Long-running tensions between Madrid and Catalonia boiled over in 2017 when the region in north-east Spain held a referendum on independence.
Catalonia, one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, has a population of around 7.5 million people and includes the tourist-popular city of Barcelona.
The region has its own language as well as Spanish and generates a fifth of Spain’s 1.1trillion-euro ($1.3trillion) economy, but polls show its voters are divided on the question of independence.
The European Union has said an independent Catalonia would not be allowed to stay in the bloc.
The referendum on October 1, 2017, was organised by Catalan authorities but declared invalid by the central Spanish government, led by Mariano Rajoy.
Spanish civil guard officers and firefighters hold back a group of protesters on October 1, 2017, the day of Catalonia’s disputed independence referendum
The pro-independence side won with more than 90 per cent of the vote but turnout was below half and the ballot was considered illegal by the Spanish government.
Spanish national police and Civil Guard officers clashed with voters as they tried to break up balloting.
More than 890 civilians and 430 police were injured when anti-riot squads moved into polling stations and dispersed voters.
Spain’s anti-riot squads fired rubber bullets, smashed into polling stations and beat protesters with batons.
But Spanish authorities commended the police, saying their response to the voting was professional and proportionate.
On October 27, 2017, separatist lawmakers declared independence in a session boycotted by opposition parties.
The declaration was not recognised by any UN country and then-Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont fled to Brussels three days later.
Rejecting Catalonia’s move, Madrid sacked the Catalan government and imposed direct rule, dissolved its parliament and issued an arrest warrant for Puigdemont. The latter was later dropped.
Former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, pictured at the height of the independence crisis in October 2017, who fled into exile in Belgium after the declaration
Spain’s King Felipe VI also spoke out, urging Catalan lawmakers to respect their region’s diversity and avoid confrontation over independence.
New Catalan elections in December 2017 saw separatist parties triumph but the pro-independence movement remains divided.
Many Catalan separatist leaders and activists who supported the referendum are either awaiting trial in prison or fled the country.
Direct rule over Catalonia was removed in May 2018 when pro-separatist Quim Torra was chosen as the region’s new leader, replacing Puigdemont.
A month later Rajoy was ousted as Spain’s prime minister and replaced by Pedro Sanchez who has shown more willingness to engage with the Catalan movement.
However Sanchez has so far only offered increased powers while the Catalan government is asking for a binding vote on secession.