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Explainer: The big questions behind the Spanish crisis over Catalonia

  1. Threat to an entity formed over centuries
  2. Economic and international fallout anticipated
  3. Basques and Galicians also desire self-rule

Talk (18)

Andrew Bernstein

Andrew Bernstein

"Hi Angela, I will send you the te..."
Angela Long

Angela Long

"Andrew, can you start the story in Wo..."
Andrew Bernstein

Andrew Bernstein

"Hi Angela, I have a first draft. Woul..."
Andrew Bernstein

Andrew Bernstein

"Hi Angela, This sounds great. I wi..."

Less than 40 years after its peaceful transition to democracy from fascism, Spain faces a constitutional crisis that goes to the roots of its history as a collection of nations and regions. That entity was assembled nearly 500 years ago as the country emerged from centuries of Islamic rule. The crisis in Catalonia has not only exposed deep fissures within the modern Spanish state, but also provides lessons for the rest of Europe as the continent grapples with contemporary quests for self-determination and regional independence movements.

Here are some critical questions and some partial answers which you’re welcome to enlarge upon.

Why is this happening?

The parliament of Catalonia, one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, declared independence unilaterally on October 27. This followed a referendum on the issue on October 1, which had a 90 percent “yes” vote – based on 43 percent of the eligible electorate. The central government in Madrid voted shortly after to take charge of Catalonia and hold new elections instead.

Protesters hoist the pro-independence Catalan flag. By George Engels/WikiTribune

What does Madrid say?

The central government, led by Mariano Rajoy, as it had promised, applied section 155 of the Spanish constitution, the so-called “nuclear option”, which refers to action to be taken if any of the autonomous provinces of the state rebels from central authority or affect the general interests of Spain. Rajoy said the Catalan government, the Generalitat, would be dissolved and elections for new representatives held on December 21 2017 [link in English to Spanish newspaper El País].

What would this achieve?

New elections would give the people of Catalonia the chance to demonstrate whether they want their representatives to pursue the path to independence. But independence also means Catalonia would no longer belong to the European Union. Concern has also been expressed about the economic impact on the region, one of Spain’s wealthiest and most productive.


What does Barcelona say?

The government of Carles Puigdemont contains several strong pro-independence parties. It says it has sought dialogue and that Madrid has acted harshly and unfairly, first in denying the referendum should take place, second in violently repressing it, and thirdly in proceeding to invoke the Constitution.

Who is Mariano Rajoy?

Mariano Rajoy, 62, was born in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, northern Spain. He leads the Partido Popular, one of Spain’s main political entities, and has been prime minister since 2011. Regarded as a social conservative and a cautious politician, he has nevertheless taken decisive and dramatic action in response to Catalonia’s independence demands. At a press conference announcing his government’s plans to dissolve the Generalitat, he said it was his responsibility to uphold the constitution, but “I did not choose this.”

Who is Carles Puigdemont?

Carles Puigdemont, 54, is a journalist and politician who has been president of the Government of Catalonia, the Generalitat, since 2016. He was a compromise candidate when Artur Mas stepped down, as the New York Times reports here. Between 2002 and 2004 he was director of the Casa de Cultura in Girona, his native city, and was first elected in 2006. His party is  Convergence and Union (Convergéncia i Unió), a centre-right coalition. He has led the government steadily towards the October 1 referendum for independence.

What happens next?

The Spanish Senate, the upper house, voted  on the measures announced by Rajoy hours after the vote in the Catalan parliament, as newsagency Bloomberg reports,  which supported Puigdemont’s independence declaration by 70-10, [link to El País in Spanish] with two abstentions and a boycott by 53 pro-union deputies. There is now a stand-off, with Puigdemont one leader of Catalonia, and Spain’s deputy prime minister, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, appointed by Rajoy to run the region for central government. It is difficult to see how this can all be resolved peacefully, although both sides decry violence.

What does history tell us about how this will turn out?

On the one hand, the Constitution doesn’t want to allow any part of Spain to secede. Other regions – the Basque Country and Galicia to name two – have also actively sought self-rule in the past. On the other, a proud community with its own language and culture is adhering to a history of seeking as much autonomy as possible. The pro-independence movement claims that Puigdemont’s government is still valid, but Rajoy’s government says the region is behaving irresponsibly and illegally.

