L’ elefant a l’habitació – Thoughts on the claims for an independent Catalonia, part one

by presbiter iohannes


I’m born, raised and currently living in Barcelona, capital of Catalonia, an autonomous community in Spain. Today a public consultation is held here, the topic in discussion being the independence of Catalonia. The questions (I will get back to them later) are:

  1. Do you want Catalonia to be a state?



  1. If so, do you want that state to be independent?



Let me tell you right away what the results will be like:  the voter turnout will be somewhere between 800,000 and 1,200,000, and around 90 % of them will vote Yes to both questions. I will get back these figures later on, too.

What’s this all about, anyway? Why do Catalans seek the independence?

The reasons

The main claimed reasons are:

  1. Lack of autonomy or sufficient self-government.
  2. Economic mistreatment.
  3. Cultural suffocation.

Let’s check them out.

  1. Lack of autonomy or sufficient self-government

As the argument goes, Catalonia, an independent nation for centuries, was defeated by Spain in 1714 and therefore its laws and institutions were abolished and were not recovered, partially and insufficiently, until 1979. From 1979 to the present day, the situation prior to 1714 has to be regained yet. Any attempt of the Catalan people or the autonomous government to achieve a new level of self-government has faced the Spanish government confrontation. The last examples have been the denial of a proper referendum of independence and, before that, the constitutional appeal on the Autonomy Statute (a sort of regional constitution) issued by the Spanish government which resulted in the factual revocation of articles related to new levels of autonomy and to the consideration of Catalonia as a nation.

However, in 1714 a war ended in Spain, indeed, but it was the Spanish War of Succession, in which two candidates fought to claim the throne of Spain. In this war, a vast part of Catalonia and other regions of Spain, along with several European countries, backed the ultimately defeated candidate, while other European countries and regions of Spain, Castile among them, and a minor part of Catalonia fought for the winner. The first were punished (differently, depending on the time they needed to surrender), the latter were rewarded (e.g., the city of Cervera in Catalonia).

The Bourbon candidate won the war and, as some Catalans expected, he unified the laws, institutions and official language in all of Spain just like his ancestors have done in France before.

So, was or was not Catalonia independent before 1714? According to French historian Pierre Vilar:

What was abolished – in any case, it could be discussed, about this suppression, its legal form – was the remnants of a medieval state (and in this case the term state is debatable). It was, it is true, a representative system; representative of the three social states (excluding, of course, the popular element). However, it is thought that monetary and customs alignment in the Spanish territory that the Bourbons had focused on the Peninsula could generate fears of a complete disappearance of the old Catalan economic originality, but it is known that a new originality was obtained by successful industrialization.

And British historian John Lynch writes:

The defeat of 1714 was not a catastrophe. Everything continued working in the case of Catalans, widows and orphans continued to develop the work that the men had left. The difficulties of postwar were gradually overcome and the Catalans continued producing, selling and buying. Their sense of identity was intact and the Catalan language survived, being in popular use, if not official. The sacrosanct institutions were destroyed, but the institutions are not the only expression of the identity of a people. Catalonia was not a nation-state; so, although he had much to lose, independence was not a part of it. Despite the harsh repression, there was not a resistance movement, not even a revival of rural banditry and none of the group leaders tried to draw the crowds after a regional government program. However, the political inertia of Catalonia in the eighteenth century is not only related to the loss of ancestral institutions but to the existence of compensating factors in other areas as well.

The Catalan identity is expressed not only in the charters but also in the growth and ambitions of dynamic interest groups. When they were frustrated by the Spanish political, exploded. Resistance to Philip V in 1705-1714 was strong and full, culminating in a heroic struggle to retain Barcelona, in which nobles, merchants and students fought to the end, and there were no desertions. Leadership came from the middle class who had recently experienced economic growth and business expansion. What did defeat mean for them, for the urban elite and the gentry? They lost their political freedom and representation in the government, which hurt his self-esteem. They lost the ability to defend their own interests and to distance themselves from a decrepit Castile. In particular, their hopes in America were shattered, having to endure a stricter application of the monopoly of Cadiz and Seville. So, what did Catalans get from the new Bourbon state?  Nothing, in the short run. In the medium term, the possibility of economic development, a protected market for their products in Castile and an eventual outflow in America for their exports. The Succession War forced the Catalans to pause rather than stop completely.

To make a long story short, Catalonia was not an independent state as we conceive the term nowadays. It was one of the many territories of a King, first the King of the Franks, then the King of Aragon (after a period in which several barons and counts ruled each one their own domains) and finally the King of Spain; it had a House of Representatives of the three sates of the Ancien Régime, that is to say, non-democratic.  The Catalan civil law, in its various forms, continued to exist, even during Franco’s dictatorship.

