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What do you know about Catalonian Separatism?

This post examines a political issue. For my academic work I often write political comment but any political posts here are designed solely to contribute to readers’ understanding of a place rather than to express opinions. Therefore, in these posts I seek to comment as dispassionately, objectively and fairly as I can (insofar as this is truly possible). To avoid oversimplification they are often longer reads.


Regular visitors to this site know I am currently wrapping up a travel guide exploring the Spanish province of Girona. Any travel book worth its salt should provide readers with at least some insight into a destination’s history, culture and people. This sometimes requires political comment if a destination is associated with a long-standing or prominent political issue.

Thus we come to the thorny subject of Catalonian separatism, which any detailed destination guide of Girona cannot really avoid. It is a major political issue in Catalonia and wider Spain and this long read is all about Catalonian separatism.

Spain’s Autonomous Regions

For centuries Spain has naturally divided into regions based on history, geography, identity and culture. Despite this long history of regional identity, following the brutal Spanish Civil War (1936-39) Spain became highly centralised and governed under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. After he died in 1975 there followed substantial administrative reorganisation with the adoption of a new constitution in December 1978.

This constitution acknowledged Spain’s history of regional identity by decentralising government and devolving various powers to the Spanish regions. There are 17 autonomous regions, each with their own assembly, as well as the autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla (Spain’s two remaining North African possessions).

One of these autonomous regions is Catalonia (Spanish: Cataluña, Catalonian: Catalunya), which is in the northeast of Spain. It is made-up of the four provinces of Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona.

What is Catalonian Separatism?

In Spain’s autonomous regions local identity runs deep. Arguably Andalusians are just as passionate about their local identity and culture as anyone else. However, generally-speaking their regional identity is subordinate to their national identity. In short, they are Spanish first, Andalusian second.

For many in Catalonia this is not the case and instead they focus primarily upon their regional identity. Reasons are multi-faceted and can be complex, but often history, politics, language and culture contribute to a region’s sense of distinctiveness and separateness. This sentiment can evolve into strong nationalist tendencies and is often expressed through a desire to break away from a country. This is known separatism.

In recent Spanish history two regions in particular have expressed strong separatist tendencies. The first is the Basque Country which sought to break away from Spain and during the Franco regime established a military wing (ETA) to employ violence to achieve its aims. In 1973 ETA notoriously detonated a bomb under the car of the then Spanish prime minister (the explosion was so powerful the car was thrown over a five storey building). ETA violence continued for decades after the death of Franco.

Street sign for Catalonian independence
Municipal street sign at entrance to a village stating, “A Municipality for Independence”.

The second expression of separatism in Spain is in Catalonia. Catalonian history, language and culture have all contributed strongly to this. But so too has recent politics, including the history of Catalonia in the Spanish Civil War, how Franco prohibited the speaking of the Catalonian language in public spaces, and more recently the view held by some that this wealthy region contributes disproportionately to Spain’s coffers.

Catalonian nationalists seek considerably more autonomy and powers, with many wanting a complete separation from Spain and the establishment of an independent Catalonian state. Though there is sometimes violence at demonstrations Catalonian nationalism has sought to achieve its aims through political rather than violent means.

Catalan nationalist flag hanging from a medieval church

For the British reader Basque Country separatism is akin to paramilitary efforts to prise Northern Ireland away from the United Kingdom to join a United Ireland (likewise Basque separatists sought to break away from Spain and join the French Basques). Meanwhile, Catalan nationalism more resembles Scottish nationalism and calls for an independent Scotland.

Recent Political Events

Modern Catalonian nationalism has grown steadily stronger following Spain’s adoption of the 1978 Constitution and the autonomous powers it devolved to the region. The Catalonian language was taught in schools, Catalonian television and radio stations were established and Catalan culture promoted and readily embraced across all walks of life. For example, during festivals the building of human towers (castells) is often lauded as a distinct aspect of Catalonian culture and identity.

Catalonian national identity is strongly emphasised in various walks of life. The Senyera—the Catalonian flag consisting of red and yellow stripes—is on wide display across the region. But the Senyera Estelada (the starred flag, a symbol of Catalonian nationalism) is even more widely visible in the strongly nationalist parts of Catalonia. It is often draped over church facades, apartment balconies and municipal traffic islands. Some municipalities are very explicit about their support for separatism.

Castellers in Vilafranca. Note the Senyera estelada hanging from the apartment block in the foreground (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

From a political perceptive friction between the region’s assembly and the Spanish government grew over several decades and reached a crunch point in 2017. Though not legally permitted to hold such a vote, nonetheless the Catalan government organised an independence referendum on 1 October.

