22 February, 2013

Catalonia: Europe’s Newest Nation?

Even relatively stable Europe hosts its share of geopolitical tensions: Catalonia, a major region of Spain which has long claimed a unique national identity, may now be on the path towards independence. Read on for a profile of what could become one of the world's newest countries.

Map of Catalonia's location within Spain and relative to neighboring countries
Map by Evan Centanni, based on this map by Mutxamel. License: CC BY-SA
By Omar Alkhalili

What is Catalonia?

Catalonia is an autonomous community of Spain. It holds the official status of a nationality within the Spanish parliamentary monarchy. Regions of Spain with this status are considered to be something similar to countries within the larger Spanish nation, allowing for their own separateness from Spanish mainstream culture without actually being considered independent.

The region’s political administration consists of four provinces and extends over a large part of the historical Principality of Catalonia, which also included a piece of what is now southern France. Its capital is Barcelona, the largest city in Spain after Madrid and the sixth-largest in Europe. Catalan, Spanish, Aranese Occitan and Catalan Sign Language are all officially recognized languages.

Early in Catalonia’s history, it was ruled by Greeks, Carthaginians, the Romans, the Visigoths and the Islamic Moors. After a period of Frankish administration, the region would become a self-governing principality, ruled by the Count of Barcelona under the Crown of Aragon. It was during this time that Catalonia began producing a uniquely Catalan culture. The principality unified with the Crown of Spain but maintained self rule. During the War of the Spanish Succession, King Philip V brought an end to Catalan self-rule, incorporating it fully under the Spanish monarchy.

Flag of the autonomous community of Catalonia Region Name:  
• Catalonia (English)
• Catalunya (Catalan)
• Cataluña (Spanish)
• Catalonha (Occitan)
Official Status:  
Autonomous Community & Nationality within Spain
Capital: Barcelona
In the 20th century, Catalonia would have varying degrees of cultural independence. After the Spanish Civil War, military leader Francisco Franco banned Catalan language and culture. After World War II, Spain would see booming economic growth (the so-called the “Spanish Miracle”) with Catalonia both contributing to and benefiting from this rapid growth. With the end of Franco’s rule came the transition from dictatorship to democracy, which resulted in Catalonia being granted political, cultural and linguistic autonomy under the Spanish constitution.

The Path to Independence

Though calls for Catalan independence arguably have older origins, the formation of pro-independence political parties began early in the 20th century and continued during the oppressive rule of the Franco regime. Along with political parties, armed groups came into existence, some of which were considered by the Spanish authorities to be terrorist organizations. Terra Lliure, the Catalan Liberation Front and the Catalan Red Liberation Army were some of those organizations. By the 1990s, however, many of them had been disbanded.

One proposed flag for an independent Catalonia
A Catalonian independence flag. By Huhsunqu (CC BY-SA; source)
Decades later, the global recession hit Spain particularly hard, and the economic downturn has rejuvenated Catalan nationalist aspirations. While the Catalan national holiday of Diada de Catalunya usually draws crowds of people no larger than 50,000, 2012’s celebration brought an estimated at 1.5 million. While polling suggests that only 25.2% of Catalans wanted outright secession from Spain in 2010, a surprising 51.1% wanted the same thing in 2012. The situation is further inflamed by a dispute between Catalonia and the Spanish federal government: 19.49% of Spain’s tax revenue comes from Catalonia, but only 14.03% is reciprocated by state spending. In November of 2012, Catalans voted in an election which gave pro-independence parties the majority of seats in the Catalan government. These parties wish to hold a referendum on independence for the region.

If Catalonia was Independent

How would Catalonia fare if it were to become an independent country? The new nation would have a population of 7.5 million people, making it the 99th most populous country or territory in the world. The total land area of the country would be 32,114 km2, making it the 140th largest country or territory. The gross domestic product of the Catalonia region is US$314.4 billion, which would make it the 34th largest economy in the world if it were independent today. If it were granted membership in the European Union, the economy of Catalonia would be the bloc’s 14th largest.

Map of Catalonia's location within the European Union
Catalonia's place in the EU. Map by Evan Centanni, from this blank map by Ssolbergj. License: CC BY-SA
Spain would be a loser in this transition in more ways than one. To begin with, it would lose approximately 16% of its population. Approximately 6.3% of Spain's territory would be lost as well, and its GDP of US$1,494 billion would be reduced by 21%. On top of it all, the federal government would lose an important region from which significant state revenues are generated.

Other than the need to recover from economic troubles affecting all parts of Spain, there might be several issues faced by an independent Catalonia. What would be the cultural identity of this new country? Catalonia is not a homogenous region and many (46.53%) speak primarily Spanish, over Catalan and other languages. Though a majority now supports partition, a large minority of citizens do not necessarily support independence and may not react well to such a separation. Were Catalonia to become an independent state, such an important political move being supported by such a slim majority might prove to have a destabilizing effect.

