A Way Out of Spain’s Catalan Crisis

And Why Madrid Is Unlikely to Take It

Catalan independence supporters in Barcelona, September 2015 Albert Gea / Reuters

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

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