The mounting tensions between Catalan nationalism and the Spanish state are like an encounter between an unstoppable force and an immovable object. The impending crash has been temporarily averted by the decision of Catalan President Carles Puigdemont to suspend declaring independence following Catalonia’s October 1 referendum, in which a majority voted to break away from Spain (the Spanish government has declared the referendum illegal). Without any apparent irony, the separatist newspaper Ara anticipated the coming of independence as “a gradual leap” in the dark.

It is difficult to predict what will emerge from the current dispute. Given the political inflexibility of the Spanish government, and the preference of many businesses based in Catalonia to remain part of Spain, the Catalan government may not be able to realize its commitment to establish an independent nation-state. At the same time, however, Madrid’s heavy-handed response to the referendum has resulted in the Spanish state losing legitimacy among many, if not most, Catalans. The fracture within and between Catalan and Spanish societies has widened.

The crisis is the latest in a series of confrontations between Spain and Catalonia stretching back at least 300 years. It has a parallel in the intermittent and sometimes violent conflict between Spain and separatist nationalists from the Basque region, who were also barred by the Spanish state from holding an independence referendum in 2008. But why has Spain in particular seen the development of such strong regional nationalisms?


The narrative of Catalonia’s oppression at the hands of Madrid goes back centuries. The emblematic event in this account is Catalonia’s defeat at the hands of the Bourbon kings during the War of the Spanish Succession. Then part of the Crown of Aragon, Catalonia backed the Habsburg dynasty against the Bourbons, whose capture of Barcelona in 1714 led to the imposition of central control and the loss of Catalan autonomy. Yet the implicit claim that there is an oppressed Catalan identity continuing over centuries glosses over questions of social class as well as the many different forms Catalan nationalism has taken over the years, from federalism to the assertion of Catalonia as an alternative model for a decadent Spain. (The late-nineteenth-century Catalan patriot and writer Joan Maragall referred to Catalonia as “the true Spain.”)

The origins of contemporary Catalan nationalism lie instead in Spain’s modern economic history. As in many countries in central, eastern, and southern Europe, the process of economic and social modernization in Spain was slow and asymmetric. The first parts of Spain to modernize in the early nineteenth century were the Basque Country and Catalonia, two peripheral regions whose languages, cultures, and identities were markedly different from those of the rest of Spain. Unlike France, where a powerful central state was able to use war and education to sublimate ethnic and linguistic diversity into a common national identity, the weak Spanish state was not easily able to assert legitimacy or ensure cohesion across society. Instead, rulers in Madrid relied on an alliance with peripheral elites to exert authority.

In the discourse of Catalan nationalism, that is, the politics of identity has trumped the politics of class.

That partnership started to break down in Catalonia after the so-called Disaster of 1898, when Spain was forced to cede its last and most important overseas colonies—including Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico—to the United States. The Catalan economic elites, in particular the textile barons, had benefited greatly from exports to the colonies. After the loss of these colonies, they were overtaken by a rising Catalan professional middle class, impatient with Spain’s backwardness relative to Catalonia and keen to establish autonomy, if not independence, for the region. Autonomy was finally negotiated in 1932 under the Second Republic, which followed a military dictatorship in the 1920s that had arisen in part to crush Catalan separatism. The military coup of 1936, which led to the Spanish Civil War and the overthrow of the republic by nationalist forces under General Francisco Franco, was also driven in part by the Francoists’ desire to restore a unitary state and impose a single national identity through force. 

The twentieth century saw the further development of these fault lines. During the early years of Franco’s authoritarian rule, the Spanish state inflicted what amounted to cultural genocide on Catalonia, dismantling institutions and associations tied to Catalan identity and driving the Catalan language into the private sphere.  Madrid’s repression of democracy and protest during this period remains the most important reference point for Catalan nationalism today. For many older Catalans, the brutal behavior of the Spanish police during the recent referendum—attacking voters with batons and rubber bullets—evoked powerful memories of Francoist repression.

Spanish police clash with Catalan voters during the independence referendum in Barcelona, October 2017.
Juan Medina / Reuters


Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy in the mid-1970s was initially marked by widespread social protests against the dictatorship in which the demand for Catalan rights played an important part. Yet the terms of democratization reflected the fact that at the time, reformists within the dictatorship still controlled the mechanisms of state power. The resulting deal thus fell far short of the aspirations of Catalan and Basque nationalists, as well as the social and political demands of the grass-roots protest movements. 

During the Second Republic, Spain had conceded autonomy to the culturally distinctive regions of the Basque Country, Catalonia, and Galicia. Rather than merely restore this autonomy, the new democratic constitution of 1978 diluted its significance by awarding self-government to all regions, some of which had no identity or culture of their own. Catalan nationalists had an additional comparative grievance: the privileges granted in the Middle Ages to the Basque Country and Navarre, such as the right to collect 100 percent of taxes, were reinstated there but were not awarded to Catalonia.