Finally, the assumed admission of this new country into the European Union is just that: an assumption. Political partitions do not tend to go over smoothly, so Catalonia’s separation from Spain could foster a lot of resentment from non-Catalan Spaniards inside and outside of Catalonia. Since current EU members must all agree on the admission of new states to their union, a resentful Spain might block such an attempt at admission, which would certainly have political implications as well as possible economic effects.

Omar Alkhalili is a contributor to Political Geography Now. He is a graduate of Ramapo College of New Jersey with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science. He can be reached at omaralkha@gmail.com.

Graphic of current Catalonian flag by Wikimedia Commons user Martorell (License: CC BY-SA; source).


  1. "To begin with, it would lose approximately 16% of its population."

    Not really, there are hundreds of thousands of Catalans living in the rest of Spain. The notion that those citizens will give up their Spanish passports is not realistic, as dual citizenship would be unacceptable for (most of) the remainder Spaniards.

  2. This 16% figure is not of Catalans living in Spain but rather the percentage of the Spanish population that lives in Catalonia, Catalan or not. So, if we assume that there would not be massive migrations between Spain and an independent Catalonia, the population of Catalonia would be 7.5 million people, approximately 16% of Spain's current population. You bring up an interesting question though: what would happen to Catalans in Spain and non-Catalans in an independent Catalonia? It may not be the most comfortable of arrangements...

  3. 2014 could become an interesting years for European cartographers, with the potential independence of both Catalonia and Scotland. The separation of Czechoslovakia in 1992 proves that peaceful separations are possible. Actually, I am a fan of the ideas of Leopold Kohr, who claims that a federation of states, like the E.U. or U.S., will only remain stable if the states are not too different in size, and much less influential than the federation. For the U.S., this is the fact, but for the E.U., none of the two criteria are met.

  4. So now seems that an Independent Catalonia will be expelled from European Union... c´mon man, EU project wants all european peoples in, not out. And by the way, what is the strength of a heavy indebted state, as the case of Spain, to block anything in the EU context? None.

    1. An independent Catalonia would be indeed out of the EU by means of the Foundational treaties of the EU itself, plus some "minor" international law treaties as the Vienna Convention (1978 Treaty on Succession of States). Besides, the EU Commission and the group of European Regions have already confirmed this fact. A different story is whether people want to believe it or will be face with the hard reality if that time actually comes.

      Regarding the strength of a country, you do not need the strongest of the countries to block it. You just need at least one, that being big or small, and do people seriously think that countries like France, Germany, Greece, Cyprus or Italy are all going to run to recognise that theoretical new country? That sounds way more to fairy tale to me than realpolitik...

  5. nice article. Thanks. However, a couple of points. There is no conflict between two supposed communities of spanish speakers against catalan speakers. Reality is not so easy. Catalonia has a good model to integrate immigration. I personally am a product of it, like most people I know. My grandparents came from Spain. I am Catalan. There is not conflict and since the process will be impeccably democratic I don't think just like now there is no conflict and a majority of Catalans have to put up with being in Spain when things change they'll just have to adapt. To think that they'll be violent is, in my opinion, to give them little credit. I'm sure they'll respect.

  6. Well, an independent Catalonia would not be expelled from the European Union, but it would have to apply to become a member state. And it is true that European states already part of the EU want other European states to join as member states. However, if Catalonia became independent without Spain's permission, it might not be inclined to allow Catalonia into the EU. Every single member must agree to allow in new states, and their economic standing would not have anything to do with their ability to block Catalonia's ascension. If this seems like an unlikely possibility were Catalonia to become independent, take a look at the relationship between Serbia and its former province, Kosovo. If Serbia were to become part of the EU before Kosovo, I would be very surprised to see Serbia allow Kosovo to ascend.

  7. I agree with you, Albert. I do not see there being any serious violence or conflict between Spaniards and Catalans were Catalonia to be independent. I would not expect any violence to resemble a civil war, however, it may not be as seamless as we may hope. Typically, separation is not as peaceful as it is for some nations like Czechoslovakia. In the case of Catalonia, their nationalist aspirations are being fueled in part by genuine, long-standing interest in separation, but also because of economic upheaval and instability. While I would hope that if a separation does seem to be happening, that it be as democratic, gradual and peaceful as possible, economic turmoil does not necessarily have the best track record in terms of being a cause of political separation.

  8. Catalonia will have own football league.

  9. Omar, at this moment I personally would rather have Catalonia outside of the EU than inside. Not interested in what the EU is turning into.

