Catalonia-Spain: at the roots of the current confrontation Print E-mail

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle
PhD, SNSF Research Fellow, Centrum voor Sociologisch Onderzoek – KU Leuven


Papiers d'actualité / Current Affairs in Perspective
Fondation Pierre du Bois
No 8, November 2016


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Catalonia-Spain: at the roots of the current confrontation

At the end of October 2016, Spanish politics overcame a deadlock that had held the country without a government for the last ten months—the longest political impasse since the end of Franco’s dictatorship. Among the many challenges that the new government will have to face, the thorniest one comes from the north-eastern region of Catalonia, where in January 2016 a pro-independence government was formed vowing to implement a 18-month road map supposed to end with the celebration of the region’s independence. Although separatist forces in the autonomous community have recently shifted their emphasis towards the organisation of a ‘unilateral independence referendum’, rather than straightforward secession, the high popular support for the independence option—at around 45-48% when a straight Yes or No question is asked to the population—does make the Catalan independence bid one of the most formidable challenges to state integrity in Western Europe.

The question that this paper will try to answer is: how did we end up in such a frontal clash between the central government in Madrid and the autonomous community of Catalonia? Any answer to this question must take into account the historical relationship between Catalonia and the rest of the Iberian Peninsula, weighing carefully long-lasting and more recent trends.

An appropriate way to begin our inquiry is by considering the claims of the pro-independence side.1 These can be broken down into two main arguments. The first—synthetically labelled as the espoli fiscal (fiscal plundering)—concerns the economic victimisation of the region, which would contribute a disproportionate amount of its resources to the Spanish central budget and would receive back insufficient funding and poor public services. The second relates to Catalonia’s political marginalisation within the Spanish state and, more specifically, to the lack of recognition of its status as a nation endowed with a right to self-determination (see Junts pel Sì 2015). These two arguments must be considered in conjunction. On the one hand, the economic victimisation of the region would result from its political marginalisation, since a more autonomous Catalonia would be able to keep more of its resources. On the other, the region’s better than average economic performance relatively to the rest of Spain—in terms of income per capita, industrial production, exports and, eventually, contributions to the public purse—makes its political marginalisation even more problematic. To understand the development of these claims, we need to inquire into the intertwining of processes of state formation, nation-building and uneven development in Spain.

State-formation and uneven development

Juan Linz (1973) has defined Spain as a case of early state-building and late nation-building. Although Spanish unification was achieved already in the first half of the 16th century, the Kingdom was composed of very diverse and autonomous areas. The most important step towards the unification of the Iberian Peninsula, the Union of the Crown of Aragon—within which the Principality of Catalonia constituted the most important unit—with that of Castile, in 1469, was not sanctioned by any treaty, but simply resulted from the wedding between Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. Within this framework, the Principality of Catalonia conserved its own parliament (les Corts Catalanes) and custom barriers between the two kingdoms remained untouched. Since this union served as a template for the later extension of the Crown’s authority over other territories, the end result was ‘an empire of independent States which yet owed allegiance to the same sovereign’ (Elliot 1963: 10). This architecture had the advantage of making royal rule more tolerable by recognising previously existing territorial identities and preserving the authority of local notables. Yet, it also did nothing to forge a sense of unity among the different parts of the empire.

In the early years of the Union, economic development played to the advantage of Castile. Although during the 13-15th century, Catalonia enjoyed economic prosperity and built up a major maritime empire in the Mediterranean, by the time of Spain’s unification it had fallen into decay. Castile on the other hand profited from the rise of the Atlantic trade and the riches coming from its American colonies to become the leading European power. Things started to change in the second half of the 17th century. Decreasing revenues from the colonial trade and bad management plunged the Crown into a serious fiscal crisis at a time, the mid-17th century, when it most needed resources to fund war in the continent and face rebellion at home, notably in Catalonia.2 Declining economic and military power went along with attempts at making taxation more efficient and demanding, which caused discontent in the territories controlled by the Crown. On the occasion of the War of Spanish Succession a new Catalan insurrection broke out, crushed by King Philippe V on September 11, 1714. Unlike his predecessors of the Hapsburg dynasty, who had left the Catalan autonomous institutions practically untouched after previous rebellions, the new Bourbon monarch set out to initiate a process of state centralisation well embodied by the transformation of his official title from ‘King of Castile and Count of Barcelona’ to ‘King of Spain’. With the adoption of the decrees of Nueva Planta (New Foundation), he abolished the Catalan Corts and other autonomous institutions and set Castilian as the official language of government. Yet, as argued by Elliott (2002[1963]: chapter 10.2): ‘Spain, under the Government of the Bourbons, was about to be centralized and Castilianized; but the transformation occurred at a time when Castile’s economic hegemony was a thing of the past...during the next two centuries economic and political power were perpetually divorced’, with far-reaching consequences that played out mostly in the second half of 19th century.

