Spain is still fighting a battle that first tore it apart more than three centuries ago. The wealthy northeastern region of Catalonia has ramped up its struggle for independence, with an Oct. 1 referendum on breaking away turning violent after the Spanish government tried to block the illegal vote. Decades of political and legal fights to win recognition for their distinct traditions and language have left many Catalans infuriated. The separatists want a new country, which would have an economy the size of Finland or Portugal. The standoff has triggered Spain’s biggest political crisis since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. It has strained the bonds that have held the country together for more than 500 years and fueled a debate about whether the dismantling of older nations is a logical evolution of the European Union.

The Situation

Catalonia’s lawmakers unilaterally declared independence on Oct. 28. That prompted Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to fire the entire Catalan government, dissolve the regional parliament in Barcelona and call local elections for Dec. 21 in a bid to restore control of the semi-autonomous region. Spain’s efforts to thwart the Oct. 1 referendum triggered incidents of riot police storming polling stations and beating up voters, provoking outrage around the world. Though turnout was less than 50 percent and the ballot lacked the controls required to make it reliable, about 90 percent backed a breakaway. Catalan separatists argue that their region, with 16 percent of Spain’s population, or 7.5 million people, and a fifth of its economy, gets a raw deal from the Spanish tax system. Still, the chaotic push for independence could temper support for the separatist cause. A poll conducted in October showed 40.2 percent of Catalans think they should have their own country, up from 34.7 percent in June. 

The Background

The problem was there from the start. The marriage of Fernando of Aragon to Isabel of Castille in 1469 brought together two kingdoms that formed modern Spain. After the last Hapsburg king died in 1700, wealthy families around Barcelona opposed the French candidate to rule. Their defeat brought King Felipe V to the throne and consolidated power in Madrid, fueling an enmity that has smoldered ever since. Catalonia unilaterally declared independence from a chaotic Spain in 1934, though the breakaway lasted less than a day because Spanish forces bombed the regional government’s offices. After the civil war ended in 1939, Franco banned the Catalan language. The region won back control of its health, education and language policies in the return to democracy after his death, although it didn’t get the tax-raising power awarded to the Basque Country, where terror group ETA has killed more than 800 people during its own four-decade campaign for independence. Catalonia was given more powers in a 2006 law that included references to the region as a separate “nation” and guaranteed its share of public investment. When parts of that were struck down in 2010, many Catalans began to ask whether their future lay outside of Spain. They were encouraged by nationalists in Scotland, who lost a referendum on independence from the U.K. in 2014. The votes have emboldened other separatists from places like Flanders and Venice, where smaller groups aspire to dismantle European states forged in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Argument

The struggle over Catalonia represents a breakdown of the political pact that has held together modern Spain. Both sides use history to stir up rancor: Spanish nationalists argue that Catalonia has always been part of Spain, while Catalans trace their independent identity back to the 13th century. The country’s 1978 constitution doesn’t allow any region to vote alone on independence: Either all of Spain votes on the Catalan question, or no one does.  All the main political groups are considering some form of constitutional re-think as the basis for a settlement. It’s unclear what the consequences would be if Catalonia pushed ahead with independence. European Union leaders have warned that it could be excluded from the bloc and cut off from using the euro as its currency. Spanish banks have moved their headquarters from the region and the head of the country’s national soccer league says Barcelona’s team could be kicked out if Catalonia breaks away.

First published Oct.

To contact the writers of this QuickTake: Ben Sills in Madrid at [email protected], Esteban Duarte in Madrid at [email protected]

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake: Leah Harrison at [email protected]

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