OMNIA Q&A: The Independence Referendum in Catalonia

Antonio Feros, Associate Professor of History, on why Catalans—the people who populate the northeastern region of Spain—feel so strongly about their regional identity.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Antonio Feros, Associate Professor of History 

Two and a quarter million of the 5.3 million registered voters of Catalonia (an autonomous region in northeastern Spain) gathered to vote on a referendum to declare the region’s independence from the nation of Spain on October 1, 2017. The Spanish courts and central government in Madrid deemed the vote illegal and unconstitutional. As a result, Catalan voters were met at the polls with violence by Spanish riot police. Nevertheless, the Catalan government claims that 90 percent of voters—representing 37.8 percent of the Catalonian population with the right to vote, but less than 30 percent of Catalonia’s total population—approved independence. Subsequently, the Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, announced that he would implement a never-used article in their Constitution to remove Catalonia’s leader, Carles Puigdemont. On October 21, nearly half a million protestors took to the streets in Barcelona, Catalonia’s largest city and de facto capital. 

We spoke with Antonio Feros, Associate Professor of History, author of the recently published Speaking of Spain: The Evolution of Race and Nation in the Hispanic World, and expert on the politics, culture, and ethnic relations of Spain, about the historical underpinnings that have led to the independence referendum and why the Catalan people feel so strongly about their regional identity. 

What is the historical context for the current political upheaval between Spain and Catalonia?

Historically, Spain is a composite of territories. Some of them have deep-rooted national identities. The political unification of those territories in the early modern period initiated a time of connected history between the regions, but with varying degrees of success. Since (at least) the late 17th century and certainly since the 18th, there have been concerted efforts to construct a Spanish identity without obliterating these distinct regional identities—an impulse that was shared by many Catalans and Basques. On the other hand, the construction of a Spanish nation—a political entity called ‘Spain’ and a Spanish identity—has been contested over the course of time, leading us to our present moment. 

How do regional and national identities interact in Spain?

This issue is crucial to understanding the situation in Spain today and throughout history. While the U.S. continues to be divided by racism and the legacy of slavery, the main point of discord in Spain has always been the “national question.” The main political preoccupation of most Spaniards is the relationship between a Spanish national identity and regional identities, absent strong anti-immigrant and anti-European movements. This is because some regions—Catalonia, Basque Country, and to a lesser extent, Galicia—maintain that they are not regions with regional identities, but nations with national identities. 

It is noteworthy that the Spanish case differs from that of Britain and the majority of Europe because Spanish motivations have never been about religious differences, but rather politics and culture. More precisely, the Spanish case stems from the belief among the inhabitants of various regions that Spain is a multinational country. 

Is Catalonia distinct from other regions in Spain?

Historically, there are both similarities and distinctions between Catalonia and other parts of Spain. Catalonia has been a part of the Spanish monarchy since the late 15th century and of a country called Spain since the 19th century. That’s more than 500 years of shared history within a single (more or less unified) polity. Catalans participated in the colonization of the Americas, have been involved in the government of the country, have voted in the general elections and helped elect Spanish governments, fought in wars alongside other Spaniards, collaborated with Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, and married other Spaniards. Some Catalans (although it is difficult to know how many) think of themselves as Spaniards first, and only a few Catalans would claim that they are ethnically different from other Spaniards.

Yet, at the same time, Catalonia is different, and Catalans feel themselves distinct. Although they have been a part of Spain for hundreds of years, Catalonia has managed to preserve its own identity. It’s not the only enduring regional identity in Spain, but Catalonia has always been the most assertive, and Catalans have struggled to be recognized as a distinct nation within the country. 

What are the major historical milestones in Catalonia’s bid for its own national identity?

The history of Catalonia’s struggle for recognition begins with the Catalan rebellion of 1640 against the Spanish monarchy, which led to the declaration of a Catalan Republic. Then, in the early 18th century, Catalans resisted the armies of the new Spanish king Philip V. After years of peaceful coexistence, the late 19th century witnessed a Catalan cultural “renaissance.” That renaissance became a political movement that led to the unilateral proclamation of a Catalan Republic in 1934. It lasted mere hours but demonstrated the vitality of Catalonia’s historical aspirations. During Francisco Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975), all expressions of Catalanism, including the use of the language, were fiercely repressed. Catalans were forced to conform to one uniform Spanish identity. Only with the restoration of democracy in 1977 did Catalonia receive some recognition of its distinctiveness.  

The first clear attempt to create a new political system—in which the various national-regional identities would be fully recognized within the frame of a Spanish nation and identity—was the Constitution of 1978. The constitution declares Spain to be a multi-national state, in which the rights of the “nationalities and regions” are recognized. It underlines the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards.” 

