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Catalan independence - what you need to know

Catalonia has gone to the polls on October 1 to vote in a referendum on independence from Spain. But do Catalans really want independence and are they ready? DW has the lowdown.

Catalonia's separatist regional government held a controversial referendum on independence from Spain on October 1.

If the referendum passes, the administration said it would declare independence within 48 hours.

The run-up to the election was accompanied by Catalan nationalist protests in the region's capital Barcelona and other towns over a government crackdown on the vote.

The basic guide to Catalonia and the Catalans

Located in the northeast of the Iberian peninsula, Catalonia has been a part of Spain since the 15th century.

Catalan separatists stress the fact that Catalonia is a nation with a distinct language, culture and history separate. Independence, they say, will protect the Catalan nation from the encroachment of Spanish language and culture.

The Catalan language developed independently of Spanish, deriving from the Latin spoken by Romans who colonized the area in the 2nd century BC. The Roman occupation harmonized the various cultures in the region into one.

Following the Muslim conquest of the Iberian peninsula in the 8th century, the inhabitants of the region turned to the Frankish leader Charlemagne for help. The province of the Spanish March was born, acting as a buffer between Muslim Hispania and Christian France. 

The Muslim Moors took Barcelona again in 985 and, having received no support from the Franks this time, an independent state was proclaimed, taking the name Catalonia.

Catalonia emerged from the conflicts in Muslim Spain as a regional power, as Christian rulers entrenched themselves in the region. Catalonia became part of Spain since the 15th century when there was no successor to the throne.

There then followed periods of great instability, when Catalonia was under French protection after revolting against Spanish rule in the Franco-Spanish war. During the war of Spanish succession, Catalonia found itself alone and eventually fell to Spanish forces in 1714. 

For centuries that followed, Catalan rights and the language were banned, universities closed and the Catalan nation was lost. 

Its revival was helped by the industrial revolution.

An economic powerhouse

Catalan products were highly sought after in Spain in the 18th and 19th century and it grew rich on the back of trade with the Americas. Barcelona was known as the "Manchester of the Mediterranean."

Today, it is one of the wealthiest regions in Spain, Catalonia is still home to much of Spain's manufacturing and financial sectors and makes up one-fifth of the country's GDP.

The region has long complained that its financial prowess subsidizes poorer areas, saying it sends €10 billion ($12 billion) more to Madrid than it receives back.

The 2010 Supreme Court decision restricting the region's control over finances fueled resentment at a time the country was struggling in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

Opponents of the financial argument point out that it is only fair that Catalonia helps support less developed regions, considering that the Constitution grants "self-government of the nationalities and regions and solidarity among them all."

Timeline of Catalonia

The history of the independence movement

Catalan nationalists have pressed for greater autonomy for decades.

Former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco suppressed Catalan autonomy and identity during his 1938-75 rule. But the democratic constitution that emerged from dictatorship granted Catalonia autonomy in 1979.

Nationalist sentiment was sparked after Spanish Supreme Court in 2010 overturned parts of a new 2006 Statute of Autonomy, which had been agreed to by the Catalan parliament and Spanish government with the support of a referendum.

Among the 14 articles in the Statute of Autonomy stuck down by the Supreme Court were those that gave preference to the Catalan language and empowered the region's control over finances. Its ruling that there was no legal basis to describe the Catalan people as a "nation" enraged nationalists. 

Massive Catalan nationalist protests ensued, leading to a non-binding referendum in 2014 despite Madrid calling it illegal. The referendum passed with 80 percent voting in favor, but turnout was less that 40 percent.

The referendum galvanized nationalists, who took control of parliament in 2015 following elections vowing to hold an official independence referendum.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont called for an independence referendum in June. The Catalan parliament in September then voted to authorize the vote on October 1.

What powers does the Catalonia government have now?

Catalonia is one of 17 autonomous regions in Spain. The provincial government has a range of powers, but pays tax to the government in Madrid. 

- Catalonia is politically organized under the Generalitat de Catalunya, with a parliament, president and executive council.

- The region is granted considerable autonomy over culture, education, health, parts of the justice system and local government.

- It has its own police force, Mossos d'Esquadra, although Spanish police also have a presence in the region.

- The government is also able to collect taxes on wealth, inheritance, gambling and transport. The central government collects income tax, corporate taxes and value-added taxes.

Watch video 00:34

Catalan parliament separatists sing

Do Catalans support independence?

Catalonia's roughly 5.5 million voters will be asked a "Yes” or "No” question: "Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?"

A poll conducted by the Catalan government in June found that 41.1 percent of respondents were in favor of independence, while 49.4 percent were against.

- However, of the 67.5 percent of voters who said they would participate in the referendum, 62.4 percent said they would vote "Yes" and 37.6 percent responded "No."

- The same poll showed that 62 percent of respondents think Catalonia has an "insufficient level of autonomy" compared to 26.4 percent who said there is a "sufficient level of autonomy."

- Furthermore, 48 percent said they want to hold a referendum, regardless of central government permission, while 23.4 percent were in favor of a vote only if Madrid agreed. 

Therefore, the results of the October 1 referendum, just like the one held in 2014, may hinge on voter turnout.

A member of the Catalonia parliament gives a thumbs up in a September 6 vote to pursue an independece referendum.

A member of the Catalonia parliament gives a thumbs up in a September 6 vote to pursue an independece referendum

Impact of the vote

Whether the independence referendum passes or fails, it is likely to set off a legal battle and power struggle between Madrid and Catalonia.

A "Yes” vote threatens to hit Spanish bonds and endanger economic recovery from a multi-year recession, with GDP growth of around 3 percent in 2015 and 2016.

Analysts say Catalonia would struggle to be financial viable and fail on its debt obligations.  

The Spanish Confederation of Business Organizations (CEOE) has called for the laws of Spain and the EU to be followed. In a statement, it voiced "deep concern" over the impact the illegal referendum would have on "business and investor confidence in Catalonia and in the rest of Spain."

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