    A status like that of Norway or Switzerland would be ideal. The trade agreement and the Schengen Agreements to allow free movement of goods and people which are the most important do not require every member state to sign it, just a simple majority.

    Another point, I doubt Spain will want Catalonia out of the EU because practically all of its exports must physically be transported through it in order to reach its destination. So they wouldn't want their products to go through Catalan customs before reaching their destination.

    Plus, if Spain don't want to sit down to negotiate with Catalonia then Catalonia will not be liable for any share of Spanish sovereign debt, since it was signed by Spain, not Catalonia.

    Finally, let's look at it from the other side. How can it be justified that the EU will leave outside 7.5 million european citizens? How can that be justified that a country that is currently inside of it is expelled because of the democratic decision that country takes? Difficult to justify.

    When the unilateral declaration of independence happens Europe will have to respect the will of the Catalan people. Otherwise it will be another crack on the EU's foundations.

    Again, I am deeply Europeanist but the European Union is not evolving the way it should. The EU should prioritise people's welfare and rights, which is exactly the opposite to what is happening at this moment.

    1. You have some good points Albert, particularly I agree that neither part is served by excluding Catalonia. However, the economic crisis in Spain would have to evolve severely for principles to be put aside, and from what I have read in Spanish media, and from what I have been told from Spanish acquaintances; a less than smooth Catalan exit will not be met with forgiveness, at least not in the short term. Please note, I am not talking about violent repercussions. Another interesting discussion is what will happen with the football (soccer) league.

      Something I complete disagree with you on Albert is your wish of Catalonia getting the same agreement as Norway. The only reason Norway can survive this agreement, which lacks democratic legitimacy, is because of compromise. The Norwegian political system is based on compromise and consensus between employers, worker unions and the agriculture sector. Basically the EEA-agreement is EU-membership, without voting rights and participation rights. On the contrary, some Norwegian special interests are excluded (like agriculture and fishery). For Norway this deal is essential, with most of their export going to the EU, and since the referendums for EU-membership have failed twice (by marginal percentages), the agreement is a temporary solution to keep the economy as strong as possible. I really don't see what Catalonia would gain from this, especially is you dislike what EU forces on its member states, then a voice to (try and) change the direction is more what would gain you.

      PS: As you might have guessed, I am Norwegian. I don't know much about Switzerland except that they have a principle of staying neutral and non-alligned (they did not become a UN-member state until 2002), are members of EFTA and have several separate trade agreements with the EU.

  10. A fair, democratic vote would encompass all the people of Spain voting to allow Catalonia to secede, not just a vote from the Catalonians themselves.

    1. So if Catalonia votes for independence but the rest of Spain votes against it, you'd consider that a "fair and democratic" outcome? The Catalans would be forced to remain in the country against their wishes.

    2. As Spanish, I think this wouldn't be democratic, for example, if Spain wants to leave the E.U. (I know this isn't true), should vote the whole Europe? And if Europe doesn't want, Spain would have to stay in? This is totally ilogic...
      By the way, I'm not in favour of any secession, I would prefer to unify borders, not to cret new ones... But if Catalonians wants...

  11. Here's an interesting piece of trivia:

    Since Andorra is a part of the Diocese of Urgell, the non-Andorran portion of which lies solely within Catalonia, Andorra's status would remain static if Catalonia should become independent. From a purely political perspective, Catalonian independence would be completely transparent to Andorra.

    However, no longer could Andorra be referred to loosely as a French-Spanish co-principality. It would become a French-Catalonian co-principality!

    1. Wow, you're right! That's indeed an interesting piece of trivia, which I'll now be keeping in mind if Catalonia's threatened secession ever really comes to pass.

    2. Perhaps things wouldn't be completely transparent after all.

      Since Spain shares responsibility for Andorra's defense with France, I suspect that Catalonia would assume co-responsibility from Spain. Andorra would also need to accredit a new Catalonian ambassador to join the ambassadors from France, Spain, and Portugal.

      Speaking of ambassadors, the United States would have to rethink which ambassador should be accredited to Andorra. I would suggest the newly appointed ambassador to Catalonia rather than the sitting ambassador to Spain. I suggest this because the US Consulate General in Barcelona (which would likely become the new US Embassy) is already responsible for the day-to-day operations of American relations with Andorra.

    3. More good insights. I'm glad you brought this up - it's an interesting line of thought/speculation/questions that I haven't seen discussed elsewhere.

  12. What happens if Catalonia votes for independence in a referendum, but Spain votes against independence in a country-wide referendum? Very often, breakaway regions want to have independence when the rest of the country does not want to seem them go. This can be see in various cases such as Serbia/Kosovo, Sudan/South Sudan, Mali/Azawad, UK/Scotland, Russia/Chechnya among others.

