Catalonia’s pro-independence parties have secured an absolute majority in regional elections. Artur Mas, president of the Generalitat of Catalonia, has returned to power with the promise of a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain. However, given the staunch opposition of the federal government, backed by Spain’s constitutional court, that road is far from obstacle-free. Madrid has never allowed a legally recognised referendum, ignoring the unofficial vote in November 2014 that favoured Catalan independence.
Catalonia’s troubled existence within Spain dates back to the 15th century, when the union of the crowns of Castile and Aragon laid the foundation of modern Spain. Culturally and linguistically distinct, with a millennium of recorded history, and its self-identification with the losing Republican side in the Spanish Civil War — which saw Catalonia’s autonomy revoked and its language repressed under the Franco dictatorship — Catalonia has strong claims to nationhood. As Spain’s most prosperous region, accounting for 20 per cent of the GDP, and with its capital Barcelona doubling as Spain’s financial capital, Catalonia complains of being “milked” by Madrid. After the 2008 financial crisis, the pro-independence sentiment has grown stronger, exacerbated by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s rejection of the demand for Catalan fiscal independence in 2012 and bolstered by the Scottish referendum last year.
Rajoy argues that the rest of Spain, too, should get to vote on Catalonia’s future. In turn, the EU, not desiring further turbulence, is unlikely to favour an independent Catalonia. As British PM David Cameron warns, Catalonia would be made to wait at the end of the queue for re-entry to the EU. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, too, has reiterated her support for Rajoy and “national law”. Also, while a majority of Catalans want a referendum, they are evenly divided on independence. As Spaniards await general elections, they will perhaps reflect on this irony: It was Spain’s transition to democracy, beginning in 1975, that reinstated Catalonia’s autonomy, made it rich, and brought matters to this inflection point.