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being told that it was still part of Spain — not a state working with the Spanish government — and that Spanish laws superseded its own.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