The September 11 defeat has become a powerful nationalist symbol in Catalonia. Yet, paradoxically, it is precisely after the end of Catalan autonomy that a genuine sense of ‘Spanishness’ slowly began to arise among the Catalan leading classes, mainly because the region began experiencing a period of protracted and consistent economic growth that turned into a real take off a century later with the onset of the industrial revolution. It is in this period that Spain was given a chance to become a true nation-state (Vilar 1962: 158-160). By the beginning of the 19th century, the Catalan upper classes showed a clear attachment to Spain, which they mostly identified as the nation. At the same time, such Spanish identity did not replace the Catalan one. On the contrary, the latter knew a considerable strengthening in the second half of the 19th century, fuelled by the influence of the wider European Romantic movement and by the formation—especially since the 1840s—of a more robust Spanish nationalism entailing a conservative organicist definition of the nation leaving little room for regional differences (De Riquer, 2000: 14). The poor resources available to the Spanish state to carry out an effective nation-building process compared, for instance, to what was realised in France,3 coupled with Catalonia’s exceptional economic development, further contributed to strengthening centrifugal tendencies (Sahlins, 1989: 279–298; Llobera 2003: 66). While the Catalan industrial elites called for internal modernisation and external protection from foreign competition (through trade tariffs), the landed gentry of most other Spanish regions defended different, if not opposite, policies and interests (De Riquer 2000:  56-61). In this context, the loss of the remaining Spanish colonies at the end of the Spanish-American War, in 1898, constituted a turnaround, since it opened the eyes of elites throughout the country over the real extent of Spain’s decay. As a consequence, ‘Carlists, conservatives, liberals, republicans, radicals, socialists, anarchists and Catalan regionalists all developed opposing projects of “national regeneration”’ (Balfour and Quiroga 2007: 27). In Catalonia, this led to the formation of the Lliga Regionalista (a powerful regionalist party), while Spanish conservatives stepped up their nation-building efforts, which reached a peak during the dictatorships of Primo de Rivera, first, and Francisco Franco, later.

The latter dictatorship in particular harshly persecuted the Catalan national movement and strongly repressed the Catalan language and culture. Ironically, however, in this way the regime fundamentally jeopardised its legitimacy in the region and contributed to associating the fight for democracy with that for the recognition of peripheral identities. In such a context, the democratic transition could not but coincide with some form of decentralisation of power to peripheral authorities.

Competitive dynamics and inter-territorial transfers

Overall, the Constitution of 1978 struck a fine balance between the demands of the main political actors negotiating the democratic transition. While the Unio de Centro Democratico (Union of the Democratic Centre, UCD)— a self-declared centrist party, which however included several members of the former regime—aimed at limiting devolution to the autonomous communities as much as possible, the Partido Socialista y Obrero Espanol (Socialist and Labour Spanish Party, PSOE) was open to a federal solution, but on the basis of a symmetric model. Catalan and Basque nationalist parties, on the contrary, wanted recognition of their special status of national communities and thus campaigned for an asymmetric federal state. Each obtained something: the extent of the initial devolution of powers was limited and the old Napoleonic provinces, on which the central government exercised more control, were left untouched; the Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia were defined as ‘historical nationalities’, recognised a right to self-government and given the benefit to immediately initiate the transfer of their competences; the other (ordinary) communities were allowed to catch up with the three above in the long term, although at a later stage (Colomer, 1998: 40–42). The idea to differentiate the ‘historical nationalities’ from the other communities and bestow upon them a privileged status, while at the same time strongly affirming the unity and indivisibility of the Spanish nation (see art. 2 of the Constitution) established a ‘constructive ambiguity’ that guaranteed relative peace between the central administration and the autonomous communities for about 30 years.4

The process of devolution of powers has been characterised by its openness. Precisely because of a lack of consensus over the precise extent of devolution, the communities have been allowed to ‘claim’ them from the central government according to the so-called principio dispositivo. In this way, the periphery, rather than the centre, has been driving the process (Fossas, 1999: 6). This expedient ensured flexibility, but it also fuelled self-reinforcing competitive dynamics whereby the gains—in terms of degrees of autonomy and competences—of some communities, usually the historical nationalities, were quickly demanded by the ordinary regions according to a principle of ‘comparative grievance’ (Moreno, 2001: 97).