The milestone development of the Constitution contrasted starkly with the repression of national identities and cultures during the Franco dictatorship. For example, the laws regulating Catalonia’s autonomy (Estatuto de Autonomía de Cataluña, approved in 1979 and reformed in 2006) define Catalans as a “nationality” constituted as an autonomous community within the constitutional frame, with certain prerogatives (including the recognition of Catalan as a co-official language in the region) and rights of self-government. Many Spaniards viewed this arrangement as a democratic solution and the perfect conclusion to a shared, if conflictive, history. For the first time in centuries, many people in the country believed that it was possible to be both Spanish and Catalan, or Spanish as well as Basque.

Has the Catalan separatist movement gained strength in recent years? 

The Catalan separatist movement has waxed and waned over time, but there is no doubt that it has gained strength since the early 2010s. The reason is the failure of all attempts to strengthen Catalan autonomy using constitutional mechanisms. In 2006, the Catalan and Spanish parliaments approved a reform of the Catalan Statute of Autonomy of 1979, declaring Catalonia a “nation,” making Catalan the official language in the region, giving the Catalan government greater prerogatives, and reinforcing the autonomy of Catalan judicial institutions. The new statute was overwhelmingly approved by referendum in 2007, although the conservative Partido Popular and the most extremist Catalan nationalists opposed the reforms.

In 2006, the Partido Popular challenged the reforms and asked the Constitutional Court to annul them. Four years later, in 2010, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional some of the most important of these reforms and reinstated the statute of 1979. The failure to reform the Statute of Autonomy—widely considered to be obsolete—through constitutional and parliamentary mechanisms convinced many political parties and civic associations that independence was the only course left, and that only a sovereign Catalan parliament could implement the political changes that many demanded. 

Since then, Catalan separatism has only gathered momentum. In 2012, for the first time, the National Day of Catalonia, called Diada, turned into a display of separatist aspirations. In 2014, the—by then, openly separatist—Catalan government organized a non-binding referendum, which paved the way for the referendum of October 1, 2017. The rhetoric has now escalated to unprecedented levels.

Was the referendum unconstitutional, as the Spanish government stated?

The referendum was unconstitutional, not because the Spanish government said so, but because it was against constitutional provisions. The Supreme Court already declared on December 2, 2015 that all decisions taken in the Catalan Parliament aimed towards a declaration of independence were unconstitutional and illegal. Many believe that the problem is not that the referendum was unconstitutional, but rather that the Spanish government has refused to countenance any dialogue on regional autonomy or constitutional reform over the past few years. Those years represent a lost opportunity to openly debate the national question in Spain and explore the possibility of constitutional reform.

To excerpt my recent book, Speaking of Spain: “In the years to come, Spaniards will continue to confront the national question and the existence of peoples of varied ethnicity in their midst. They will have to decide if they can continue speaking of the Spanish nation and identity, or if this nation will end up splintering, with the separation of Catalonia and/or the Basque Country. The point of departure in confronting these challenges should not be to deny the existence of a history profoundly marked by discriminatory behaviors toward others who did not consider themselves Spaniards … The history of the country proves that real union comes not from the imposition of uniformity but from recognizing and accepting cultural differences and the right of the various peninsular nations to decide their own future.”

The King of Spain spoke out against the vote in Catalonia. Is that unusual?

As the head of the state, the King of Spain is expected to address the public on matters of national importance—and the referendum in Catalonia opened what is perhaps the most serious political crisis in the country since the end of Franco’s regime in 1975. No one disputes the king’s constitutional right to address the Spanish people or to remind everyone that the referendum was illegal. What many object to is that the king did not acknowledge the sentiments, aspirations, or expectations of the Catalans. He did not try to build bridges with those Catalans who believed they were merely exercising their democratic rights by voting and never uttered a word of apology for the violence perpetrated by the police against voters in the referendum.

Does the Catalan separatist movement share anything with other populist or nationalist movements in Europe?


When it comes to forms of propaganda that are used to mobilize the people, then yes, the Catalan separatist movement has much in common with other populist and nationalist movements in Europe. But similar tactics do not mean similar ideologies and goals. There is nothing anti-globalist, anti-European Union, or anti-migrant in the programs of the main parties behind the separatist referendum. 

Historically, Catalonia has been the most economically advanced region of Spain, as well as the most outward-looking and Europeanist. Therefore, what we are witnessing is the continuation of a long history of unions and disunions, harmony and conflict, between Catalonia and Spain. It is not a local manifestation of a European or global phenomenon—whether the rise of populism or nationalism.

What would independence or secession mean for the people of Catalonia? Would other nations recognize Catalan independence if they seceded?  

If Catalonia becomes independent—by no means a foregone conclusion—it is hard to predict the consequences. An independent Catalonia will not be recognized by the European Union, the U.S., or most of the Latin American countries. The economic impact, at least initially, could be devastating—several major banks and companies already announced their decision to relocate their headquarters away from Catalonia to other parts of the country. Although it may sound like a joke, I think the only countries that would recognize an independent Catalonia are Russia and North Korea.