Spain is the one of the most decentralized countries in the world, according to the OECD, but the three main parties in Spain -Partido Popular (PP), Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) and Ciudadanos (C’s) have decided to reform the Constitution in order to reorder the territory. They asked the Catalan parties to participate, but they have refused.

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Consulting editor with WikiTribune. Previous career mostly in print media, news and feature writer, commissioning editor, copy editor, trainer and teacher. 25+ years in leading European/British media, BBC, FT, Sunday Times, Irish Times, including five years on latter's foreign desk. Launch team, Open Government Partnership, Dublin 2013. Teach digital media ethics and journalism practice.

History for stories "Explainer: The big questions behind the Spanish crisis over Catalonia"

Select two items to compare revisions

09 November 2017

11:15:55, 09 Nov 2017 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → changing 3rd highlight)
09:57:25, 09 Nov 2017 . .‎ Michael Poe (Updated → Fixing a typo and grammar, and making link brackets consistent)

08 November 2017

16:41:50, 08 Nov 2017 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → adding Carles P a compromise)
15:26:00, 08 Nov 2017 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → fixing other edits)
15:21:20, 08 Nov 2017 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → adding OECD link about decentralisation)
11:11:02, 08 Nov 2017 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → revisions incorporated)
10:50:30, 08 Nov 2017 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → community change accepted)

04 November 2017

15:15:40, 04 Nov 2017 . .‎ David Otero (Updated → Too many value judgments not based on evidence)

03 November 2017

22:25:03, 03 Nov 2017 . .‎ Montse Doval Avendaño (Updated → the three main parties in Spain offered on October 11 to reform the Constitution to reorder the terr)
21:54:14, 03 Nov 2017 . .‎ Christian Perona (Updated → Something that affects the general interests of Spain is a reason for activate article 155)
20:42:31, 03 Nov 2017 . .‎ Héctor Barreras (Updated → Corrected: picture footnote)
20:40:14, 03 Nov 2017 . .‎ Héctor Barreras (Updated → Corrected: Spain is not a republic)

30 October 2017

17:43:30, 30 Oct 2017 . .‎ Peter Bale (Updated → Removed text image)

29 October 2017

14:39:11, 29 Oct 2017 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → Catalan parliament rather than Generalitat)
14:36:58, 29 Oct 2017 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → publishing revised version)
14:35:50, 29 Oct 2017 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → updated Highlight)
14:34:45, 29 Oct 2017 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → removing spare link ref)
14:32:39, 29 Oct 2017 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → Soraya mention and link)
14:27:52, 29 Oct 2017 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → link to story giving numbers in vote)
14:14:14, 29 Oct 2017 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → updating El Pais link re elections)
12:19:02, 29 Oct 2017 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → changing tenses)
12:15:11, 29 Oct 2017 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → wording update)
12:14:26, 29 Oct 2017 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → link to bbc report)
12:08:48, 29 Oct 2017 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → updating events)

Talk for Story "Explainer: The big questions behind the Spanish crisis over Catalonia"

Talk about this Story

  1. Rewrite

    Thank you Andrew, for that thoughtful contribution. We have to consider re-writing a more comprehensive article, especially in the light of ongoing events. But could I ask you if you think there is a role for a short, almost bullet-point type explainer of complex situations on WT? We do want access to be universal. For example, a Cuba sanctions story might just have one line about Fidel Castro, if you see what I mean.


    1. Rewrite

      Thank you for your answer Angela. I think there should be space for short, almost bullet-point explainers of complex situations. It is important to give an overall approach for those readers who are not acquainted with those particular story lines. I think the article you wrote did provide a good introduction to what is happening in Spain. Once this is done, and the attention of the reader has been caught, more comprehensive articles should ensue (in my opinion). I would love to help you write or edit one on this topic. I actually wrote a paper for my master´s degree in Political Science on the rise of Catalan independentism. Let me know if I can be of any help!

      1. Rewrite

        Great, Andrew. I’ll discuss the collaborative form with our editor and we can take it from there.


        1. Rewrite
          1. Rewrite

            Andrew – if still interested in writing a piece to help people understand the various pro-independence parties and their stance?
            Herewith an outline for you to consider …
            I will edit and suggest anything which might be relevant. If you haven’t seen Pete Young’s guide to writing an article for WikiTribune, I recommend it. There’s a link on the front page.