Furthermore, in many respects, the federalisation of Spain has not followed a clear model and has rather been the result of contingency and the balance of power between different political actors. Four flaws have especially been pointed out. First, in the early phase, until 1997, fiscal autonomy in fact decreased since new competences were devolved without fiscal responsibility, thus increasing dependency on transfers from the centre and fuelling dissatisfaction in net contributory regions. Second, the system has few in-built incentives for fiscal responsibility, i.e. regions have an interest in asking for more resources rather than in making their spending more efficient. Third, there is no clear definition of what the constitutional principle of equal fiscal treatment means, which favours disputes over its interpretation between contributory and recipient communities. Fourth, the legislator did not foresee a specific financial stream for investments in non-needy regions (see below) (Monasterio Escudero, 2002: 158–169).

Within this framework, Catalonia has certainly been one of the most important contributory regions to the Spanish public purse. Nationalist actors have claimed that each year the region is deprived of about 6-8% of its regional GDP. Also, quite importantly for our analysis, such denunciations made their appearance in Catalan politics between the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, mainly thanks to the propaganda of the separatist party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia, ERC).5 Since then, they have remained a constant reference in the political debate, but they have become an almost hegemonic argument in favour of full self-determination only in the context of the recent economic crisis. Are these claims supported by the available evidence?

Calculations of the ‘fiscal deficit’—i.e. the difference between what a region contributes and what it receives back from the Treasury—vary widely, but overall confirm the role of Catalonia as one of the biggest contributors.6 From a purely fiscal perspective there is no way to establish the ‘right’ amount of resources that should go into solidarity. Such a question is a political one. However, what can be determined by economists and fiscal experts is whether there are serious inefficiencies that could nourish discontent among the population, notably: trends in taxation and public finances, overcompensation effects, regional economic convergence (or lack thereof), and the overall evolution of the economy.

If we follow a minimal conception of redistribution whereby territorial areas should contribute proportionally to their income and obtain equal per capita spending, regions with higher than average income per-capita should contribute more to the public purse than those with a lower one. This is, broadly speaking, what happens in the case of Catalonia (Uriel and Barberan 2007: 412). Yet, at the same time, there are some distortions. First, there are overcompensation effects, although their precise extent is unclear. Espasa and Bosch (2010) argue that the region would receive 12-14% less than the Spanish average, while De la Fuente (2005) provides more conservative data (6% less) and points out that other regions would get rougher deals. Second, there has been, at least throughout the 1990s, an uncontroversial lack of resources for infrastructural investment in the region. De la Fuente (2001) has indeed showed that Catalonia consistently received the lowest infrastructural funding of all the autonomous communities throughout that decade. Although this represents only a small share of the fiscal deficit denounced by nationalist parties in the region, it certainly had a negative impact on its further development and was a topic of hot debate in the late 2000s. Third, economic convergence between poorer and richer areas did occur in Spain, but it has slowed down considerably in the 1980s and was almost absent in the following decade (Goerlich et al., 2002; Mas et al., 1994). Furthermore, some authors have argued that the convergence effectively realised has resulted more from public investment and emigration than endogenous growth (Garcia-Milà and McGuire, 2001: 283). Although there is no evidence in the economic literature that inter-regional transfers hinder development in poorer areas, lack of convergence, along with corruption scandals and evidence of clientelist practices that affected the PSOE between the late 1980s and the early 1990s (Heywood, 2005: 52–53; Cazorla, 1994: 5–6), when the rhetoric of the expoli fiscal appeared in full force in Catalan politics, contributed to spreading a perception of territorial solidarity as nourishing dependence rather than endogenous growth and, therefore, to undermining its legitimacy. Fourth, Spanish public finances underwent a radical change throughout the 1980s. During the dictatorship public spending was incredibly low by European standards, being around 20% of GDP in 1970. Yet, in about two decades it caught up with the OECD average hitting 42.7% in 1990. As a consequence, during the 1980s, Spain recorded one of the fastest growing rates of public spending and taxation—calculated as revenues on GDP—in Western Europe (Tanzi and Schuknecht, 2000: 6–7). While this was mainly a ‘normalisation’, as compared to other countries, it was nevertheless a radical change and one that was carried out in more unfavourable conditions than most of the rest of Europe, where the state expansion and the construction of the welfare state occurred during the so called Glorious Thirties (Comin and Diaz, 2005: 877).

