The Future of Catalonian Separatism Since the Independence Referendum

Image credit: Ahn Ho Rhee

Five years ago in October 2017, the long-standing separatist movement in the northeast Spanish region of Catalonia made a choice that shocked the international community. After hundreds of years of conflict between the Spanish government and the region, Catalonian voters approved an unauthorized referendum passed by the Catalonian parliament to separate from Spain and become an autonomous country. The members of the Catalonian parliament reportedly stood up to sing “Els segadors,” Catalonia’s regional anthem, upon the news of their victory. The region’s rebuke of Madrid’s leadership was overwhelming; 92% of those who voted checked ‘Yes’.

Although the election was dogged by reports of manipulation and low turnout, with less than 50% of the region’s population voting, it showed the palpable desire for full independence in Catalonia beyond symbolic demands for autonomy. The Spanish government was furious at the attempt of its second wealthiest region, home to the major economic and tourism center of Barcelona and contributing to about 20% of the Spanish GDP, to separate, swiftly dismissing the decision as unconstitutional and punishing the movement’s leaders. 

The region’s fraught relationship with Spain dates back hundreds of years. Catalonia has a distinct language, Catalan, related to but distinct from fellow Romance languages like French, Spanish and Italian and spoken by about 9 million people, according to Ethnologue. The region was an independent kingdom for a time during the medieval period but in 1469 the Crown of Aragon, which ruled Catalonia, united with the Crown of Castile to form the Kingdom of Spain. 

In the centuries since, Spanish regimes have often suppressed the Catalan language and culture in favor of a vision of Castilian Spanish unity, leading to discontentment and anger that has driven Catalonian separation efforts. However, many argue that the basis for Catalan separatism in recent decades has been much less driven by cultural factors and more by economic factors and the desire to not be beholden to pay taxes to the central government that would benefit Spain’s less economically productive regions. 

Recent polls taken in Catalonia by the Center for Opinion Studies for the Catalan government regarding the possibility of independence indicate that support for secession from Spain is actually receding. The latest poll, taken in July 2022, showed that support for independence had dropped to 41% compared to 48% in 2017.

Surprisingly, events that many observers predicted to galvanize the movement have not materialized in further efforts towards independence nor increases in the percentages of people who would prefer it. In February 2021, Catalan rapper Pablo Hasel was arrested and imprisoned for lyrics courts found to be insulting to the Spanish monarchy and supportive of far-left groups labeled terrorist groups by the Spanish government. His imprisonment caused a mass uproar in Catalonia and condemnation from several human rights groups such as Amnesty International, but even high profile incidents like Hasel’s have not reignited the independence movement. 

The Spanish government’s approach toward the usage of the Catalan language in public life, which has historically triggered intense fervor, also failed to elicit increased support for independence in recent years. In December 2021, the Spanish Supreme Court issued a mandate requiring the Catalonian government to increase the use of Spanish to 25% of academic subjects in public schools. This increase roughly doubled the number of hours Catalonian students would be taught in Castilian Spanish rather than in Catalan and was intended by the central Spanish government to align the region closer to the constitutional ideal of national unity under the Spanish language. Thousands of Catalonians protested the decision, and many compared it to the harsh linguistic suppression inflicted on the region during the rule of General Francisco Franco (1939-1975). Although some analysts anticipated that this incident would increase independence sentiments, the aforementioned polls suggest otherwise. 

Yet, despite this series of outrages and seeming transgressions against Catalonian regional identity, the fervor that existed in October 2017 has simply dissipated. This may be in large part to the debates occurring within the separatist parties. On Oct. 8, 2022, the staunchly pro-independence JxCat party voted to abandon the regional government and split with the comparatively more moderate Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), citing a lack of consensus and inaction on independence. Disagreements between the two parties regarding the best ways to organize potential independence efforts—whether through confronting the central Spanish government directly as advocated by JxCat or dialogues with the central government and investment in social projects that will strengthen Catalonian resolve as suggested by ERC—have led to fractures. 

Additionally, several politicians who were once adamant about independence have softened their positions in the face of potential punitive consequences. Nine separatist leaders were given several years-long sentences in October 2019. After being pardoned and released in October 2021, these politicians have suggested increased dialogue with Madrid rather than their former hardline stances in regards to independence. 

It may also be likely that Catalonian voters do not feel the same resentment towards the central government as they did five years ago. The most pressing challenges facing the region have come out of external factors that have nothing to do with Madrid, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and economic threats stemming from the impacts of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Because independence from Spain would do little to resolve these issues that transcend national and regional boundaries, many voters likely see independence as less pressing. Experts like Pablo Simon, a political analyst from the Carlos III University in Madrid, suggest that Catalonian voters are simply more concerned with maintaining their survival amidst a challenging job market and rising food prices. 

A cultural leaning towards unity with Spanish and wider Latin culture may also be an indication that the younger generation is less interested in independence than older generations. For example, Rosalía is a globally successful pop star hailing from Barcelona, Catalonia’s cultural and financial center. She sings solely in Spanish and draws from the wide range of musical tradition within the great Spanish speaking world in her music. Although Rosalía is but one example of a Catalonian celebrity with global popularity, she is by far the most widely recognized. 

Her continual avoidance of speaking on the independence issue may be symbolic of the younger generation’s role in the Catalan culture, in which they take pride in Catalonian identity, but doesn’t feel a necessity for independence to maintain it in the same way older generations might. Polls taken in 2021 show that the support for independence among youth aged 18-24 stands at only 39%. Additional polls indicate that a growing number of young Catalonians identify themselves as ‘equally Spanish and Catalan’ in their cultural identity, reflecting Rosalía’s public image. 

Could the Catalonian independence movement’s fire respark? That remains to be seen. Recent stagnation of independence efforts and diminished separatist opinions in the polls, despite economic challenges in Spain and perceived incursions on Catalonian linguistic autonomy, would suggest Catalonian separatism has fizzled out. 

However, amidst continued post-Brexit challenges and disorganized leadership, Scotland’s upcoming potential 2023 independence referendum could signal a new era in regionalist autonomy in Europe. If Scotland does leave London behind, it could reignite and legitimize the conversation around Catalonian independence. 

Ultimately, the movement’s future is highly dependent on the separatist political parties’ ability to reach a  consensus on efforts going forward. With the regional government in turmoil, the legitimacy of the movement is challenged, which is only likely to fuel the population’s disillusionment with the notion of independence. Regardless of these recent political developments, after hundreds of years of conflict with the central Spanish government, independence will likely continue to loom in Catalonia’s politics for years to come. 


Reid Hartman-Teske

Reid Hartman-Teske is a freshman from Denver, Colorado at the University of Southern California studying International Relations. His areas of interest include sociocultural issues, the impact of climate change, and Global North-Global South relations. In his free time, he enjoys listening to music, learning languages (particularly French, Italian, and Persian), and spending time outside.