Nationalist Revolts in Europe: The Quest for Catalan Independence

By Elena Magriñá | 4 February 2013

To quote this document: Elena Magriñá, “Nationalist Revolts in Europe: The Quest for Catalan Independence”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 4 February 2013,, displayed on 03 June 2023

In the current profound financial crisis, most European member states wish they did not lack the freedom of decision-making with regards to their economic and monetary policies. But there is one thing they have not surrendered to Europe: their national identity. The case of Catalonia exemplifies this notion of nationalism, which has resulted in demonstrations and elections for the democratic right of the people to decide. Since there is no single European identity among the 27 member states, the EU finds itself at a crossroads; it can either push for further integration, or it can take a step back and surrender the power to the nation-states.

The Complexities of State and Identity Fragmentation in Europe

Amid the financial turmoil across Europe, some European regions —such as Scotland, Flanders and Catalonia— are desperately seeking to gain greater self-rule, intensifying an identity crisis that has persisted throughout history. In an era of globalization and economic interdependence, nationalism is becoming the dominant form of identity protection, turning it into one of the most profound crises affecting the continent today. In fact, the primary objective of many nationalist political parties throughout Europe is to increase their self-rule and, in most cases, gain independence, which the states do not commonly perceive as a feasible option. In other words, secession is generally seen as an unviable solution to the country’s financial and economic problems, especially in a moment in history when politicians, diplomats, economists, and academics are pushing for greater European integration, globalization and free trade worldwide. It is also argued that the thought of potential war or conflict, even at a local level, makes many fear the option of independence, especially since the current European Union was once created in order to avoid future wars in the region —a fact that new generations tend to forget. But would these potential new European states actually undermine Europe’s capacity to act globally? Shouldn’t these nations have the right be heard, according to democratic principles?

An Independent Catalan State for the Catalan Nation?

The concept of secession in Catalonia has taken many different forms throughout history, but – in comparison to the high degree of violence and deeply rooted conflict in the Basque Country – there has always been a peaceful movement behind it.  Catalonia had achieved greater political autonomy before the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), but after Franco’s victory and during the establishment of a dictatorial regime, the region —as well as other Spanish autonomous communities, which had their own culture and language— suffered from cultural repression: Catalan identity, culture and language were prohibited in both the private and public spheres. After thirty-five years, in 1975, the dictatorship was replaced by a democratic regime, in which Catalonia was able to re-establish its own institutions, language and culture. Today, due to the decentralization of the Spanish state, the Autonomous Government and Parliament of Catalonia are responsible for the administration, to a great extent, of the region’s health care system, education, culture, and security, among others.

Cultural identity can be expressed in many ways, and language is one of them. Around eight million people speak Catalan and it is also widely used at all levels of society. Several dialects of Catalan are also one of the official languages of other autonomous communities, for instance in Valencia and the Balearic Islands, as well as outside of Spain, such as the Principality of Andorra or the city of Alguer in Sardinia, Italy. Spanish is still recognized as an official language in all seventeen Spanish autonomous communities and it is used among EU institutions. However, this is not the case for Catalan. In spite of the lobbying efforts of the regional government, European institutions do not recognize, use or translate anything into Catalan.

In any case, identity is a complex matter, because it is hard to measure. In Catalonia, there are people who identify themselves as Catalan, others who feel they are as Spanish as much as they are Catalan, and others who identify themselves exclusively as Spanish. Indeed, Catalan identity is one of the main arguments supporting secession from Spain. The Spanish Constitution of 1978 does not foresee the right to self-determination of any of the regions, but it has strongly protected all of the cultures and languages present in Spain, such as Catalan, Basque or Galician. Nonetheless, the Catalan Autonomous Government has had to struggle to promote it after the risk of disappearing during Franco’s dictatorship.

