On October 14, Spain’s Supreme Court sentenced several leaders of the Catalonian separatist movement to lengthy prison terms for their role in organizing a controversial independence referendum two years ago. What followed seemed, in some ways, like a tragic replay of the failed 2017 secession bid: protests erupted in Barcelona, some descending into vandalism; riot police manhandled peaceful protesters; and Catalonia was left without a clear path to resolving its differences with the central government.

Little, in other words, has changed in the two years since Madrid declared the referendum illegal and temporarily dissolved Catalonia’s regional government. Until recently, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his center-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) ruled out any and all dialogue with the pro-independence Catalan leaders. After an election in early November, Sánchez moderated his stance somewhat—a concession to the far-left party Podemos and to pro-independence members of the Spanish parliament whose support he needs to form a workable left-wing government. As a result, dialogue with pro-independence political parties is becoming more of a possibility. But for reasons both historical and strategic, Madrid will be hard-pressed to agree to any meaningful compromise, and the crisis is likely to continue.


The roots of Madrid’s inflexible position reach back several centuries. Compared with neighboring states such as France, the Spanish nation-building project was unusually weak, in part because the state spent its resources less on the building blocks of a common national identity, such as mass schooling, and more on maintaining a financially ruinous empire abroad. That historical weakness shapes Spanish national consciousness to this day. It is evident in the country’s deep distrust of subnational diversity and the widely held belief that distinct national identities threaten rather than complement the Spanish state. Elites in Madrid view any serious challenge to national unity—even demands for self-determination in a democratic referendum—as nothing short of treason. In their eyes, secessionist claims are by definition illegitimate and pro-independence leaders can never be valid interlocutors.

Yet more recent history weighs heavily on Madrid’s mind, too—above all the fight against the Basque terrorist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or ETA. From its founding in 1959 until a cease-fire in 2011, ETA fought for the creation of an independent Basque state, carrying out hundreds of attacks and killing over 800 people. The strategy had some public support among the Basques while Spain was still under the rule of dictator Francisco Franco. But this support progressively faded after the country’s transition to democracy in the late 1970s, especially as ETA’s deadly attacks became more indiscriminate. The Spanish government, meanwhile, made several attempts at negotiation with the terrorists and granted Basque nationalists significant concessions (including fiscal autonomy for the region).

But the central state also responded to ETA’s terrorism—and to the frequent rioting in various Basque cities—with a decidedly heavy hand. For example, from 1983 to 1987, officials in successive PSOE governments covertly established and funded death squads that targeted suspected ETA members. In 2003, Spain’s Supreme Court banned the Basque nationalist party Batasuna for its ties to ETA. (Batasuna was widely considered the political arm of the terrorist group.) Courts also declared several other Basque nationalist organizations illegal on grounds of collaboration with ETA. These judicial actions, which arguably limited the Basques’ freedoms of expression and of assembly, together with counterterrorist policies such as police raids and arrests, likely played a role in demobilizing radical Basque nationalists and contributed to ETA’s cessation of hostilities in 2011. (The group formally disbanded in 2018.)

Leniency toward Catalonia does not pay off electorally, whereas hard-line approaches do.

Catalan secessionism has been overwhelmingly peaceful, in sharp contrast to the violence unleashed by ETA. But Spanish political and social elites, including influential party leaders, tend to view the two as similar. (To wit: Pablo Casado, head of the center-right People’s Party, stated earlier this year that the agenda of Catalan nationalists was “the agenda of ETA.”) And because steadfast repression eventually made the “Basque problem” go away, leaders in Madrid likely believe that same approach can be deployed to similar effect in Catalonia.

Party politics has compounded the problem. Leniency toward Catalonia does not pay off electorally, whereas hard-line approaches do: the Catalan crisis has been wind in the sails for staunch Spanish nationalists in the upstart far-right party Vox. In contrast, those that advocate for middle-ground solutions and de-escalation, such as the far-left party Podemos, have been losing support. Other parties have taken note and have rushed to outbid one another in their hostility to the cause of Catalan self-determination. That politicians have been in permanent campaign mode—the result of chronic political gridlock in Madrid, which has led the country to hold four elections in as many years—has only made matters worse. Similar outbidding dynamics have driven polarization in Catalonia, where any attempt to negotiate is met with fierce opposition by nationalist hard-liners, who believe there is nothing left to discuss with Madrid.


But there is little evidence to date that Madrid’s maximalist strategy is working. Leaders in Madrid seem to expect the separatist movement to deflate, but a significant number of Catalans—41.9 percent, according to an October poll taken before the Supreme Court verdict—remain determined in their demand for independence.

One could imagine a Spanish government that took a radically different path—one that sought a way out of the current deadlock through negotiation and compromise. According to another recent poll, 45.7 percent of Catalans would be happy with a devolution agreement that granted the region greater powers of self-government. Satisfying such a large proportion of Catalans would likely shrink support for secession by a significant margin. But even if leaders in Madrid had the political will to pursue this outcome—which they do not—selling the agreement to a distrustful Catalan public would be a tall order: under Spain’s current constitutional architecture, the central government can reclaim its devolved powers at any time, leaving the Catalans without any guarantee that Madrid would keep its promises down the road. Any devolution agreement would also require Catalan nationalists to pledge not to use the region’s increased autonomy to pursue the goal of independence—a hard pill for separatists to swallow.

True healing would likely require an even more radical step: an officially sanctioned, binding independence referendum. Catalans are divided on the question of independence, but polls consistently show they are united in their desire for a fair vote to decide the future of the region. Allowing a binding referendum would mean risking secession and all the complications that this would entail. But a process of open deliberation in which citizens could freely express their preferences would likely give Catalans a sense of political empowerment, no matter the outcome. In addition to a vote, lasting peace would require some sort of amnesty for the politicians and activists imprisoned for organizing the 2017 referendum, as well as those prosecuted but living in exile. These prisoners have inevitably become political martyrs for the Catalan nationalist movement, and their continued incarceration is fueling further mobilization and radicalization. That Madrid has continued to arrest and prosecute protesters and activists has only added fuel to the fire.

Yet as long as no major Spanish political party has an incentive to seek compromise, Madrid is unlikely to change tack. A courageous leader might decide that seeking a way past the impasse is worth getting punished by voters down the line. But this kind of leadership has yet to emerge, and in its absence, de-escalation in Catalonia remains a distant dream.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • LAIA BALCELLS is Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor at Georgetown University and the author of Rivalry and Revenge: The Politics of Violence during Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
  • More By Laia Balcells