After last year’s controversial independence vote brought the worldwide attention on the region of Catalonia, we take a look at who the Catalan people are and why they want independence.
The independence movement has hit headlines around the world and made people question why the Catalans want freedom. Is the region really that different from the rest of Spain? To understand, we have to travel back in time…
A quick history lesson
The first known reference to the Catalans comes from the early 12th century in an account of the conquest of Menorca. At the time there was no such place as Catalonia but there was clearly a known cultural or political entity under that name.
Eventually, the counties that would come to comprise the Principality of Catalonia were unified under the Count of Barcelona.
At the time this included much of Eastern Spain, as well as parts of Southern France. The Principality then allied with the Kingdom of Aragon to become the Crown of Aragon, though Catalonia and Aragon were both treated as separate political and legal entities.
In 1258, The Treaty of Corbeil turned the de facto independence of the Catalan counties into full legal independence. The Catalan territory, though under the Crown of Aragon, was its most important area and Barcelona quickly became its real powerhouse due to its location on the mediterranean.
The creation of modern Spain
The marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castille in 1469 paved the way for what is now modern Spain by unifying the main Christian kingdoms on the Iberian peninsula.
Over the following few hundred years, various attempts were made to erode and criminalise Catalan culture and language. After the War of Spanish Succession, the Nueva Planta Decrees in 1716 formally abolished the Crown of Aragon and prohibited the official use of Catalan in the area.
Despite all of this, Catalonia continued to be a hugely important trading region of Spain and in the 19th century was the centre of Spain’s industrialisation.
Through the early 20th Century, Catalonia and its culture came under attack. The Second Spanish Republic (1931) reinstated Catalonia as a self-governing region only for the region to be abolished, and the language outlawed, by Franco after the Civil War. It wasn’t until 1975 that Catalonia, its people, and its language, could finally recover.
The Catalan countries
Catalonia as we know it consists of a roughly triangular region of North-East Spain. Bordered in the North by France, it stretches from the Mediterranean across to about halfway through the Pyrennees, encompassing Andorra. The border then heads down to meet up with the Mediterranean coast again just South of the Ebro Delta.
This, however, is not the full extent of what Catalans consider to be Catalonia. The province of Valencia to the South was once a part of Catalonia as was the French department of Pyrénées-Orientales, also known by some as Le Pays Catalan or Catlunya del Nord.
There’s also the Balearic Islands, where Catalan is widely spoken, and Catalan is the only language of Andorra. There’s also a town on the island of Sardinia where Catalan is spoken. Finally, there’s a thin strip of Aragon, known as La Franja, bordering Catalonia and Valencia, which is more Catalan than Spanish.
Together these are referred to as Països Catalans. Usually the term refers simply to ‘places where Catalan is spoken’. There are some who would like to see all of these territories combined into one country known as Catalunya.
The Catalan people and their culture
In The Road to Santiago, author Walter Starkie describes the Catalans as a subtle people, summing up their national character as being common sense and pragmatic.
The Catalan language, spoken by around 10 million people, is a romance language similar to Occitan and sharing many features of other romance languages such as French, Italian and Spanish.
Catalan cuisine is a mediterranean diet, including the use of olive oil, garlic and tomatoes. They like to eat veal and lamb, as well as a wide range of sausages and cold meats. The main meal is usually taken in the middle of the day rather than at night.
The main religion in Catalonia is Roman Catholicism at around 52%, with 30% agnostic or atheist and the rest made up of muslims and other forms of Christianity. Many of the Catholics are non-practising and the region experienced a wave of secularisation in response to the Catholic Church’s support of Franco during his dictatorship.
The region has a very long musical history stretching back to the middle ages. Barcelona’s wealth as a city allowed the active cultivation of the arts and its heritage stems from this. Two of the best known Spanish guitarists, Tarrega and Llobet are Catalans.
In contrast to Flamenco, which comes from Southern Spain, the traditional dances of Catalonia are called Sardanes, which come in a variety of different forms.
The Catalan independence movement
Calls for independence have been growing steadily stronger since autonomy was returned to the region following the end of Franco’s rule. The reasons, as always, are complex and way beyond the scope of this article There are, however, a number of key issues.
Firstly, throughout history, the Catalans have been treated badly by many of Spain’s rulers who feel that the independent culture and language should be subsumed within a greater ‘Spanish Identity’ rather than remaining independent.
Secondly, the region is the richest in Spain, and the financial crisis that almost destroyed the country has led to feelings that it’s Barcelona and the rest of Catalonia that are propping up the country as a whole.
Although such an estimation is problematic, an independent Catalonia, whose GDP is around 20% of the country’s total, would be the 34th largest economy in the world, eclipsing both Portugal and Hong Kong.
Independence, of course, is never easy and there would be difficult questions to answer on how to break down the country’s finances – the region effectively ‘owes’ the country billions of Euros – and how to effect the separation. All of which doesn’t really matter because unless Madrid decides to allow Catalonia to have a real vote on independence, nothing is likely to change.