The recent Catalonian referendum and unilateral declaration of independence by the Generalitat, is the latest chapter in Catalonia’s running dispute with the Spanish government. Both actions are unconstitutional based on Section II of the Spanish constitution. The heavy-handed response by the Spanish national police, in addition to the implementation of Article 155, is a testament to Madrid’s resolution to ensure that Catalonia remains within Spain. After decades of what Catalonians perceive as the central government dealing with them in bad faith regarding their special status, the referendum and unilateral declaration of independence represent a show of force against Madrid. The roots of Catalonian grievances are related to its special status.
Since 1492, Spain’s nation building occurred under a monarchy with the union of Castile and Aragon. Spain, having formed before the rise of Nationalism, is predisposed to have continued emergences of territorial identity disputes. The willingness of Madrid to allow for these territories to retain some historical privileges and separate laws is prophylactic.
Catalonia traces its political history back to the 13th century and represents one of the oldest “nations” in Europe. It continued to exercise political privileges under Aragonese and Spanish rule, only losing these in the 18th century, after the Wars of Spanish Succession. It would regain some measure of political autonomy during the Mancomunitat and the Spanish Second Republic. After the Civil War, the Franco regime heavily repressed Catalonian autonomy, culture and language. Following the death of Franco and the return of democracy, the 1979 Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia re-established the Generalitat.
While cultural and linguistic concerns are important for Catalonians, the root of the current issue is the unfair amount of the financial burden on Catalonia. Catalonia is currently one of Spain’s economic power houses, having endured and recovered from the 2008 economic downturn better than the rest of the country, its unemployment rate is a third less than the national average. Additionally, while Catalonians represent only 16% of the population, they make up for 20% of Spain’s GDP. Due to Spain’s slow economic recovery, the majority of Catalonia’s economic contribution is taken out of the region. An oft-repeated statistic is that “For every 2 euro that is sent to Madrid, only 1 euro returns in investment.”
Catalonia would like to see this situation rectified and have its funding model changed to that of the Basque country, a separate autonomous region of Spain. They would then control the totality of the tax revenue generated in Catalonia, instead of having to turn to the central government to receive their stipend.
The Catalonian parliament has repeatedly objected to the central state’s interpretation of the “state pact” based on the constitution and the 1979 statute, which deprives the Generalitat of its political power, financial means, and national recognition. The level of objections and solutions proposed by the Generalitat has changed over the years as their confidence in Madrid has diminished. To date, there have been four periods of movements towards Catalonian independence.
During the first period, from 1981-2002, Parliament called for a less restrictive reading of the constitution and statute. During this period, Catalonia pushed for some reform to the funding system without departing from the common economic regime shared by the other autonomous regions. A proposal of note in the Catalonian parliament was the 1987 resolution 106/II which sought to address the deficiencies of the statue of autonomy. This resolution has remained topical as it still reflects most of the concerns held by Catalonians to this day and has been suggested each year with small modifications. This resolution helps to illustrate that the concerns and grievances of the Catalonians did not originate with the 2008 economic downturn.
In the second period, from 2002 to 2010, the Generalitat pushed for a funding model similar to that of the Basque country, following the finding of the Study Committee on Economic Concentration in 2001. This study noted the insufficiency of the funding model and the discrimination which Catalonia faced in this model. In 2006, a reform to the statue of autonomy was proposed, with recommendations based on the 1987 resolution and the findings of the 2001 study. The Spanish constitutional court ruled in 2010 that the 2006 version of the statue of autonomy was largely unconstitutional and removed all new additions to the statute.
Faced with the 2010 decision, in 2012 the Generalitat called for several reforms as the current model did not allow for sufficient self-governance desired by the Catalonian people and again affirmed the need for a new funding model. In a meeting that lasted less than two hours, the rejection of this new proposal by the head of the Spanish government marked the beginning of the latest phase of Catalonian resentment. This failed meeting led to resolution 742/IX, where the Catalonian parliament expressed the futility of working with the Spanish central government towards an independent and autonomous Catalonia. The focus has now changed to revolve around the possibility of allowing the Catalonian people to be consulted about their political future and—depending on the response from Madrid—the right to separate from Spain.
The current political situation in Catalonia is the culmination of nearly four decades of repeated attempts by Catalonians to increase their autonomy and ability to govern themselves politically and financially. Since the establishment of the constitution and the statute of autonomy, Madrid and Catalonia have had different interpretations of these documents. Given the historical precedent and recent developments, it appears that Catalonian confidence in the central government has completely eroded, leading to the present situation.