In such a context, distributional issues have acquired great salience and can explain the formation of the Catalan rhetoric of fiscal victimisation. Yet, until the recent crisis, the autonomous community has experienced quite solid and consistent economic growth. Average real growth was equal to 2.5% a year in 1981–1995 and it edged up to 3.2% in 1995–2007 (Boix, 2012: 101).7 This helps explain why, overall, there were no major confrontations between the central government and the Generalitat until the ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal over the Catalan Statute of Autonomy in 2010. Between 2001 and 2006, 41.1% of Catalans on average believed that the situation of the region had improved compared to the previous two years, while only 26% thought it had worsened—the remainder found it to be about the same. In the 2007-2013 period, 70.7% thought it had deteriorated (ICPS several years). The financial and euro crisis radically increased the salience of the transfers and turned the rhetoric of the espoli fiscal into a powerful discourse of legitimation of demands for self-determination. Yet, such economic and financial factors do not explain everything.

Pluri-nationality and the end of federalism

The inter-territorial transfers and the financial and euro crisis do not, by themselves, account for the frontal confrontation between the central government in Madrid and pro-independence forces in Catalonia. Two elements clearly illustrate that.

The first pertains to the fiscal transfers. Catalonia is not the only region contributing more than what it receives. Other autonomous communities have shown similar fiscal imbalances. According to some calculations, the community of Madrid would be the biggest net contributor of the entire country. However, Madrid is a special case. First, because its fiscal contribution is compensated for by the symbolic advantage of being Spain’s capital. Second, because such a compensation also occurs in material terms. Its fiscal deficit is indeed very sensitive to the way in which general services (i.e. services that cannot be easily territorialised since they are deemed to serve the entire country) are attributed to the community where they are physically located (monetary-flow method) or are divided among all communities (benefit-flow method). While, moving from the benefit to the monetary method, Madrid’s contribution changes radically—sometimes even turns into a surplus—, Catalonia’s alters much less so (Barberan, 2006: 71–72; Espasa and Bosch, 2010: 164). A better comparison however can be made with the Balearic Islands. While Catalonia’s fiscal deficit—in benefit-flow terms—averaged 5.2% of its GDP in 1991-2005, that of the Balearic Islands was equal to 4.3% (Uriel and Barberan 2007), lower but still comparable. Nevertheless, the centre-periphery conflict there has not escalated as much as in Catalonia, nor has any rhetoric of fiscal victimisation nearly as strong as the Catalan one developed. One likely reason is that subjective national identification in the Islands has been much more strongly Spanish-oriented than in Catalonia,8 thus preventing the interpretation of distributional issues in national terms. As argued by an extensive sociological literature, solidarity builds upon social closure and therefore requires—as well as fosters—the perception of a common identity (Ferrera, 2005: 2; Bommes, 2012: 28). As shown by Wim van Oorschot (2000; 2006), one of the main criteria used by public opinion across Europe to legitimise social solidarity is whether the recipient is perceived to be ‘one of us’. Identity and material factors must therefore be evaluated in conjunction.

The second element suggesting that something more than economic and fiscal issues are at play is given by the fact that the current centre-periphery stand-off coincides not only with an economic, but also with a constitutional crisis. As mentioned in the previous section, devolution of powers in Spain has been driven by an open process in which the communities took initiative in ‘claiming’ their competences and that has been accompanied by strong competitive dynamics. After many rounds of negotiations with the central government for more extensive degrees of devolution, the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, which had been approved at the end of the 1970s, became increasingly obsolete. The issue of its reform came on the agenda of the Generalitat from 2003 onwards, when a tripartite coalition of the Socialists, the Greens and the left-wing separatist ERC came into office. The new Statute, approved by the Catalan Parliament in 2005, was a far-reaching text, which, among others, contained the declaration of Catalonia as a nation. The Statute was heavily amended, but eventually approved by the Spanish Parliament and successively ratified by a 70% majority in a popular referendum held in the region in 2006 (Orte and Wilson 2009). Nevertheless, the right-wing Partido Popular (Popular Party, PP) appealed against the Statute, arguing that even this amended version violated a number of constitutional articles. The judgment came four years later and is widely deemed to have been the main trigger of the current radicalisation in favour of independence. Despite Catalan criticism, it would be unfair to define the Court’s judgement as heavy-handed. Of the 187 articles appealed against by the PP, the judges found 14 to be against the constitution and gave constraining interpretations of 27 others (Guibernau, 2013: 382). One of the most controversial issues, the definition of Catalonia as a nation, figures among the latter, since the Court made clear that the term does not have any legal consequences. In this way—and this probably is on of the most far-reaching consequences of the ruling—the Court unambiguously rejected any pluri-national interpretation of Spain, destroying the ‘constructive ambiguity’ that had allowed the State of Autonomies to be a creative solution to a lack of consensus over the extent of devolution during the democratic transition.

