Spain’s in strife. There are mass protests, people trying to suppress those protests, wide-ranging arrests, a referendum that may or may not be illegal, and no one’s really sure just how much of Spain is Spanish anymore. But then again, actually, no one’s really been sure about that for a long time.
We’re talking about Catalonia, which holds about 16% of the total population of Spain.
For most of history, Catalonia has been its own country, with its own laws, language, taxes and leaders. Then the War of Spanish Succession kicked off in 1702. Remember? No? Well, the result was modern day Spain. But Catalonia was never that keen on being Spanish. Subsequent kings tried to impose the Spanish language but Catalonia stubbornly resisted. And I mean, stubbornly, because in 1931, a few hundred years later, the Spanish government threw up their hands in exasperation and restored the Generalitat, or a national Catalonian government. This didn’t make Catalonia its own country, but it allowed them to elect their own leaders and exist with some autonomy.
Then World War 2 happened, and General Francisco Franco became Spain’s military dictator from 1936 to 1975. And he wasn’t too chilled out about the Catalonians wanting their independence. He shut down the movement and killed about 3,500 people to make sure they knew he meant business.
When Franco died, finally, at the age of 82, democracy was restored to Spain. Soon after, Catalonia was once again put on a leash by the Spanish government – they were given some autonomy, while still ultimately answering to the government of Spain. Many decades, laws and debates later, the issue is still tense for the Spanish and Catalonians.
Here’s the thing: Catalonia has money. Barcelona is in the middle of it, and its population is generally a lot better off than the rest of Spain. A lot of industry is in Catalonia, powering the Spanish economy. This is the real sticking point for modern day Catalonians, who pay tax to a Spanish government. So when the global financial crisis hit in 2008, the Catalonians weren’t happy about how the Spanish dealt with the turmoil. In effect, they saw a government spending their money to help the poor that don’t live in Catalonia. All in all, they’re fed up with not being recognised independently of Spain. 95% of their population speak Catalan – a language that is not officially recognised by the European Union.
In September, shit went down in the Catalan Parliament. This gets complicated.
So Catalan has its own Parliament and President, but they still must answer to Spain and its Prime Minister. The Prime Minister of Spain is Mariano Rajoy, but his party doesn’t hold a majority in the Catalan Parliament. The Catalonian President, Charles Puigdemont, is supported by a bunch of Spain’s bigger political parties. So the Catalonian Parliament managed to pass a referendum (a big public vote) on Catalonia’s independence, which doesn’t gel with the Spanish government. This led to violence in and around polling booths. Spanish security took voting boxes. They docked three boats in Barcelona’s port that all held police reinforcements to try and suppress Catalonian enthusiasm. It got ugly.
The votes that remain according to Puigdemont, are over 90% in favour of independence. He says it’s time to get on with it.
The fall out, however, would be massive for Spain. Spain would lose around 20% of its GDP (gross domestic product) – imagine taking away 20% of a nation’s economy overnight. Plus, there’s the small issue of Catalonia owing Spain over 50 billion euros in debt.
If it went ahead, Catalonia would be no joke. It’s economy would be bigger than Hong Kong or Portugal. It would be wealthier than Israel, Italy or South Korea.
No one’s quite sure what happens next – but it’ll all go down this week. The referendum was last week. The Spanish Supreme Court is moving to shut down attempts made by Catalonia to go independent, but Puigdemont is due to report the official results of the referendum in Catalonian parliament this week – where he might formally declare that Catalonia is now breaking up with Spain.
We’ll be back on Friday with the news.
Photo at the top by Emilio Morenatti.
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