Saturday, September 30, 2017

Referendum 2017: What is Catalonia?

This article is part of our Referendum 2017 coverage, spotlighting controversial independence votes in two of the world's autonomous regions: Kurdistan voted for independence from Iraq this Monday, and Catalonia will vote Sunday on leaving Spain. 

The following article is adapted from one originally published in 2013.

Catalonia and Spain: Map of Catalonia's location within Spain and relative to neighboring countries, including Spanish capital Madrid and Catalan capital Barcelona.
Map by Evan Centanni, based on this map by Mutxamel. License: CC BY-SA
By Omar Alkhalili, with additional reporting by Evan Centanni

Not Independent Yet: So What is Catalonia Now?

Catalonia is one of the "autonomous communities" of Spain (kind of like a state in the US), and also holds the official status of a "nationality" (but not "nation") within the Spanish system of government. 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 independent.

The region’s political administration includes four provinces and extends over a large part of the historical Principality of Catalonia, which also included a piece of what's 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 in Catalonia. ("Catalan" means "from Catalonia", like how "French" means "from France".)

Catalonia's History in a Nutshell

Early in Catalonia’s history, the region was ruled by Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths and Moors. After a period of Frankish administration, the region became 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 later unified with the Crown of Spain but kept self rule. However, during the War of the Spanish Succession in the early 1700s, King Philip V brought an end to Catalan self-rule, incorporating it fully under the Spanish monarchy.

Flag of the autonomous community of Catalonia Territory Name:  
• Catalonia (English)
• Catalunya (Catalan)
• Cataluña (Spanish)
• Catalonha (Occitan)
Capital: Barcelona
Official Status:  
Autonomous Community & Nationality within Spain
In the 20th century, Catalonia would have varying degrees of cultural independence. After the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, military leader Francisco Franco banned Catalan language and culture for several decades. After World War II, Spain would see booming economic growth (the so-called the “Spanish Miracle”) with Catalonia both contributing and benefiting. With the end of Franco’s rule in 1975 came the transition from dictatorship to democracy, which resulted in Catalonia being granted political, cultural, and linguistic autonomy under the new Spanish constitution.

Catalonia and Independence

The formation of pro-independence organizations in Catalonia began in the early 20th century, with armed groups like Terra Lliure, the Catalan Liberation Front, and the Catalan Red Liberation Army later showing up too. By the mid-1990s, however, most of the violent separatist groups had disbanded. Starting in 2008, the global recession hit Spain particularly hard, and the economic downturn rejuvenated nationalist aspirations in the relatively prosperous region. Separatists especially pointed to the fact that Catalonia was contributing almost 20% of Spain's tax revenue, while allegedly receiving less than 15% of federal government spending.

Polling in 2010 suggested that only 25% of Catalans wanted outright secession from Spain, but by 2012 that had grown to a surprising 51%. After pro-independence parties won a majority in the Catalan parliament in 2012, plans were made for a referendum on leaving Spain. A non-binding "popular consultation" vote was held in 2014 amid political and legal opposition from the Spanish government, with 81% of participants favoring Catalan independence - however, it was widely believed that opponents of independence didn't vote at all.

One proposed flag for an independent Catalonia
Catalonian independence flag. Graphic by Huhsunqu (CC BY-SA; source)
But after pro-independence parties retained their combined parliamentary majority in 2015, the regional government set out to separate from Spain once and for all. A serious, uncompromising independence referendum was eventually scheduled for October 1, 2017, in open defiance of the Spanish government and courts. Now, the Catalan administration is struggling to make sure the vote is still held, with national police taking direct action to close polling stations and keep ballots out of residents' hands. Even if the vote is held and independence wins, Catalonia will face a very tough and uncertain road ahead if it hopes to achieve real independent rule and recognition by other countries.

If Catalonia was Independent

How would Catalonia compare if it could became a recognized independent country now? It would have a population of 7.5 million people, making it the 101st most populous country in the world, and roughly 20th in Europe - just a bit less populous than Switzerland. The total land area of Catalonia is about 32,100 sq km (12,400 sq mi), making it roughly the 135th largest of the nearly 200 countries in the world, and 34th in Europe (about the size of Belgium).

Where is Catalonia on a map? Map of Catalonia's location within the European Union (EU) and Europe
Catalonia's place in the EU. Map by Evan Centanni, from this blank map by Ssolbergj. License: CC BY-SA
The gross domestic product (GDP) of the Catalonia region is about US$200 billion, which would make it roughly the 45th largest national economy in the world if it were an independent country, and about 15th largest in Europe (similar to Finland). If Catalonia strikes out on its own, Spain would lose roughly 16% of its population and 6% of its territory, and its GDP would be reduced by about 20%.

Can Catalonia Join the EU?

One big issue hanging over discussions of Catalan independence is European Union (EU) membership. As citizens of the UK know, leaving the EU is no simple matter, since member countries are heavily intertwined economically and in other ways. And for Catalonia, declaring independence probably means leaving the union: The EU says if Catalonia secedes from Spain, it will have to re-apply as a new member country. Since existing EU members, including Spain, must all agree before any new applicants are accepted, the odds aren't looking very good for Catalan membership in the near future.

Learn More: What will happen after Catalonia's controversial independence vote?

Stay tuned to PolGeoNow and the PolGeoNow Twitter feed for more updates on Catalonia's independence vote, plus new developments around the Kurdistan referendum in Iraq. Click here to view all Referendum 2017 articles

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