It was the internal divisions fostered by the invasion and occupation by the Napoleonic French which first caused the Spanish empire to crack and begin breaking apart. Efforts to deal with this were, at first, successful but, alas, internal squabbling in Spain itself prevented such victories being followed up. The struggle between constitutional and absolute monarchists seemed to have been done when King Fernando VII, backed by his Bourbon cousin King Louis XVIII of France, restored himself to power but his death then set off a series of conflicts over the succession; the Carlist Wars. There were a number of these and, though the Carlists were never victorious, their persistence meant that the Spanish were mostly focused on fighting each other rather than external enemies. That, unfortunately, was only the beginning as the divisions became only worse with time.
As the division over the Bourbon succession seemed hopelessly permanent, the Spanish government decided to start over from blank paper with a new dynasty, importing the Italian Duke of Aosta to be King Amadeo I of Spain. This solved nothing, another Carlist uprising flared up and the party which had brought in the new king also began fighting among themselves so that, after less than three years in Spain, King Amadeo I declared the country ungovernable, abdicated and went home to Italy, sorry that he had ever attempted such an enterprise. This resulted in the, thankfully short-lived, First Spanish Republic as the revolutionary party, which had always opposed the monarchy, was bolstered by the fact that the monarchists seemed unable to maintain a functioning monarchy anyway. The republic did not last long but it set a dangerous precedent and should have been a warning to all that if the monarchy was to only be a source of division, a republic would be given a chance.
|Flag of the Kingdom of Aragon|
|Catalan separatist flag|
Once Franco was dead and gone, however, the Catalan separatists came back in a big way. In 1979 Catalonia gained a degree of autonomy from the Spanish government and, after another vote in 2006, this autonomy was expanded. However, there has been no shortage of problems in Spain and there have been no shortage of Catalan separatists, on both the left and the right (or “right” as we are basically talking about socialists and liberals here) who are quick to offer Catalan independence as the answer. This is an old problem and one that has been building in its current form for decades at least. Why should any of this matter, particularly to anyone who is not Spanish? It matters because the Kingdom of Spain matters. Spain is never going to rise above its current lower-tier status if these internal divisions persist and if the Catalan nationalists are successful, the results could have far-reaching consequences well become the present day boundaries of the Kingdom of Spain.
Many of these, most of them in all probability, have also stated their desire to carry on within the European Union, which means not so much true independence but more a desire to have the benefits of autonomy with none of the responsibilities. We would be left with a collection of tiny, powerless statelets which are, far from independent, all the more dependent on larger powers for their defense and access to profitable markets. Secessionists in places such as the American states of California or Texas could be (and in the case of Texas have) successful independent entities if their adopt the correct policies. Both have large markets, considerable farm land, their own energy sources and access to the oceans, the ‘highway of the nations’. The same could not be said for these tiny regions of Europe. In many of these places, the separatists do have some legitimate points on their lists of grievances in my view. However, the breakup of once major powers into powerless micro-states will not solve them or, at best, simply replace them with other, usually larger, problems.