The vote was declared illegal beforehand by the Spanish government but it went ahead anyway, garnering over two million votes in favour of independence and 177,000 against (this was out of a registered electorate of 5.3 million, so many voters abstained or ignored the poll).

The lead-up to the vote and the weeks that followed were politically electric. I was in L’Estartit, Girona, glued to the television and social media feeds for hours at a time. On the day of the poll there were various scuffles between police and voters which were spread widely on social media, some of which were striking and at times disquieting, while it later transpired some other images had been manipulated for political purposes.

“Freedom (for) political prisoners”

There followed nearly four weeks of bitter confrontation and threats between the Catalan and Spanish governments. At its core was whether or not the Catalonian parliament would declare independence based on the illegal referendum. In fact, on 27 October the parliament did indeed declare unilateral Catalonian independence. However, the declaration was not recognised internationally, the Spanish government intervened on the same day and direct rule was re-established over the region with fresh elections ordered for the region’s assembly in December.

Whether the Catalonian president Charles Puigdemont and assembly members were serious about their unilateral declaration of independence or were simply engaging in a massive public relations spectacle to further the cause of Catalonian nationalism, there followed considerable consequences for the region and some of its politicians.

Sought by the Spanish judiciary for sedition and rebellion the Catalan president and some politicians fled the country. Nine Catalonian politicians were eventually found guilty of sedition and misuse of public funds and were imprisoned with lengthy prison sentences. It became a rallying cry for Catalonian nationalists and Catalonians began attaching yellow ribbons everywhere and daubing them on roads and buildings.

Thousands of yellow ribbons attached to fence in Tossa de Mar
Thousands of yellow ribbons on a fence in Tossa de Mar

The imprisoned politicians were eventually pardoned by the current Spanish Prime Minister in 2021 to ease tensions between Spain and the Catalonian region. Yet yellow ribbons continue to be used as a potent symbol of Catalonian nationalism.

Meanwhile Carles Puigdemont—now an MEP—remains in exile under threat of arrest by the Spanish authorities who have sought on several occasions to have him extradited to Spain.

Some Observations

Commenting in a short blog post on an issue raising so much passion in Catalonia and across wider Spain is fraught with danger, whether by oversimplifying, the perception of an uninvested outsider commenting on an issue far from home, or appearing to take sides. Yet at the risk of annoying everyone I think some comment may be helpful for travellers visiting and seeking to understand this part of the world. Neither am I complete outsider, having lived in Spain during the final years of the Franco regime and witnessing first hand some of the changes that have taken place since.

First, do not underestimate just how major an issue this is when visiting the country. You could easily get yourself into a bit of a heated debate with throwaway or not-thought-through comments on the issue. The fact is, Catalonia is split right down the middle between separatists and unionists (a large part of the population is either from or descended from other parts of Spain who moved to the region for economic reasons).

Across Spain, too, there is considerable exasperation with the region’s nationalists. When the current Spanish leader pardoned those imprisoned a majority of Spaniards outside Catalonia opposed his decision.

about Catalonian separatism
Version of the Senyera estelada with the word “Liberty”

I think this situation raises such passion and ire across Spain because both sides have relevant and compelling arguments. From a Catalonian perspective the Civil War and Franco’s treatment of the region are powerful factors that continue to shape perceptions. Moreover, these are living memories in the minds of older Catalonians and the images of some heavy-handed Guardian Civil police in their army green uniforms on the day of the referendum must have evoked images of the Franco days.

Several days after the vote I sat and chatted with a group of old men over coffee and one said that events on that day had set back 40 years of efforts by the Spanish police and government to improve their standing in the region. Whether or not this is the case it was a sentiment I came across various times among older Catalonians.

Aside from this, Catalonia does have a long history of peculiarity and autonomy. It belonged to the kingdom of Aragon many centuries ago and at various times throughout Spanish history has been afforded a different status from other parts of the country.

That said, several other regions of Spain have their own unique history but are not seeking to break away. Neither does Catalonia have the same history of actual nationhood in the same way as Scotland. So the issue is not as straightforward as some suggest and for many Catalonians the issue of breaking away from Spain is as much about economics as history and culture.

Arguably some Catalonian politicians have been highly successful at capturing the various facets and strands to create a resilient expression of potent nationalism. When the then Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy legislated for fresh elections after taking back direct rule, the result once again was that Catalonian nationalist parties outnumbered the others.

