This article is published at Edmaps.
The Catalan Question: From Charlemagne to Puigdemont.
A Canadian View.
Often described by the Catalan nationalists as a nation without state or a stateless nation, Catalonia is one of the most prosperous regions in Spain. Accepted as a “nationality” by the Spanish state, Catalonia is an autonomous community with its own language, history and symbols, and its own Government and Parliament. Historically, the Catalans have expressed a strong sense of collective identity, which seems to be able to compete with the Spanish national identity. In fact, the genesis and the development of a strong Catalan identity represent a real challenge for a multinational Spanish society ruled by a Castilian-speaking political elite. If for this elite, Catalonia, as a distinct cultural community, is just a part of a Spain defined as a “nation of nations”, for the Catalans the things are very different. For a vast majority of the Catalans, Catalonia is without doubt a nation. A distinct nation. In this case, as a former Catalan Prime Minister (Pasqual Maragall) suggested, the Spanish state would contain four nations: a Spanish nation, associated to the Castilian-speaking majority, a Galician nation, a Basque nation and, of course, a Catalan nation. Now, the problem is whether the Spanish state provide a suitable framework for dealing with the defense and protection of a Catalan identity in a multinational European Union. For a Catalan nationalist, the question could be even more simple: If, for example, Malta, Luxembourg, Croatia, Estonia, Slovenia and Cyprus can be independent states and full members of the European Union, why not Catalonia? In this context, the independentists’ victory in the September 2015 Catalan regional elections, billed as a de facto referendum on Catalonia’s relationship with the Spanish state, seems to indicate that Catalonia is no more just a “common” nation without state, but a nation in search of its own state…
For a better understanding of this “Catalan question”, let’s put the things on the map…
First of all, let’s note an apparent paradox: “the” Catalonia is not really just the Catalonia associated with the pseudo-referendum on independence… In reality, the September 2015 Catalan elections concerned only the electors from the Autonomous Community of Catalonia. A Catalan community, without doubt, but not “the” Catalan community. According to the Catalan nationalists, the Autonomous Community of Catalonia (often identified as “the Principality” in the nationalist discourse) represents only one of the Catalan lands or countries (Països Catalans). Technically, this term, Països Catalans, refers to the territories where the Catalan language is spoken: Northern Catalonia (France), Andorra, the Autonomous Community of Catalonia (without the Occitan-speaking area of Val d’Aran), the Eastern Aragon (Franja de Ponent), the Eastern part of the Valencian Community, the small region of El Carxe (Murcia), the Balearic Islands and the Italian town of Alghero (Sardinia). In other words, if the project of the Catalonia’s secession is already a nightmare for the Spanish elite, an eventual unification of the Catalan countries would certainly be an apocalyptic scenario for Madrid…
The birth of the Catalan polity is directly associated with the Carolingian Empire and its expansion across the Pyrenees Mountains.
At the end of the 8th Century, after the expulsion of the Muslims from Narbonne and its hinterland, the Franks, headed by Charlemagne (Emperor of the renewed Roman empire from 800), established a buffer zone between the Iberian Muslims and the Christian territory north of Pyrenees: Marca Hispanica (Spanish March).
Broadly corresponding to the region between the Pyrenees and the Ebro River, the Spanish March had a diversified population, with a Basque majority in the Western area and a Hispano-Roman one in the Central and the Eastern areas.
After the death of Charlemagne, the March is divided mainly between the kingdoms of Pamplona (Navarre) and Aragon and the Catalan counties (under the hegemony of the County of Barcelona).
De facto independent at the end of the 10th Century, under Borrell II, the County of Barcelona unified gradually under its rule the majority of the Catalan counties.
In 1137, the Kingdom of Aragon and the County of Barcelona and its dominions merged by dynastic union and it’s established the Crown of Aragon, but Aragon and Barcelona retained their own political and legal structures. After the union, the names of Catalonia and Principality of Catalonia were gradually used to identify the Catalan area of the Crown of Aragon.
After 1162, the Crown of Aragon extended its influence north of the Pyrenees and became a real player in the Occitan-speaking region.
In the meantime, the king of Aragon, a real player in the Reconquista too, secured its rights in the South and in 1212, the Aragonese forces participated in the Battle of Las Navas of Tolosa, a Christian victory that marked the turning point of the Muslim domination on the Iberian peninsula.
But the situation radically changes on September 1213…
Even he doesn’t directly participate in the Albigensian Crusade, Philip II (Philip Augustus), the king of the Franks, styled himself king of France from 1190 onward, allowed his vassals to carry it out and bring the Southern France under the influence of the French crown. On 12 September 1213, at Muret, near Toulouse, the Crusaders defeated the Catharist, Aragonese and Catalan forces of Count of Toulouse and his ally, Peter II of Aragon.
The battle played a significant role in ending the Aragonese interests in territories north of the Pyrenees Mountains. Later, by the Treaty of Corbeil (1258), James I of Aragon, Peter’s son and heir, renounced his claims to the Aragonese territories in the south of France, thus abandoning the policy that the Crown of Aragon had hitherto pursued across the Pyrenees.