            The structure would be like this:
            • Intro par: ‘Catalonia has played large in international news since the start of October, when a referendum poll on independence was held. That set in motion a chain of events which culminated in the central Spanish government in Madrid calling elections in Catalonia for December 21.’
            • Who will contest these elections? We look at the political groupings calling for independence. EG Carles Puigdemont’s party belongs to Junts per Si …
            • Explain, briefly, each of the significant political parties. Don’t go into the history too much at this stage.
            • A few paragraphs on when Catalan independence became more than an aspiration or a cultural urge but an organised political force.
            • Which parties look like they will remain, and which might fracture under the strain

            I think 1200 is a good length to aim for initially. There will no doubt be suggestions for inclusion from the community.

            1. Rewrite

              Hi Angela,

              This sounds great. I will start working on it right away. Many thanks for the opportunity.

            2. Rewrite

              Hi Angela, I have a first draft. Would you like me to send it to you? Where should I send it to?

              1. Rewrite

                Andrew, can you start the story in WordPress and mark it Private? Or you can send a doc to [email protected]

                1. Rewrite

                  Hi Angela,

                  I will send you the text to your email and if that is ok we can work from there!

  2. Rewrite

    Hi Angela,

    I think your article does mention some of the contextual problems that have triggered the current standoff. However, there are a number of other issues that have been left out. Up until 2006, Catalonia had approximately a 25% of the population who supported independence, with the rest of the population divided between people who sought to get more autonomy, federalists, people who were happy with the level of autonomy it had until then and a small percentage of people who wanted more centralized power for the Spanish state. In 2005, the Socialist Government in Madrid and the Government of the Generalitat negotiated a new autonomy framework “l´estatut” which was then backed by around 60% of the electorate. However, the Popular Party (the one in power in Madrid now) decided to appeal it and take it to the Spanish Constitutional Court, which gutted some of its most important articles. It was then when a great number of Catalan people realized that there was no space for further self-government in the Spanish State and that independence was the only path forward.

    Also, there is a great sense in Catalonia (an among other people in the rest of Spain) that a number of institutions that are meant to serve everybody´s interests are deeply controlled by the main political parties and the factual powers. Corruption scandals like Gúrtel, which allegedly affects the Popular Party and even the prime minister Mariano Rajoy, have undermined the credibility of the central government and the judicial power. Therefore, many Catalan people think that a new State is necessary.

  3. Rewrite

    Can I suggest an addition?

    There is a very useful context missing re: Puigdemont. He was a compromise candidate after the last election (with CUP refusing to support Artur Mas) – and he is really an ‘accidental’ president.

    1. Rewrite

      Thanks Sam, it is worth a reference … I didn’t want go too far down that road, for as I’m sure you know the pro-independence political parties story is a complicated web. But I’ll insert a line and hope it doesn’t raise too many questions for the readers who are new to the scene.


      1. Rewrite

        Thanks Angela – I think it’s a core part of his context. He hasn’t been the leader of this movement from the beginning – he has essentially been thrust into this position by circumstance.

        But I here you, it’s a complex story.

  4. Rewrite

    The highlights hardly reflect the content of the article. “So long Barcelona” doesn’t make much sense, plus the article doesn’t say much about the “economic and international fallout anticipated”. And as for the Basque precedents, well… This is unlike anything the Basque Country has done previously. It definitely deserves a mention in the story, but it would not be one of my choices for highlights.

    1. Rewrite

      You are right about the highlight ‘So long Barcelona’, which has been changed. Other revisions have been incorporated. This is a short article so not all angles or extended explanations can be included, but as always do feel free to write your own article and submit. For example, section 155 is brief and not specific, but nevertheless it is the one which has been applied.


  5. Rewrite

    >This followed a referendum on the issue on October 1
    A “so called referendum”, deemed illegal by the Constitutional Tribunal. The only referendum deemed appropriate according to the Spanish constitution is one involving the whole Spanish population, not a particular region.

    1. Rewrite

      One issue is current legality and another is its practical implementation. Who decides to submit the constitution or not is the government and the constitutional court.

      The different autonomous communities of the country should have some type of legal recourse to be able to decide their internal affairs. This has never been done in Spain.

      Matters relating to a territory should be decided first by its citizens. Other territories should not have preference over that decision.

      1. Rewrite

        Please note I flagged my previous comment under “Suggest rewrite”. I am in no way talking about what should or should not be, but merely stating what is. I, as you do, have my own personal opinions regarding this matter, but those should be kept to a different _Talk_ subsection.

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