Photo by Samuel Sweet from Pexels

I can also see it all from the perspective of Spanish unionists. Separatism usually indicates dissatisfaction with the country the separatists wish to leave and patriotic people naturally respond to that. On the whole, Spaniards are highly patriotic and annoyed with Catalonian separatists they regard as divisive and turning their back on Spanish unity to go it alone.

The very constitution adopted in 1978 that devolved powers to the regions also affirms the unity of the country and that one part cannot leave of its own volition. The official website of the Spain’s Prime Minister and government states:

The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation and recognises the right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions integrated into it, as well as solidarity among them all.

La Moncloa

Thus, for the majority of Spaniards the referendum and declaration of independence were clearly illegal acts and they supported the imprisonment of the Catalonian prisoners.

Arguably the government of then Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy mishandled the situation. The Catalan independence poll was illegal and it would have no legal validity anyway, so why send in Spanish police in their military style uniforms by their thousands to break up crowds and seize ballot boxes? Moreover, when my wife and I left Catalonia and crossed over to Castellón province, I was astounded by the sheer number of armed police and Guardia Civil checking cars in and out of the region.

It could be argued that all this presence probably strengthened support for separatism. Moreover, the imprisoned politicians became martyrs for many. Some Spanish friends tell me extreme Catalonian nationalists agitate and exaggerate their plight and I can see this. The language and slogans sometimes employed by the more extreme elements would suggest Catalonia is under brutal Spanish occupation, which it certainly is not.

But perceptions matter and can be weaponised, and the police presence and scenes in Catalonia in October 2017 provided some with considerable political ammunition.

Spanish flag. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

For many Spaniards the situation is clear: those Catalonian nationalists broke the law by holding a referendum. That seems fundamentally to be the case. But when it comes to self-determination it seems unlikely that demanding someone had better stay and remain friends “or else” is not the most effective strategy. Whether by design or accident, that is how Rajoy’s handling of it came across for many.

Perhaps, though, this highlights a key cultural difference between Spain and Britain. Many exasperated Spaniards supported the prime minister’s handling of the situation. Despite its openness to devolution and regionalism I do think the country’s authoritarian history and philosophical tradition continue to be reflected in a top-down, hierarchical governance whereby any challenge to the state is met full on.

Back in the UK we have handled our own separatist issue very differently. A formal referendum was permitted and held in 2014 and I am quite sure that had the British government expressed similar sentiment the Scottish separatists would have won by a landslide. Meanwhile, many English people are equally exasperated by Scottish nationalism, but whereas in Spain much of the population agrees Catalonia cannot leave the union unless the whole country agrees, in England a common attitude is that if the Scots wish to leave, let them.

Perhaps Spain and Britain do things differently, certainly attitudes are quite different.

Perhaps the most effective way of challenging separatism is to win people over. The current prime minister of Spain has understood this and his wholly different approach has helped to lower tensions and foster more dialogue. But it has not gone down well with much of the rest of the country. Meanwhile, symbols of Catalonian independence remain scattered across the region, nationalist sentiment continues to bubble under the surface and families across Catalonia have been torn apart by this issue. It is a situation that is not going to fade away any time soon.

Concluding Remarks

When in the region it is really helpful to chat with people in a thoughtful and measured manner to try to get different perspectives on the issue, which will in turn broaden your understanding of it all.

It will also throw up all sorts of anomalies. My family has had several encounters with die-hard nationalists who simply refuse to speak Spanish, yet when I’ve raised this with several nationalist friends they have reacted with scorn to such behaviour as petty and childish. I know someone who is as nationalist as they come but desperately wants to live far away in a completely different part of Spain rather than in Catalonia.

Another strong separatist I know is contemplating voting for the Vox party. Yet Vox is on the hard right of Spanish politics and diametrically opposed to Catalonian nationalism (the Catalan nationalist parties tend to be leftists). Elsewhere, the provinces of Girona and Lleida are nationalist diehards, Barcelonans are divided and the inhabitants of Tarragona province largely indifferent. It’s a mixed bag across the region.

These anomalies and complexities echo Catalonia’s—and Spain’s—long and very complicated history and if you are a politics anorak like me it’s a fascinating corner of Europe to observe and spend time in. The people across all of Spain are kind, open, very friendly and nearly always willing to chat, which is a great way of contributing to your own understanding of an issue and destination.

Before You Go

The new Girona book is due for publication in the next few weeks. Subscribe to receive updates about this and other forthcoming publications.

I also have a book out exploring the principality of Andorra, including Andorran society and a detailed chapter on the history of this tiny country in the eastern Pyrenees mountains. The book is available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle ebook formats.

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