In exchange for the abandon of the Aragonese rights in Languedoc, the king of France himself abandoned the ancient Frankish claims of suzerainty over Catalonia, Rosselló (Roussillon) and the other Carolingian possessions in the south of Pyrenees.
After the forced retreat from Languedoc and Provence, the kings of Aragon continued the Reconquista and their expansion eastwards, across the sea, and southwards, along the Mediterranean coast.
The Balearic Islands became a Christian dominion in the first part of the 13th Century and, following the conquest, James I of Aragon created a Kingdom of Mallorca (Majorca) in 1231. In 1279, after a short period of independence, this kingdom was united with the Crown of Aragon.
In the south, a similar scenario: the Aragonese king occupied the territories of the newly established kingdom of Valencia (1238) and united this state too with the Crown of Aragon.
After the conquest, the Balearic Islands and the Valencian kingdom have known a large influx of Catalan-speaking colonists from the Principality of Catalonia and the Catalan language (known later as Valencian in the Valencian kingdom) has been accepted as the official language of these new political entities. This fact explains why the Balearic Archipelago and Valencia became gradually some of the Catalan countries of the Catalan nationalist imaginary.
The Aragonese (and Catalan) expansion across the sea was not limited to the Balearic Islands. In competition with the French Angevins, the Aragonese warriors conquered Sicily in 1282 and Peter the Great, King of Aragon and Valencia and Count of Barcelona, became King of Sicily. In 1297, James II, King of Aragon, Valencia and Sicily and Count of Barcelona, was granted the Kingdom of Sardinia and Corsica. (The presence of a Catalan-speaking community in Sardinia is historically associated with these Aragonese rule.) In the Balkan Peninsula, in 1312, the Catalan lords of the duchies of Neopatras and Athens recognized the Aragonese-Sicilian suzerainty (until 1388). Later, in the Italian Peninsula, the Kingdom of Naples is added too to the House of Aragon (between 1442 and 1714). At the end of the 15th century, Aragon was certainly a major power in the Mediterranean.
But, in 1479, the establishment of a dynastic union between Aragon and Castile had to be a new turning point for the Catalan history…
With a high degree of autonomy during the 12th-15th Centuries, the Principality of Catalonia and the other Aragonese dominions had to experience a certain political involution after the union between the Crowns of Aragon and Castile and the birth of the Spanish state.
At the beginning of the 18th Century, as a result of the Spanish War of Succession, the Crown of Aragon ceased to exist and the autonomy of its dominions was swept away by the centralist laws issued by the King of Spain (the Nueva Planta decrees, 1707-1716).
In fact, following the surrender of the Catalans on September 11, 1714, Catalonia became effectively an ordinary region of a centralist Spanish state.
A century later, the situation would radically change again, after the French conquest of Spain. In 1812, the territories of the ancient Carolingian Catalan counties were annexed by the French Empire. After this short-lived and ambiguous initiative, Catalonia became Spanish again in 1814…
The loss of the political autonomy has seriously affected the evolution of the Catalan society and this fact explains why the restoration of the Catalan sovereignty has been the main objective of the Catalan nationalism since the birth of the nationalist movement in Catalonia in the second half of the 19th Century.
After an ambiguous declaration of independence in 1873 (Baldomer Lostau), Francesc Macià, the president of the Catalan government (Generalitat de Catalunya), proclaimed in April 1931 a “Catalan Republic within the Iberian Republic” during the Second Spanish Republic.
As the Macià’s initiative has been rejected by the central government, a more radical President of the Generalitat, Lluís Companys, proclaimed in 1934 a new Catalan Republic within a (fictive) Spanish Federal Republic.
Later, Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War put an end to the separatist aspirations of the Catalan nationalists for six decades.
After Franco’s death (1975), a new and democratic Spanish Constitution proposed a very modern framework for accommodating the Spain’s ethnic minorities. Thanks to this Constitution, the Basques, the Galicians and the Catalans have obtained a high degree of political autonomy and have been able to build their own structures in order to defense and preserve their identity.
Unfortunately, since the Spanish state was not prepared to recognize its main ethnic minorities as real national communities, the Spanish model is openly contested by the leaders of the Catalan, Basque and Galician nationalists. In this context, the de facto referendum on independence, held in Catalonia on September 27, 2015, represented a huge challenge for the Spanish establishment and the Spanish society. Catalonia’s pro-independence leader, Artur Mas, the President of the Generalitat, claimed victory and proposed a new dialogue between Barcelona and central authorities. According to the Catalans, the Spanish myth of the nación de naciones had surely come to its end and this dialogue had to led Spain to seek to redefine itself as a state and as a nation. With or without Catalonia…
But “the Spain’s unity is sacred,” as Mr. Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish PM, pointed out. “Catalonia isn’t separating from anywhere, nor will there be any rupture.” España no está para experimentos.
However, for the Catalans, the die is cast: On November 9, 2015, Catalonia’s Parliament approved a resolution to take steps to establish an independent Catalan republic and vowed to adopt “the necessary measures to start this democratic process of massive, sustained and peaceful disconnection from the Spanish state.” On January 10, 2016, Carles Puigdemont succeeded Artur Mas as the president of the Generalitat and the new Catalan administration seems to have already initiated the process of secession from Spain.
Winter has come…