“… Spain, so long obsessed with the unity of authority, will loosen itself one day into a federal state… this redistribution of its powers will prove to be the most distinctly Spanish contribution to the progress of the nation states.” – Jan Morris – ‘Spain
I had been to Catalonia before but on that occasion without knowing as much as I do now I had a lot to learn. That within the Spanish Constitution it is defined as a ‘Nationality’ and enjoys significant regional autonomy it has its own distinct language and is culturally very different to the Spain of Castile. There is no mention here of El Cid or Don Quixote but rather of Antoni Gaudi and Salvador Dali and in 2012 the Catalan parliament even banned the iconic Spanish sport of bull fighting.
A bit of quick history – Catalonia was created by Charlemagne as a buffer state to protect the northern Frankish Empire from the threat of further northern expansion by the Moors and like all buffer states that has meant a turbulent history, squeezed between more powerful neighbours, its borders frequently rearranged, dismantled, absorbed and passed back and forth like a baton in a relay race depending upon the prevailing balance of power.
In 1492 Catholic Spain was united through the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella and the new power based in Madrid favoured Seville and Cadiz over Catalonia for monopoly of the New World trade routes and sea there power gradually declined, later there was conflict with Madrid again during the Thirty Year’s War and then The War of The Spanish Succession when Catalonia seemed to have an unfortunate tendency to back the losing side and then suffer the inevitable consequences when it came to peace and settlement.
During and after the Spanish Civil War Catalonia was one of the last Republican and Socialist areas to fall to the Nationalists of General Franco and then paid the price through years of recriminations, subjugation and suppression of its language and culture as the fascist government in Madrid set out to stamp the authority of Castile on its troublesome region.
The most recent conflict came very recently. A controversial independence referendum was held in October 2017, declared illegal one month later and suspended by the Constitutional Court of Spain because it breached the 1978 Constitution. In October, the Court suspended the Catalan Parliament after President Carles Puigdemont signed a declaration of independence.
In response the Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy dismissed the Executive Council of Catalonia, dissolving the Parliament of Catalonia. The referendum led to the arrests of several pro-independence politicians and Puigdemont fled into exile in Belgium.
Today the concept of independent Catalonia is not recognized or supported by the European Union or the international community, which regards the region as an integral part of the Kingdom of Spain.
Everywhere in Barcelona there are a lot of buildings draped with the red and gold flag of Catalonia, some already anticipating a successful transition to independence and rather prematurely announcing themselves as ‘A New State for Europe’. Everywhere there are Catalan flags and symbols, Catalan always comes first in guide books and menus, shops don’t sell King Felipe souvenirs, on official guides the flag of Spain is almost always defaced and the away team colours of FC Barcelona are the red and gold of Catalonia.
Here in Barcelona the hotel staff told me that they considered themselves to be Catalan first and Spanish second although they feared that any referendum for independence would ultimately fail because of the inherent conservatism of the older generation and because, whatever the outcome of a vote, Madrid would simply never allow it.
I have to conclude that Catalonia certainly doesn’t feel like the classic Spain of Castile but then again Andalusia doesn’t actually feel like the classic Spain of Castile either. I have now visited fifteen of the seventeen Autonomous Communities and I would find it very difficult to choose one that I might then suggest is most representative of the usual English vision and expectation of Spain. Castile must come close, or perhaps Valencia or even Extremadura, certainly not Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria or the Basque Country and I am yet to travel to La Rioja or Navarre so cannot offer an opinion on these.
As well as history, economics is a major driving force behind the independence movement because Catalonia is one of the most prosperous of the Spanish Communities and although it enjoys considerable autonomy it resents contributing almost 20% of revenues paid to Madrid and feels hard done by in terms of inward investment in their region in return.
It is the sixth largest region, has the sixth largest coastline and is sixth largest by population density (second overall after Andalusia). If it were to achieve independence it would be the twelfth smallest state in Europe just slightly larger than Belgium but a bit smaller than the Netherlands, it would have ninety of Spain’s five hundred and fifty blue flag beaches (16%) and six of its forty-four World Heritage sites (14%).
This is me with two life size figures dressed in Catalan National Costume…