Catalan Independence: How did it come to this?

Catalonia became a dominant part of the international news in late 2017, following clashes between state-employed police and Catalonia residents during and following the regional referendum of October 1st 2017. Europe expressed shock at reports of violence towards people apparently exercising their democratic rights in a European Union member state. Since then, there has been a continual break down in communications that has exacerbated the sense of division between interested parties.

How then did a case of political expression result in the enactment of direct rule upon one of Spain’s wealthiest and culturally rich regions?

For these topical issues, we use the Socratic method [1] – a form of argumentative dialogue developed in the 5th century BCE, which is a perfect example of critical thinking – to consider issues from concerning interested parties.

What might be gleaned from applying the Socratic method to the debate of the issue of Catalan independence?

First, let us consider the timeline of events that lead to the current situation and identify the key players.

Timeline of tension between Spain and Catalan

Secondly, we must recognise the multiple viewpoints surrounding this, those of both the directly affected and observers.

  • Catalan separatists
  • Catalan unionists
  • The European Union

NB This is by no means an exhaustive list and these groupings are of course simplifications and there are many variations within these groups.

Below, we have sought to pose key questions and have constructed answers from different positions according to information gathered from a collection of articles. The following dialogues are constructed and informed by articles, statements and debates held on the subject. Please see the bibliography for a full list of the articles used


Catalan Separatists:

Catalan Separatist: ‘Catalonia needs to assert itself and become independent from the rest of Spain, it is the only way that Catalonia and its culture will flourish’

Questioner: ‘But Catalonia has been politically connected to Spain since the 12th Century and a part of modern Spain since its conception in 1715, do you want to disregard that long history, why now?’

Catalan Separatist: ‘That history has been one of Catalonian suppression. Since the official unification of Spain, the monarchy dissolved the Generalitat and tried to impose Spanish language and laws on us. Even worse, General Franco tried to destroy Catalan culture by banning our language and exiling or murdering thousands. We’ve felt increasingly strongly about this since the 2008 debt crisis, economic autonomy is key especially as our GDP per capita is roughly €5 million higher than the rest of Spain![2]

Questioner: ‘I respect Catalonia has experienced suppression but the Generalitat has now been reinstated and is empowered to legislate on culture, environment, commerce and local government among other things and the Catalan language has equal status with Spanish. Why do you believe the referendum should stand and the UDI be enforced?’

Catalan Separatist: ‘Referendums are a feature of democracy and the Spanish government tried to forcibly stop me from exercising my democratic right to vote. How can a 90% yes vote not count as a mandate for the Generalitat to declare independence?’

Questioner: ‘Do you consider that a valid majority, given the turn out for the referendum of 43%?’

Catalan Separatist: ‘Those who chose not to vote chose not to state their disagreement too though, therefore I don’t think it is right to assume they do not support separation.’

Questioner: ‘Do you feel that the aftermath of the referendum and the actions of the Spanish government- particularly the invocation of article 115- has validated the separatist desire for independence?’

Catalan Separatist: ‘The evocation of article 155 is further evidence of the Spanish government’s lack of respect for the democratic rights of the Catalan people while the use of force seen on 1st October was reminiscent of the suppression, experienced under Franco.’

What do we learn in the course of these questions?

  • Separatists feel that this is a long-standing desire in Catalonia with many historical factors
  • There is also a sense that this has progressed from an issue of autonomy to the far more wide-reaching question of democracy.
  • Moreover, the separatist movement has seen increased support not only from those who are in favour of independence but also those that feel that the central government responded with unwarranted aggression against Spanish citizens.


Catalan Unionist

Catalan Unionist: ‘The narrative regarding Catalonian independence from within Catalonia has so far been dominated by the separatist, this doesn’t give a balanced view; plenty of Catalan people feel strongly that Catalonia belongs in Spain.’

Questioner: ‘Why didn’t you speak up at the referendum?’

Catalan Unionist: ‘The referendum was deemed illegal by the Constitutional Court of Spain according to the 1978 Spanish Constitution. Therefore, to vote would be to undermine the authority of the judiciary that I support.’

Questioner: ‘Do you feel that the actions of the Spanish government were justified?’

Catalan Unionist: ‘The violence of the police was saddening, of course, I do not wish hurt upon anyone let alone my fellow Spaniards. However, the separatists have persistently defied all the responses of the Cortes Generales (Spanish legislature) to their demands of independence and instead resorted to breaking the law.’

Questioner: ‘Do you think that the law has been correctly administered if some perceive there have been attacks on the democratic rights of Catalan citizens?’