The Catalan nationalist movement does not come uninterrupted from ancient times, it was born in the 19th century; allow me to copy an excerpt from the Wikipedia:

The Renaixença (“rebirth” or “renaissance”) was a cultural, historical and literary movement that pursued, in the wake of European Romanticism, the recovery of the Catalans’ own language and literature. As time went by, and particularly immediately after the fiasco of the Revolution of 1868(led by the Catalan general Juan Prim), the movement acquired a clear political character, directed to the attainment of self-government for Catalonia within the framework of the Spanish liberal state.

Like most Romantic currents, the Renaixença gave historical analysis a central role. History, in fact, was an integral part of Catalonia’s “rebirth.” Texts on Catalonia’s history — inspired by the Romantic philosophy of history — laid the foundations of a Catalanist movement. (…)

At the heart of many of the works of the Renaixença lay a powerful idea: the Volk. Indeed, the concept of Volk (pl. Völker) played a vital role in mainstream Catalan Romantic nationalism. It has its origins in the writings of German Romantics like Friedrich Carl von SavignyGeorg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and, most notably, Johann Gottfried Herder.

The concept of Volk entered Catalan intellectual circles in the 1830s, stemming from the emphasis on the region’s medieval history and philology. (…). Inspired by the ideas of Herder, Savigny and the entire Scottish School of Common Sense, they asked why the Catalans were different from other Spaniards — especially the Castilians (Conversi 1997: 15) For example, Cortada wanted to determine why, despite its poor natural environment, Catalonia was so much more successful economically than other parts of Spain. In a series of generalizations, he concluded that the “Catalans have succeeded in developing a strong sense of resolution and constancy over the centuries. Another feature of their character was the fact that they were hardworking people” (Llobera 1983: 342). D’Eixalà and Llorens held a similar understanding of the Catalan national character. They held that two characteristics particular to Catalans were common sense (seny) and industriousness. To them, “the traditional Catalan seny was a manifestation of the Volksgeist“, one which made Catalans essentially different from Castilians (Llobera 2004: 75).

The early works on the Catalan Volk would remain on paper long before they entered politics. This is because the Catalan bourgeoisie had not yet abandoned the hope of spearheading the Spanish state (Conversi 1997: 14). Indeed, in the 1830s, the Renaixença was still embryonic and the industrial class still thought that it could at least control the Spanish economy. Notions of Catalonia’s uniqueness mattered little to a group that believed it could integrate and lead the entire country. But this all changed around 1880. After decades of discrimination from Spanish elites, Catalan industrialists buried their dream of leading Spain. As Vilar observes: “It is only because, in its acquisition of the Spanish market, the Catalan industrial bourgeoisie did not succeed either in securing the state apparatus or identifying its interests with those of the whole of Spain, in influential opinion, that Catalonia, this little “fatherland”, finally became the ‘national’ focal point”, (1980: 551)

This switch of allegiance was particularly easy because the idea of a Catalan nation had already matured into a corpus of texts about the region’s “uniqueness” and Volksgeist. Inspired by these works of Romantic nationalism, the Catalan economic elite became conscious of “the growing dissimilitude between the Catalonia’s social structure and that of the rest of the nation” (Vilar 1963: 101). Consequently, Romantic nationalism (and the Volk) expanded beyond its philosophical bounds into the political arena.

In the last third of the 19th century, Catalanism was formulating its own doctrinal foundations, not only among the progressive ranks but also amongst the conservatives. At the same time it started to establish its first political programmes (e.g. Bases de Manresa, 1892), and to generate a wide cultural and association movement of a clearly nationalistic character.


As of today, what is the level of self-government in Catalonia? Spain is an autonomic state, meaning that it is administratively divided in autonomous communities. Their level of autonomy varies but Catalonia and others are in the second level, the first being only for the Basque Country and Navarre. The difference between the first and the second level lies in the fact that the Basques and Navarrese collect all taxes and then give a part to the Spanish government, while Catalonia collects only a part and receives the rest of the money for its budget from the Spanish government. Actually, Spain is a federal State, and the autonomous communities are the state members, just like the länder in Germany.

