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In October 2017 Catalonia voted, in a referendum whose legitimacy was disputed, to secede from Spain. Later that month the region’s president unilaterally declared independence. The Spanish state responded with police interventions and the use of the courts to frustrate these attempts. Ultimately, direct rule was imposed, suspending Catalonia’s devolved powers.

The referendum caused alarm among Spanish companies with headquarters in Catalonia. This particularly affected banks, many of which were concerned about whether an independent Catalonia would be a member of the European Union and moved their headquarters to Madrid.

The failed independence drive saw the movement’s leaders either go into exile or put on trial and convicted for their part in the events of October 2017. The severity of the sentences was highly controversial leading to unrest in Catalan cities in October 2019.The Spanish Government tried with varying degrees of success to prevent those leaders from standing for the Catalan and European parliaments.

Meanwhile, the situation in Catalonia helped re-shape Spanish national politics. An unprecedented period of instability, including two elections in 2019, has seen the far-right Vox party becoming the third-biggest party in the Madrid parliament.

Although the tumult in Catalan streets was quelled and constitutional order restored, the underlying tensions that gave rise to the region’s modern independence movement remain unresolved.

The standoff between the Spanish state and the political and social movement in the region persists to this day. The crisis reverberates back into national politics; Spain held its fourth general election in four years on 10 November 2019. Understanding the context to the Catalan crisis goes part of the way in explaining the political instability in Spain and its polarised and fragmented political landscape.

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