The Catalonia Independence Crisis: Looking to the Past to Find a Present Peaceful Solution

By: Lauren Kissel

“[Catalonia is] a problem which cannot be solved, it can only be put up with . . . Other Spaniards must put up with Catalans [and] Catalans must put up with other Spaniards.”

­­– José Ortega y Gasset, renowned philosopher and essayist[1]

On October 1, 2017 the region of Catalonia in northeastern Spain voted in favor of a referendum declaring its independence from Spain.[2] This vote was highly controversial, involving Spanish police officers who tried to stop Catalonians from voting and resulting in violent riots throughout the region.[3] Before the referendum was even put to a vote, Spain’s Constitutional Court suspended it.[4] However, despite the Spanish government’s best efforts, 2.3 million voters came to the polls and 90% of them voted in favor of independence.[5] After voters voted in favor of the referendum, the Catalonian Parliament “overwhelmingly voted for independence.”[6]

The Catalan independence movement has been gaining steam in the past decade.[7] Catalonia is an independent region that has many of its own customs and traditions, including things ranging from politics and language to food and football teams.[8] Additionally, the region of Catalonia is generally more wealthy than the rest of Spain and is seen as Spain’s “industrial heartland.”[9] This has been important in the past few years as Spain has been going through an economic crisis.[10] The Catalonians feel as if they are supporting the rest of Spain and claim that their differences set them apart from the rest of Spain and warrant their independence.[11]                                                   

Spain claims the Catalan independence referendum is unconstitutional.[12] It says that under Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution Spain can “intervene in one of Spain’s regions if its autonomous government ‘fails to fulfill the obligations imposed upon it by the Constitution or other laws, or acts in a way seriously prejudicing the general interests of Spain.’”[13] This is a broad and forceful constitutional provision that’s use has only been threatened but has never actually been invoked prior to this controversy.[14]

According to the language of the constitution, “Article 155 calls upon the government to ‘issue instructions’ to restore constitutional order.’”[15] Since there is no precedent for using this Article, there were questions about how this provision can be interpreted.[16] Several options included removing Catalonia’s political leaders from office or suspending Catalan officials.[17] Others, however, argued that Article 155 does not allow Spain to remove Catalonia’s autonomy but only ensure that the Catalonia government follows the law.[18] Therefore, if this were the case, Spain would not have been able to overthrow the Catalonian government.

Despite this uncertainty in legal authority, the Spanish Parliament ultimately voted to remove Catalonian President Carles Puidgemont and his ministers and dissolve the Catalonian Parliament.[19] Arrest warrants were then issued for Puidgemont and several other Catalonian officials for charges such as rebellion and sedition.[20] The Spanish government then took over control of Catalonia, and new elections for the region are set to be held on December 21, 2017.[21]

Referendums and regions declaring independence is not uncommon in modern day society.[22] Take for example the failed Quebec vote to separate from Canada in 1995; the failed Scotland vote to secede from the UK in 2014; and, most recently, the successful Great Britain vote to separate from the European Union.[23] Even though not all of these votes ended in the forming of a new nation, this is not the main difference between these independence movements and the movement in Catalonia.[24] The main difference is that these states either had consent of the central government to declare independence and/or did so in accordance with the applicable law, while Catalonia does not.[25] It is clear from Spain’s Constitution, the decisions of the Spanish Constitutional Court, and the actions of the Spanish Parliament that the Catalonian independence movement is both unconstitutional and not supported.[26]

Since Catalonia clearly does not have the legal authority or support to break free from Spain, the best way for it to achieve the independence it is looking for is to find a mutually beneficial and agreeable solution with Spain. This is not an unprecedented task. For example, when the new Spanish Constitution was set up in 1978, it recognized distinct national communities in different parts of Spain.[27] In 1979, Catalonia was “given a statute of autonomy and recognised as a ‘nationality.’”[28] In 2006, Catalonia and the Spanish parliament agreed on a reformed version of Catalonia’s autonomy statute.[29] This statute granted Catalonia nation status and financial control over the region.[30] However, this statute was struck down in 2010 by the Spanish Constitutional Court, holding that there is no legal basis for recognizing Catalonia as an independent nation, the Catalan language should not be held above Spanish, and Catalonia could not have regional powers over Spanish courts and judges.[31] This court decision sparked the modern ay Catalonian independence movement.[32]

It is clear from the 2006 Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia that it is possible for Catalonia and Spain to work together to achieve a mutually beneficial solution to this independence crisis. After all, Spain did back Catalonia’s attempt to become an independent nation in 2006.[33] Rather than having the Spanish president invoke an overbroad, largely uninterpreted, and possibly legally questionable provision of the consitution, perhaps the region and the country should work together to persuade the courts that Catalonian autonomy is in the best interests of the state and the people. This would likely be a better solution to the problem then having Spain invade and overthrow the entire Catalonian government.

The Catalonian independence crisis is a decades long problem that is not likely to go away just because Spain forces Catalonia to chose new political leaders.[34] Additionally, this crisis can have long term impacts on the Spanish economy and businesses.[35] Therefore, it is clearly in the best interests of Catalonia and Spain as a whole to work together to find a solution that would satisfy the courts and allow Catalonian to have the autonomy it wants while still remaining within the constitutional limits of the country.


[1] Catalonia’s Referendum is No Basis for Statehood, Financial Times (Sept. 17, 2017),

[2] Raphael Minder, Catalonia Leaders Seek to Make Independence Referendum Binding, NY Times (Oct. 2, 2017),

[3] Kevin Dolack, Hundreds Injured in Catalonia as Spanish Police Crack Down on Referendum, ABC News (Oct. 1, 2017, 4:17 PM),

[4] Id.

[5] Minder, supra note 2.

[6] Sarah Wildman, Catalonia’s Parliament Voted for Independence. So Spain Dissolved it., Vox (Oct. 27, 2017, 1:00 PM),

[7] Harriet Alexander & James Badcock, Why Does Catalonia Want Independence from Spain?, The Telegraph (Oct. 10, 2017, 8:06 AM),

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Camila Domonoske, Spain Gives Catalonia a Deadline: Retract Independence Claim or Else, NPR (Oct. 11, 2017, 5:25 PM),

[13] Raphael Minder, Article 155: ‘The Nuclear Option’ That Could Let Spain Seize Catalonia, NY Times (Oct. 20, 2017),

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Sam Jones, Spain to Impose Direct Rule as Catalonia Leader refuses to Back Down, The Guardian (Oct. 19, 2017, 10:23 AM),

[19] Laura Smith-Spark & Claudia Rebaza, Catalonia Government Dissolved After Declaring Independence from Spain, CNN (Oct. 28, 2017, 2:59 AM),

[20] Robert-Jan Bartunek et al., Sacked Catalonia Leader Turns Himself In, Polls Show Independence Strength, Reuters (Nov. 5, 2015, 4:15 AM),

[21] Id.

[22] Catalonia’s Referendum is No Basis for Statehood, supra note 1.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] See id.

[27] Catalonia Profile, BBC News (Oct. 30, 2017),

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Smith-Spark & Rebaza, supra note 18.

[31] Alexander & Badcock, supra note 6; Krishnadev Calamur, The Spanish Court Decision that Sparked the Modern Catalan Independence Movement, The Atlantic (Oct. 1, 2017),

[32] Id.

[33] Smith-Spark & Rebaza, supra note 18.

[34] James Badcock & Isabelle Fraser, Deposed Catalonian Leader Puigdemont Continues to Defy Madrid as Pro–Unity Protests Take Barcelona, The Telegraph (Oct. 29, 2017, 7:28 PM),

[35] Wildman, supra note 6.