Catalonia Just Said Independence Is Coming — Then Hit Pause. Here's What You Need To Know.

Tensions in Spain are higher than they've been in decades, as the region that's home to one of the country's largest cities announced on Tuesday that it will break away — eventually.

Chris Mcgrath / Getty Images
Chris Mcgrath / Getty Images

Catalonia, in Spain's northeastern corner, has been living with relative autonomy for the last nearly half-century. But now the region's leader has declared it's time to split with Spain — and take Barcelona with it.

"We can't be forced to accept the status quo that has been imposed on us," Catalan President Carles Puigdemont told the region's parliament on Tuesday, laying out his argument for separation as pro-independence supporters gathered outside.

Juan Medina / Reuters
Juan Medina / Reuters

"As the president of the Catalan government, I will tell you the results of the referendum. We will have an independent state as a republic," he announced to applause from the lawmakers.

But he immediately hit pause on the declaration. "We propose the suspension of the effects of the declaration of independence for a few weeks, to open a period of dialogue," Puigdemont said.

The referendum he was referring to took place earlier this month, when Catalans came out to vote in a referendum that the government in Madrid, the country's capital, had declared illegal, clashing with police in the process.

Dan Kitwood / Getty Images, Pau Barrena / AFP / Getty Images
Dan Kitwood / Getty Images, Pau Barrena / AFP / Getty Images

The result — though skewed by the ban likely keeping people against breaking away at home — was overwhelming: 90% of those who actually voted were in favor of independence. That result has been a huge headache for Madrid and for other countries in Europe, a major boost to the Catalans' hopes for a country of their own, and a potential flashpoint for more violence between police and protesters.

To understand why the small region, which accounts for nearly 20% of Spain’s economy, wants to break away in the first place, you have to go back. Way back.

By the time King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella married in 1469, uniting the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon into what would become modern Spain, Catalonia had been a part of Aragon for over 300 years.

But the Catalans had their own language, own customs, and own history, and their union with Aragon afforded them a small degree of separation from the rest of Spain. But as the Spanish kingdom consolidated, and after a bit of messy drama involving the Habsburg dynasty and the now-ruling Bourbon dynasty, Aragon's autonomy — including that of Barcelona and Catalonia more broadly — was negated.

Catalan culture and independence would decline until an upswell of nationalism became all the rage in Europe during the 19th century. In 1922, the Estat Catal party became the first nationalist movement in modern Spanish politics.

After 1939, Spain spent several decades under the fascist rule of General Francisco Franco, a dictatorship during which Catalan independence was a bit of a moot point.

Though the region had been granted autonomy back in 1932, Franco canceled it because Catalonia had opposed his Nationalist movement. He also banned the speaking of Catalan language and abolished Catalan institutions.

After his death in 1975, a new constitution was drawn up and Catalonia and several other regions in Spain were regranted autonomy within the kingdom of Spain.