Catalan crisis sparks European secession talk

Speaking up: Crowds chant for deposed Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont to be arrested. © Getty

Could more European regions go independent? The situation in Catalonia is escalating, as Spain establishes direct rule over the breakaway region. Yesterday, thousands held a march for unity.

Eritrea, Palau, East Timor, Montenegro, Kosovo, South Sudan… Catalonia?

The world’s 196th country could soon be born in the northeast of what, for now, remains Spain. The Catalan crisis shows no signs of ending. There may not be a “second Spanish civil war”, but the independence movement is becoming one of Europe’s biggest issues in decades.

On Friday the Catalan government declared independence, resulting in the Spanish government stripping Catalonia of its autonomous status. President Carles Puigdemont and his entire cabinet were sacked, with Spain’s deputy prime minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría appointed to run the region temporarily.

Puigdemont is urging “democratic opposition” to direct rule, and the Spanish government’s move is unlikely to calm tensions.

Yesterday hundreds of thousands attended a rally for Spanish unity in Barcelona, Catalonia’s largest city, calling themselves the “silenced majority”. Many pro-union voters boycotted the referendum of October 1st, which ended with 90% of voters saying yes to independence.

Unlike much of Africa, for example, the borders of Europe are drawn up according to “tribal” lines. French people live in France, Slovaks live in Slovakia and so on. Many believed the breakup of Yugoslavia saw the final pieces of Europe’s jigsaw come together.

But along with Catalonia, these regions in the north of Spain, the Basque Country, Galicia and Asturias all have political parties dedicated to independence.

And last week two regions in the north of Italy, Lombardy and Veneto, voted overwhelmingly for greater autonomy from Rome.

Like Catalonia, both regions are affluent, and part of their motivation was the premise that they should not continue to prop up poorer regions.

From Scotland to the Wallonia region of Belgium to the little-known breakaway republic of Transnistria in Moldova, secession remains a pressing issue. But if Catalan independence “makes Brexit look easy”, as one EU official has said, will other movements be put off?

The splits

“Is this really worth it?” many will think. Independence movements sound romantic, but they lead to huge hostilities between people. It is never as simple as leaving and saying: “Thanks, we’re moving on.” Building a successful country takes decades. This is not the time to start a further splintering of Europe.

But others argue that the urge for independence cannot be stemmed by practical concerns. While there may be initial hiccups for Catalonia should it go independent, it is likely that, economically, the country would eventually thrive. Since the end of the first world war there has been a worldwide trend for more, smaller countries. The biggest question is: who’s next?

You Decide

  1. Is the crisis in Catalonia going to spark more secessionist movements?
  2. Would Catalonia succeed as an independent country?


  1. In pairs, create two posters: one in favour of Catalan independence, and one against it.
  2. In 1914 there were 57 independent countries. Now there are 193. Write 500 words on whether you think this is a good thing.

Some People Say...

“Small countries have no power.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Catalonia is, for now, run directly by the Spanish government in Madrid and has no autonomous status. This is a response to the regional parliament declaring independence on Friday after a referendum four weeks ago. In that referendum, which is “illegal” under the Spanish constitution, 92% of voters chose independence, according to figures published by the Catalan government; the turnout was 43% of registered voters.
What do we not know?
How this crisis will be resolved. Spain is implacably opposed to granting Catalonia any sort of official independence referendum, and it is still not clear whether Catalonia would even vote to leave in the first place. We also do not know whether this will trigger a new wave of independence movements around Europe.

Word Watch

196th country
There is some dispute about this figure, as certain countries still lack complete recognition from some other states. For example, this figure includes Palestine, which is not a member of the United Nations, while dozens of countries still do not recognise Israel.
Africa’s current borders were largely drawn up by European colonisers, meaning that many of the larger tribes overlap between several different countries.
Breakup of Yugoslavia
What was Yugoslavia is now Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo.
Lombardy and Veneto
Lombardy is the region with Milan at its centre and has comfortably the highest GDP of any region, while the capital of Veneto is Venice. Since Italy was only unified in the 19th century, Italian regions still maintain strong local identities.
Poorer regions
In general, much of northern Italy is rich while much of southern Italy is poor.
A small, Russian-speaking region wedged between Moldova and Ukraine. It is not recognised by UN members but is de facto an independent country.


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