The Issue of Catalan Independence

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Eleanor Shaw

Within the borders of Spain, the region of Catalonia has been the site of growing tension which has resulted in Spain’s first political crisis in 40 years. According to BBC news, Catalonia is “one of Spain’s wealthiest regions, making up 16% of the national population and accounting for almost 19% of Spanish GDP.” Outside of this, Catalonia is home to approximately 7.5 million citizens and has its own language, parliament, flag, anthem, and police force. Catalonia functions as a semi-autonomous region and is widely considered to be extremely self-sufficient. In fact, many Catalan citizens have argued that Spain has profited off of Catalonia’s ever-increasing wealth and has given little in return. Consequently, many citizens of Catalonia have called for separation from the Spanish government in order to become an independent nation. Ever since Spain came to possess Catalonia in the 15th century, the call for Catalonian independence has been intensifying.

During this past decade, tensions between Catalonia and the Spanish government have increased sharply. In 2014 and 2015, partial referendums were held concerning Catalonia’s independence. While these referendums did not make much of an impact on Spain’s political landscape, that all changed in late 2017 when a regional snap election was held regarding Catalonia’s desire to separate from Spain. This served as an incitement, launching Spain into its most severe political crisis in 40 years.

A protest in support of Catalan separation is held in Barcelona (photo: Tony Cartalucci,

This crisis first flared up during October of 2017 when a full referendum was held in which people would vote for whether or not Catalonia should separate from Spain. This was met with extreme police suppression that has been compared to the measures taken during the brutal Franco dictatorship (lasted from 1939 to 1979). Even after the election occurred, the Spanish military was deployed into Catalonia to try to maintain order. According to BBC, nearly 90% of Catalan voters backed independence, but voter turnout was only 43% due to these external factors. Afterward, Madrid implemented direct control over Catalonia and several of Catalonia’s leaders were arrested while others fled the country. The Catalan parliament was dissolved and Spain held a “snap regional election” on the 21st of December, 2017 in which Spanish nationalists won. In October of 2019, national attention was once again drawn to Catalonia. The Spanish sentenced the Catalan politicians and several activists arrested in 2017 to nine to thirteen years in prison. This resulted in the outcry of Catalan separatists. Catalan independence had once again begun to gain a lot of momentum. The growing interest in this movement had continued to grow up until the outbreak of COVID-19.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Spain’s government’s primary goal was to centralize and strengthen their power. This goal has made Catalonia’s bids for independence throughout late 2019 go ignored. During the pandemic, the conflict between Catalonia and Spain began to heat up once more. These disputes were catalyzed by the Catalan government disagreeing with the efforts made by Spain to combat the spread of COVID-19. The Catalan government stated that Spain should make more of an effort to close Catalan borders and isolate the territory in order to minimize the impact it would have in the region. Catalans also suggested that combatting the virus in Catalonia should be left up to the Catalan government, virtually cutting the Spanish off. While this may assist in limiting the spread of the virus, doing this was not in Spain’s best interests. This resulted in the Spanish government denying Catalonia’s requests. Some experts have speculated that this action may result in the repeated agitation of the secessionist conflict. If the conflict is reawakened, it may have disastrous consequences, plunging Spain deeper into this already chaotic crisis.