    1. Spain doesn't want the independence, that's why there wasn't even a legal Referendum, because the central goverment says it's "unconstitutional", which it actually is, since the Spanish Constitution claims Spain as one and united, and there is no way to make a legal independence without changing the Spanish Constitution...
      Also, I have to say that if Catalonia would create that precedent, I'm sure Euskalherria (Vasque Country) would claim its own independence too.

  13. An important question is what will happen to the rest of spain. The Basques would also like their own independent state, and there is some nationalistic feeling in Galicia. The Basque region was granted some autonomy during the civil war that was retracted by Franco. Would they be granted independence? What about other regions of Europe that might feel they will do better on their own than contributing what they see as more than their fair share to national coffers?

    1. Note that as of November 2012, only 1/4 of "the Basques" supported independence for their region. See p.50 of this report (p.52 of the PDF file).

    2. One other question is what would happen to France, specifically the department of Pyrénées-Orientales, where a Catalan-speaking population lives. Would this population want to join the new Catalan state, or is it content with French rule?

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Pyrénées-Orientales is no longer Catalan speaking; it has been almost completely assimilated into French-speaking France, only 16% of those aged 18-24 can speak Catalan

      Source: Institut de Sociolingüística Catalana Available at: http://www.uoc.edu/euromosaic/web/document/catala/fr/i5/i5.html
      (In French)

  14. Hello, it’s very interesting to see the different points of view, just to clarify some points:

    Actually in Spain that kind of vote it’s against the law (you can’t vote to separate from the state)
    Catalonia it’s not recognize as a state inside the state, the word state is out of the legal part of the Catalonian autonomic definition.

    Catalonia Autonomy has been benefit of been part of Spain and Spain benefit of having the Catalonia autonomic.
    But since the Franco dictator phase to our days… first Franco force people from all Spain (most Extremadura an Andalucia) to move to Catalonia, and build a very important industry and economic network (with the budget of the state)
    After Franco, Investments and helps for the Catalonia autonomic region has been the mayors for all Spain punishing poor autonomies even forcing outside and inside investments to invest in Catalonia and in no other part of Spain.
    Despite that Catalonia governments crash the autonomic economy, the do on purpose and not by mistake to increase the anti Spanish feelings.
    This has been follow by an increase of the Catalonia monetary budget by the national state and changing laws in order to help with the situation but following the same way Catalonian politic increase the expenses, even in crisis context, finally Catalonia is bankruptcy and held by rest of Spain.

    But they feel Spain owes them something… even when they have the industrial network and population created by the state, and consider that even when they never have been a state or kingdom they are… ok every city in the world have the same right than Catalonia to declare them self independent…

    There are no cultural difference with the rest of Spain… for example the Catalonian autonomic dance was call La Españolita before they change the name…

    The true is that it’s easy to sell the idea that we are different and someone owes you something, and really hard to sell the idea that we are equals… I don´t know how it will end but all this are historic facts…

    1. Catalano - Leonés11 June, 2014 07:48

      Yep, it WAS very interesting to see the different points of view... till your tendentious statement irrupted...
      I ignore the interests that impels you to vomit such paraphernalia, but I clearly suggest you to read more about history and economic data from international sources, and to not following furthermore the integrism that floods the media from Madrid, because this turns your opinion into propaganda, useless for the aim and purposes of this site.
      I am an Spaniard who was always told (growing up in Barcelona) that our country is a multicultural environment, who interprets the idea of Spain like a ‘melting pot’, where cultural diversity is read as richness, not as a menace threatening ‘the uniformistic and untouchable Spanish nation’.
      BTW, could you identify which are the main treats that identify that Spanish nation? Toros?? Flamenco?? I guess you couldn’t name nothing but clichés because Spain is nothing else than the addition of the cultural traits and languages provided by the different nations that once formed it.
      That, in case you have never thought about, comes from the times of the ‘Taifas’ (dozens of emerging multicultural nations that evolved splendidly together after the Moor Invasion in 711 a.c.) and ‘Reconquista’ (the integrist catholic and uniformizing movement which fought from North to South, getting to expel Moors and Jews to Africa by 1492 a.c. and imposing the supremacy of Castilla and Castilian language over the rest of the nations).

  15. Hi, does anyone know what happens to EU nationals who live and work in Catalunya if this becomes independent and no longer a part of the EU (temporarely or indefinetively)? And what happens to savings in the bank in Euros?? Thanks a lot!

    1. I'm not a legal expert, but I imagine if the region really came under the control of a declared independent government, that government would have the power to decide most of those things. Though I think it's very likely they would be willing to make the transition as painless as possible in most cases.