Catalan Unionist: ‘One of the features of a modern democratic state is the rule of law. Therefore, as this was deemed illegal by the constitutional courts, the actions of separatists in holding the referendum and then Carles Puigdmont’s declaration of independence are the real attacks upon the democratic institutions of this country.’

Questioner: ‘What about the imposition of direct rule?’

Catalan Unionist: ‘This is only in the short term, as Prime Minister Rajoy has said, and there will be fresh, free, fair elections to re-establish legitimate democratic rule in Catalonia where the rest of Catalonia will be able to make their views clear rather than being shouted down by separatists.’

What do we learn in the course of these questions?

  • The unionist Catalans have been under-represented in what is a vital question.
  • They too wish to see the democracy protected in Catalonia but this can only be achieved if both sides of the debate act democratically.
  • There is more to democracy than casting a vote and those institutions must also be respected and protected.


European Union

EU: ‘The EU is a in a very difficult position. The EU stands behind Prime Minister Rajoy, the EU doesn’t need any further fissures. However, as European Council President Donald Tusk said, we ‘hope the Spanish Government favours force of argument, not argument of force.’[3]

Questioner: ‘Does the EU not have a responsibility to defend the rights of its citizens?’

EU: ‘The EU is of course founded on the principles of democracy, freedom and the rule of law. However, we are a collection of the member states and not a union of regions. What we are seeing in Spain is a collision of the Catalan demand for self-determination and the fact of Spain state sovereignty. The European Union, despite criticism made of it, does not wish to contravene Spain’s sovereign right to defend the rule of law within its borders.’

Questioner: ‘Surely it is the fact that the EU was established on these values means that it ought to defend them?’

What do we learn in the course of these questions?

  • The European Union at this time backs Spain’s rejection of Catalan independence.
  • The EU faces challenges in its commitment to political values and the practicality of being a multi-state group trying to negotiate the limitation of its own powers regarding national sovereignty.
  • The EU is likely more cautious given the recent Brexit vote and the long-standing Eurosceptic feelings of its encroachment on national sovereignty.

Use the comments section below and let us know what you think about this debate!


[1] ‘The Critical Thinking Community, ‘Socratic Teaching’, , accessed 31st October 2017

[2] Debating Europe, ‘Arguments for and Against Catalonia Independence,’, accessed 31st October 2017

[3] Husk, Donald, (@eucopresident), ‘For EU nothing changes. Spain remains our only interlocutor. I hope the Spanish government favours force of argument, not argument of force.’ 27th October 2017, 14:20, Tweet,

[4] Diego Torres, ‘Catalonia’s muted anti-independence voices’, Politico, accessed 1st November 2017.




ANC Barcelona, Catalan News, ‘Organizations urge the EU to suspend Spain’s right of vote if blocks‘ urge-the-eu-to-suspend-spain-s-right-of-vote-if-blocks-referendum, 26 Sept 2017.

Torrest, Diego, Politico, ‘Catalonia’s Muted Anti-Independence Voices,’ 13 Sept 2017

Saeed, Saim, Politico, ‘Catalonia’s Silent Majority,’, 10 Sept 2017

Tisdall, Simon, The Guardian, ‘The EU is Nowhere to Be Seen,’ 4 Oct 2017

Stephens, Philip, Financial Times, ‘Sovereignty and Self-Determination Collide in Catalonia,’ 5 Oct 2017

Wallis Simons, Jake, The Spectator, ‘Catalonia’s Silent Majority Do Not Want Independence,’ 29 Oct 2017

Wilson, Joseph and Frank Griffiths, Time, ‘Catalonia Is Spain: Spanish Unionists Lead Huge Barcelona Rally,’ 8 Oct 2017

BBC, ‘Catalan Referendum: Catalonia Has Won Right to Statehood,’ 2 Oct 2017

Sharman, Jon, May Bulman and Caroline Mortimer, Independent, 1 Oct 2017

Child, David and Charlotte Mitchell, Al Jazeera, ‘Catalonia Independence Referendum: All you need to know,’ 1 Oct 2017

Strange, Hannah, The Telegraph, 17 Oct 2017

Erlanger, Steven, The New York Times, 2 Oct 2017

Saeed, Saim, Politico, 21 Oct 2017

Debating Europe, ‘Arguments for and Against Catalonia Independence’, Debating Europe,, 27 Sept 2017

The Economist, ‘Why the Referendum on Catalan Independence is illegal’,, 26 Sept 2017