In Germany the division of competencies of federal and state governments is as follows:

The Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany divides authority between the federal government and the states (German: “Länder”),(…)Thus, the federal government can exercise authority only in those areas specified in the Basic Law. The Basic Law divides the federal government’s legislative responsibilities into exclusive powers (Articles 71 and 73), concurrent powers (Articles 72, 74, and 74a), and framework powers (Article 75). The exclusive legislative jurisdiction of the federal government extends to defenseforeign affairsimmigrationtransportationcommunications, and currency standards. The federal and state governments share concurrent powers in several areas, including civil lawrefugee and expellee matters, public welfareland managementconsumer protectionpublic health, and the collection of vital statistics. In the areas of mass medianature conservation, regional planning, and public service regulations, framework legislation limits the federal government’s role to offering general policy guidelines, which the states then act upon by means of detailed legislation. The areas of shared responsibility for the states and the federal government were enlarged by an amendment to the Basic Law in 1969 (Articles 91a and 91b), which calls for joint action in areas of broad social concern such as higher education, regional economic development, and agricultural reform. The states are represented at the federal level through the Bundesrat, which has a role similar to the upper house in a true bicameral parliament. International relations, including international treaties, are primarily the responsibility of the federal level but, as in other federations, the constituent states have limited powers in this area. (…).[3]

One of the major fields in which the states (Länder) are largely sovereign is “culture”, which in Germany includes not only matters like subsidies for the arts but also most education.


In Scotland:

(…) However, under the terms of the Scotland Act, Westminster agreed to devolve some of its responsibilities over the domestic policy of Scotland to a new directly elected Scottish Parliament.[49] Such matters are known as “devolved matters” and include education, health, agriculture and justice.[50] The Scotland Act enabled the Scottish Parliament to pass primary legislation on these issues. A degree of domestic authority, and all foreign policy, remain with the UK Parliament in Westminster.[50] The Scottish Parliament has the power to pass laws and has limited tax-varying capability.[51] Another of the roles of the Parliament is to hold the Scottish Government to account.[52]

The specific devolved matters are all subjects which are not explicitly stated in Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act as reserved matters. All matters that are not specifically reserved are automatically devolved to the Scottish Parliament.[50] Most importantly, this includes agriculture, fisheries and forestry, economic development, education, environment, food standards, health, home affairs, Scots law – courts, police and fire services, local government, sport and the arts, transport, training, tourism, research and statistics and social work.[50] The Scottish Parliament has the ability to alter income tax in Scotland by up to 3 pence in the pound.[51] The 2012 Act conferred further fiscal devolution including borrowing powers and some other unconnected matters such as setting speed limits and control of air guns.

Reserved matters are subjects that are outside the legislative competence of the Scotland Parliament.[51] The Scottish Parliament is unable to legislate on such issues that are reserved to, and dealt with at, Westminster (and where Ministerial functions usually lie with UK Government ministers). These include abortionbroadcasting policy, civil service, common markets for UK goods and services, constitutionelectricity, coal, oil, gas, nuclear energydefence and national security, drug policy, employment, foreign policy and relations with Europe, most aspects of transport safety and regulation, National Lottery, protection of borders, social security and stability of UK’s fiscal, economic and monetary system.


In Catalonia:

Law, Order & Justice
Police Partial
Public Safety (Civil protection, Firearms, gambling) Shared
Civil & Administrative Law (Justice, Registries, Judicial Appointments) Exclusive
Child & Family Protection Exclusive
Consumer Protection Exclusive
Data protection Shared
Civil registry & Statistics Exclusive
Health, Welfare & Social Policy
Social Welfare Exclusive
Equality Exclusive
Social Security Shared
Employment Shared
Health Care Shared
Benevolent/Mutual Societies Shared
Economy, Transport & Environment
Public Infrastructure (Rail, Road, Airports) Shared
Environment (Nature, Contamination, Rivers, Weather) Shared
Economic Planning & Development Shared
Advertising, Rgional Markets and regional controlled origin designations Exclusive
Professional associations Exclusive
Workplace & Industrial safety Partial
Financial (Regional Cooperative Banks, & Financial Markets) Shared
Press & Media Shared
Water (Local drainage Basin) Exclusive
Regional Development (Coast, Housing Rural Services) Exclusive
Public Sector & Cooperative Banks Shared
Energy & Mining Shared
Competition Partial
Agriculture and Animal welfare Exclusive
Fisheries Shared
Hunting & Fishing Exclusive
Local Transport & Communications (Road Trspt, Maritime Rescue) Exclusive
Tourism Exclusive
Culture & Education
Culture (libraries, museums, Film industry, Arts & Crafts…) Shared
Culture (Language Promotion, R & D Projects) Exclusive
Cuture (Sports, Leisure, Events) Exclusive
Education (Primary, secondary, University, Professional & Language) Exclusive
Religious Organisations Exclusive
Cultural, welfare & Education Associations Regulation Exclusive
International Relations (Culture & language, Cross Border relations) Shared
Resources & Spending
Own Tax resources Yes
Allocation by Central Government Convergence Funds
Other resources Co-payments (Health & education)
Resources 60% own resources


Summing up, Catalonia has as much political autonomy as any federated state, more than Scotland and is far from being subdued. And yet, obviously, being independent would be the only step left in the self-government ladder to be taken.

It will continue…