For hundreds of years, Catalonians have thought of themselves as distinct from the rest of Spain. And while Catalonia’s contested 2017 vote for independence is radically new, it also isn’t the first time this northeast region of Spain—home to 7.5 million people, many of whom speak Catalan—has sought to limit the state’s authority over its wealthy corner of the Iberian Peninsula.
Catalonia has so far received support from Scotland, a region that unsuccessfully tried to leave the United Kingdom in 2014, and may attempt to leave again in the wake of the Brexit vote to withdraw from the European Union. Though Scotland and Catalonia’s independence movements have received more coverage over the past few years, there are also smaller movements in German Bavaria and parts of Italy. Spain’s Basque Country used to have a powerful independence movement, too, though it has since come to an agreement with Spain.
So why Catalonia, and why now? Well, Catalonia’s recent push for independence may be fueled by the 2008 financial collapse, and Spain’s ensuing debt crisis.
Catalonia, centered around the profitable Mediterranean port city of Barcelona, is the wealthiest region in Spain. Similarly to how many Brexit supporters in the United Kingdom disliked that their country was aiding various ailing countries in the European Union, some Catalonians felt they were unfairly shouldering the country’s financial burden.
But Catalonian resentment of Spanish rule goes back even farther than that. The region’s relationship with what we today call Spain began in the 12th century, when a count of Barcelona married the Queen of Aragon. With the union, Catalonia ceased to be an independent country, and became part of the Kingdom of Aragon.
Even so, the kingdom’s “center of gravity economically and culturally was Barcelona,” says Paul Freedman, a history professor at Yale University. This set a trend that would continue till the present day: historically, Catalonia “has been richer than the people who control it, rather than poorer.” Freedman attributes this to a strong textile industry and early industrialization, as well as Barcelona’s prominence as a port city.
In the late 15th century, the marriage between Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile united multiple regions—including Catalonia—into the state we now know as Spain. Still, modern Spain “was still a kind of confederation rather than an absolute monarchy,” Freedman says. “So the Catalans preserved their own parliament, a lot of their own laws, and their own language.” (That language, Catalan, is one that millions of people still speak today.)
Under Spain, Catalonia could veto taxes on its domain—still one of the wealthiest parts of the country. But when Spain went to war with France in the mid-1600s, Spain levied a tax against Catalonia without its consent. In a way, this has a modern parallel: part of Catalonia’s modern independence plan is to seize back money from Madrid that the Spanish capital has collected through taxes.
“Somewhat like now,” Freedman says, the Catalonians had “the sense that the central government was destroying their autonomous privileges.” In response, Catalonia rebelled; not necessarily to gain full independence, but to solidify its autonomy within the republic.
After the war, Spain kept Catalonia, and Catalonia kept its parliament, laws and language. But over the next few centuries, its autonomy continued to go back and forth. For example, during the War of Spanish Succession in the early 18th century, Catalonia backed the wrong party trying to assume the Spanish throne. As a result, Freedman says the country’s new rulers “suppressed those Catalan liberties that had annoyed Madrid for centuries: autonomous laws, autonomous parliament, consent to taxation.”
Catalonia’s level of autonomy continued to shift during the 20th century. The region lost ground when General Francisco Franco came to power in the 1930s, but gained its current status as an autonomous community after his death in the 1970s.
Yet in terms of movements for full independence, Freedman says that the events of 2017 are unlike anything that has come before. Though there were some calls for independence in the 1970s, he says that these didn’t have a lot of support. Back then, just didn’t seem feasible for the richest part of Spain to leave.
“I personally have been involved in studying medieval Catalonia for 40 years now, and I never thought that it would come to this,” Freeman says.
“A lot of people may have had the feeling that in an ideal world, yes, Catalonia would be independent,” he continues, “but that the costs in the real world would be way too high.”