Another relevant argument that supports independence is that Catalonia, in the context of the contemporary global financial crisis, would be better off economically by seceding, since it is suffering from a severe fiscal imbalance, originated because of the high amount of taxes paid into the country’s central treasury —which is higher than the amount it gets back—and due to the excessive bureaucracy of the system. This is known as the Territorial Solidarity Fund, which establishes financial transfers from the richest regions to the country’s poorest regions. Many studies have been made, but economic arguments are highly contested. Some believe in the economic viability of an independent Catalonia, while others argue that borders are no longer important or desirable in the current globalized world, making a special reference to European integration. Those who see the feasibility of an independent Catalonia argue that it accounts for 20% of Spain’s GDP and one-third of the total industrial production and exports, quite a high amount considering it only contains about 16 percent of the whole country’s population. And while the region contributes to around 25 percent of the total taxes, it has been argued that investment of the Spanish state in Catalonia from 1982 and 1998 represented only about 8.5 percent of the total, which they consider to be unfair. On the other hand, it must also be taken into account that Catalan debt makes up close to 30% of the total debt of Spain’s regions. In fact, conservative estimates suggest that exiting from Spain, the euro, and the EU would cause a 20% drop in Catalonia’s GDP —as 68 percent of Catalonia’s exports go to the EU and 50% of its total output goes to the rest of Spain.

Although the principle of solidarity is present and widely supported in both Spain and Europe, it has been argued that —in the case of Catalonia— the current system is outdated, since it was designed when disparities between Spanish regions were much higher. Additionally, in the current financial context, it is said to be compromising the economic welfare of the contributor (which also has one of the highest rates of intra-regional income disparity, both territorially and socially). According to professor Sala-i-Martín, Spanish inter-regional transfer system is neither fair nor beneficial, but creates a welfare dependency that harms entrepreneurship and growth in the poorer regions.

Secession in the context of European integration

Managing a European Union composed of 27 member states is quite challenging, especially when it has to confront such harsh financial difficulties. However, the problems it is facing in finding a consensual solution that will benefit all member states and will solve both the fiscal imbalances and simultaneously promote growth is reflecting one of its major weaknesses and is eroding political integration. Like the Spanish Constitution, EU law does not address the potential disintegration of any member state, as its whole purpose is to pursue a closer integration among its member states. In fact, the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Durao Barroso, has recently stated that the potential secession of a certain territory that is part of an EU member state should be negotiated according to international law, since European citizenship complements, but does not substitute, national citizenship. Thus, contrary to what some Catalan nationalist parties have been claiming, EU membership would not be granted automatically in the case of independence. For instance, the current Catalan political party (Convergència i Unió) has been using the concept of European cosmopolitanism for its own electoral benefit, arguing that an independent Catalonia would quickly gain membership of the 27-member bloc.

On the 11th of September 2012, the region’s national day, there was a demonstration made up of almost 8% of Catalonia’s 7.5 million people, a fact that clearly showed that there are still some issues that need to be addressed, both domestically and at the European level. The severe financial crisis has indeed had negative consequences on the Spanish economy and in the lives of millions of people, but both voters and politicians have actually little influence on economic decisions, since they are mainly taken in Berlin. Although citizens should be able to decide the direction of their country’s public policy, according to democratic principles, in practice this does not happen. So it is also argued that the Autonomous Government of Catalonia has channelled its frustration into a rejection of Spain’s central government, by asking for greater self-rule. Others claim that the Catalan government has used an emotional discourse of independence after being incapable of solving the nation’s economic problems, despite the numerous austerity measures that have been implemented, and wanting to protect its political ambition and economic self-interest.

After the pro-independence demonstration, Artur Mas, current president of the Autonomous Government of Catalonia, called for early election on November 25th in its ambition to push for independence and referred to the right of the Catalan people to democratically decide their future. The majority of voters supported secession, but could not decide which party was best equipped to fulfil that goal. In fact, the current government did not succeed in getting the required number of votes to achieve the majority, so it was forced to form a coalition with Esquerra Republicana, a party that has always supported secession. Overall, almost two-thirds of the seats in the Catalan Parliament were won by political parties that were in favour of holding a referendum on the region’s independence from Spain. Conversely, Catalan political parties that were opposed to secession also won more seats in the Parliament, exacerbating the identity fragmentation of the Catalan society. In any case, a referendum on independence would be illegal under the current Spanish constitution, and Spain’s ruling Popular Party is likely to block any attempts for constitutional change.


Political unrest and dissatisfaction in Catalonia cannot be ignored, but cooperation will be key in finding solutions to the current political structure. Perhaps, a potential solution would be to revise Spain’s 1978 Constitution thoroughly and adopt a new federal structure, which would grant more autonomy and empower the regions at the expense of the central government. With regards to Europe, however, member countries should do their best to cooperate and act in unity, both internally and externally, to confront the difficult challenges the continent is facing today.


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