Catalonia Referendum Explained: What To Know About Spain’s Crisis Over Independence

Spain is mostly known in America for fine food and movie locations. But over the weekend, as other events unfolded, Europe was horrified by the violent acts committed by Spanish authorities against Catalonians as they headed to the ballot box to decide whether Catalonia should be an independent state from Spain. The protests seem to be just heating up, as farmers block streets and ports with their tractors and a general strike has been called. But how did it get to this point?

  • One can argue this goes back centuries: Catalonian politics have been a quagmire that politicians have gotten stuck in for more than a millennium. In the modern day, though, Catalonia is much like Scotland (also semi-similar to Puerto Rico). It’s thought of as autonomous, but still a part of the larger national government. Catalonia actually has its own parliament, courts, and cultural concerns — notably the Catalan language.
  • It first received a statute of autonomy in 1932, after several decades of attempts to cement itself as separate, and actively fought Francisco Franco’s Nationalists in the Spanish civil war to protect their autonomy. By 1939, Franco had won the civil war and went after Catalonia at least partially out of spite, attempting to eradicate Catalonian language and culture.
  • When Franco died in 1975, Catalonia bid to regain its autonomy, and by 1979, it was autonomous once again. As the home of Barcelona, it became a powerful economic center thanks to manufacturing and tourism and was central to the “Spanish miracle” that salvaged the country’s economy.
  • Skip ahead, then, to 2006. Catalonia citizens pass another referendum that essentially makes Catalonia a separate state in all but name. It was immediately challenged legally and taken to Spain’s highest court. After four years, as the Atlantic sums it up, the court issued some seemingly minor changes to the law:

    Of the statute’s 223 articles, the court struck down 14 and curtailed another 27. Among other things, the ruling struck down attempts to place the distinctive Catalan language above Spanish in the region; ruled as unconstitutional regional powers over courts and judges; and said: “The interpretation of the references to ‘Catalonia as a nation’ and to ‘the national reality of Catalonia’ in the preamble of the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia have no legal effect.”

    In short, Catalonia was being told that it was still part of Spain — not a state working with the Spanish government — and that Spanish laws superseded its own.

  • In response, Catalonian president Artur Mas said that if he were re-elected, he’ll hold a referendum on whether Catalonia should be independent. Court wrangling made this a non-binding referendum, but even with a relatively low turn-out, Mas won with an intimidating 80% of the vote for both Catalonian statehood and for that state to be independent of Spain. So by November 2015, the Catalonian parliament had laid out a plan to declare independence from Spain.

  • In the meantime, in 2016, the People’s Party, Spain’s more conservative party, won control of the Spanish parliament, leaving Mariano Rajoy in charge. Rajoy had opposed the 2006 statute and helped challenge it in the courts. Which, in turn, brings us to the violence of yesterday. The Catalonian government was ordered not to hold a referendum on statehood, which the Spanish courts had ruled illegal. The Catalonian government went ahead anyway, and the result was violence in the streets as police attacked protestors and voters.
  • The result was 90% of voters — albeit with only 42% turnout — voted for Catalonia to be an independent state. This leaves neither Spain nor Catalonia with a clear path. Spain’s stance is that Catalonia can’t declare its independence, under Spain’s constitution. But that also throws Catalonian autonomy into doubt, at a moment where Spanish politics have never been more chaotic.
  • Spain had been unable to form a parliament throughout 2015 and 2016, and Rajoy is continuing to fight allegations of deep corruption in his own party. Nor, for that matter, is Catalonia the only political entity pushing for independence.
  • On the part of Catalonians, many still remember Franco’s harsh rule and the image of police beating Catalonians in the streets may feel disturbingly like a return to old tactics. Even relatively apathetic Catalonians are unlikely to relish the idea of having a Spanish government riddled with corruption scandals dictating how they live. They’re a fiercely independent people, proud of their way of life.

Where this goes next, nobody seems quite to know, but it’s clear that the Catalonian question will need an answer, hopefully one without violence.