans.
  • Currently the dialogue used within Catalonia is conflicted, it is suggested that they change this dialogue, aiming it at resolution.

To conclude, the main hypothesis of this research was “Catalonia will not resort to violence to achieve independence”. From the research carried out over the field study in Barcelona, it can certainly be said that they will not resort to violence. From our observations and surveys, it was evident that in the future, Catalonia will experience stability and will no longer experience pressure from the Spanish state over its own affairs. In my opinion, if it strengthens its foreign affairs and strengthens its already growing economic output then it will transform into a strong, viable state, one that does not need to resort to violence to achieve independence. If Catalonia was to build upon its strength as a separate part of Spain, perhaps in the future it will gain the independence it has always been passionate about.


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