Furthermore, the Court’s ruling was perceived as fundamentally anti-democratic because it overruled a text that had been approved by two Parliaments and ratified by the Catalan population in a referendum (Fossas 2011). There is little question that, within the framework of the Spanish legal system, the Tribunal had the authority to overrun the Statute. The main question however is not legal, but political and relates to the nature of Spanish democracy. The main issue at stake is whether Spain is to be conceived of as a mono-national or a pluri-national democracy. According to a mono-national definition, Catalan demands for an independence referendum are against the sovereignty of the entire Spanish people. In such a conception, granting Catalonia the right to vote upon separation would violate the sovereignty of the Spaniards not living there. It would be the anti-democratic privilege of a minority to the detriment of the majority—this is precisely the argument used by Prime Minister Rajoy. According to a pluri-national conception, instead, Catalonia is a distinct political community endowed with a right to self-determination and, therefore, with the legitimacy to autonomously choose about its destiny. The Spanish government’s stern opposition to such a referendum is perceived as a violation of the Catalan popular will and therefore as an act against democracy (Dalle Mulle 2016).

To some extent, both sides rely on an illusion. On the Spanish government’s side, there has been a consistent tendency to believe that a pure legalistic approach against any unconstitutional act—along with improvements in the economic situation—will solve the conflict. In this way, the PP has lost more than four years doing almost nothing to find a political solution. On the Catalan side, the argument in favour of an independence referendum—shared by a much wider share of the Catalan population than the independence option—is consistently cast as based on democratic theory, rather than on nationalism.9 This is true only in part. While it is undeniable that ‘sovereigntist forces’10 in the region have shown strong commitment to democratic means of struggle and there is evidence of a majority in favour of holding an independence referendum, the claim that the Catalans—rather than all Spaniards—have a right to hold such a referendum is based on the abovementioned conception of Catalonia as a sovereign nation. Such a conception is not determined in any way by democratic theory, which, on the contrary, is silent about the precise contours of the community that should exercise democratic rights. As argued by Robert Dahl (1982: 98) the question of who is the demos ‘is in fact an embarrassment to all normative theories of democracy, or would be were it not ignored [by them N/A]’. The determination of the relevant political community to which democratic rules apply is a pre-political act that is not settled by democracy itself, meant as a set of procedures ensuring that each citizen is treated with equal concern (Dworkin 2007: 43), but rather by identity factors—and often by a certain degree of contingency and balance of power among different actors as well. Nationalism, not to be understood in its popular meaning of a chauvinistic sense of superiority of one national community over others, but rather as the more basic sense of a principle of political legitimacy (Gellner 1983: 1) and of a form of consciousness that ‘locates the source of individual identity within a “people”... seen as the bearer of sovereignty, the central object of loyalty, and the basis of collective solidarity’ (Greenfeld 1993: 3), plays a key role in this process.

The most problematic feature of the current stand-off in Spain is that the middle-ground defending some form of federalism striking a balance between state integrity, recognition of sub-state national identities and their rights of self-government as well as strengthening overarching Spanish fellow feelings is consistently marginalised by the increasing polarisation of a political debate driven by the two maximalist projects of the status-quo and separation.




1 For reasons of scope, we focus here on the major political actor within the pro-independence camp, i.e. the Junts pel Sì coalition.

2 The two actually combined since the prolonged presence of Castilian troops on Catalan soil due to Thirty Years War added up to discontent with the royal poor administration and fuelled insurrection in the region.

3 The Spanish state could not, for instance, enact a comprehensive and compulsory education system—in 1900, 63.8% of the population was illiterate against only 16.5% in France (Culla 1999: 38).

4 The issue of terrorism in the Basque Country, of course, nuances this picture, but this topic is beyond the scope of the paper.

5 The major Catalan nationalist party Convergencia i Unio, also voiced them but in a more moderate form, due to its role of a party seeking collaboration rather than confrontation with the PSOE and the PP.

6 For a synthesis see Barberan (2006). 

7 Boix’s data have been complemented with older figures from the Spanish Institute for Statistics.

8 See data on subjective national identification from IBES (2012).

9 While the term nation is widely used by pro-independence/pro-referendum actors in the region—one of the most popular slogan has been som una nacio nosaltres decidim (we are a nation, we decide)—the term nationalism is carefully avoided and most often replaced by soberanisme (sovereigntism).

10 With the term sovereigntist we refer to actors defending Catalonia’s right to decide about its future, regardless whether they also support independence statehood or not.



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