In 2006, a popular campaign to improve the terms of Catalonia’s 1979 Statute of Autonomy led to a new statute, approved in the Spanish parliament and by a referendum in Catalonia. Significantly, Catalonia was referred to as a “nation” in the preamble. The new statute also extended Catalonia’s privileges in terms of taxation, judicial independence, and the official use of the Catalan language. Spain’s current prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, then leader of the center-right Popular Party, opposed the new statute and referred it to the Constitutional Court, which decreed in 2010 that parts of it were unconstitutional, including its expansion of Catalonia’s fiscal powers and its reference to the region as a nation. 

The terms of Spain's democratization reflected the fact that at the time, reformists within the dictatorship still controlled the mechanisms of state power.


More than any other event, the 2010 ruling was a turning point in the strategy of Catalan liberal nationalists. Their policy of seeking greater autonomy under the auspices of the Spanish state gave way, under the presidency of Artur Mas (2010–15), to explicit support for independence. This shift in strategy represented a complete break from the traditions of  Catalonia’s conservative elites, who relied in the past on the Spanish state to safeguard profits and law and order. The rise, beginning in 2010, of both social and nationalist movements challenging the electoral base of Mas’ coalition party further encouraged this change in strategy.

Among these movements was a new and vigorous populist nationalism in Catalonia. Driven by rank-and-file organizers and nationalist institutions, such as Omnium Cultural and the Assemblea Nacional Catalana (whose two presidents were jailed on October 16  on charges of sedition), this new nationalism has been able to rally hundreds of thousands of Catalans through the creative use of social media and imaginative choreography of mass demonstrations, such as the Via Catalana of September 11, 2013—a pro-independence human chain spanning 250 miles from one end of Catalonia to the other. It has also managed to divert and channel a number of popular grievances—ranging from socioeconomic problems such as austerity and unemployment to moral issues such as corruption—into a narrative of victimhood at the hands of the Spanish establishment in Madrid that can be resolved only through independence.

The contemporary project of independence offers the hope or illusion of a new nation unencumbered by austerity, corruption, and what Catalan nationalists view as Catalonia’s excessive contribution to the rest of Spain in the form of taxes and transfers to less wealthy regions. This narrative, however, ignores Catalan elites’ implication in corruption scandals, as well as Catalan nationalists’ record in government of applying unpopular austerity policies on behalf of the economic elites of both Spain and Catalonia. In the discourse of Catalan nationalism, that is, the politics of identity has trumped the politics of class.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont at a cabinet meeting in Barcelona, October 2017.
Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters


There are several other problems with the project of independence. One is that polls have consistently revealed a deep division among Catalans over the prospect of independence.  According to a June poll by the Catalan government’s own Centre d’Estudis d’Opinio, 41.1 percent of those questioned said they wanted Catalonia to be an independent state and 49.4 percent said they did not. The reasons for opposition to independence range from concerns about economic security to the strength of Spanish-Catalan dual identity in urban parts of Catalonia, thanks to the wave of migration to the region from other parts of Spain during the Franco years.

Another problem is the lack of support for Catalan self-determination among Spain’s mainstream political parties, except for the left populist party Podemos and its allies in Catalonia, such as Catalunya en Comu (one of whose leaders, Ada Colau, is the mayor of Barcelona), which campaign for the right of self-determination but oppose independence. A further challenge is that there is no clear and coherent road map to independence, thanks to the ideological differences within the region’s ruling coalition, which embraces the pro-independence center-right and center-left and relies for its parliamentary majority on a small anticapitalist nationalist party, the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular, opposed to the Catalan political elites.

Finally, European leaders have made it clear that an independent Catalonia would be outside the EU and would need to apply for membership, which would depend on the consent of all member states—including Spain. Being European has always played an important role in Catalan identity. Yet European states, wary of substate nationalisms throughout the continent, have not encouraged Catalan independence.

Current proposals for a way forward out of the impasse between Spain and Catalonia embrace dialogue and mediation. The problem is that there is no common agreement about the nature of the problem. Madrid is open to talks only about the extent of autonomy, while the Catalan government is committed only to independence. Mediation could not bridge that chasm, nor would Madrid accept the arbitration of an individual European state (the European Commission itself has ruled out any mediation) and even less an international commission of notables.

The battle-lines between the Catalan and Spanish governments are drawn up; with Catalonia leaning toward the realization of a unilateral declaration of independence followed by constituent elections, and Spain considering an intervention in the governance of Catalonia under Article 155 of the Spanish constitution—an act that would provoke widespread civil unrest.

What should be clear is that there are several million citizens in Catalonia who are unhappy with their relationship with Spain. A long-term, but by no means final, resolution of the problem would involve amending the constitution to allow the right of self-determination, a reform in keeping with changing identities and alignments. If we are to believe opinion polls, had this right been exercised a few months ago, a majority of Catalan voters would have voted to remain in Spain.  

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
  • SEBASTIAN BALFOUR is Professor Emeritus of Contemporary Spanish Studies at the London School of Economics.
  • More By Sebastian Balfour