The Roots of the Catalan Independence Crisis

And What Madrid's Next Steps Should Be

Pro-unity supporters take part in a demonstration in central Barcelona, Spain, October 2017. Jon Nazca / REUTERS

After a secret, partially boycotted vote on Friday, the Catalan Parliament declared independence from Spain. Because of its own overwhelming vote in response, the Spanish government now exercises direct rule over Catalonia and will suspend Catalan security forces, interrupting the region’s institutions of self-rule for the first time in the country’s history as a democracy. Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau may have given the most apt summary of Friday’s events, by saying that Madrid has embarked on a “coup against democracy” in response to pro-secession parties’ “kamikaze dash” towards an independent Catalan republic that lacks majority support.

Since Puigdemont’s signing of the declaration of independence on October 10, Madrid has handled this political crisis deftly by putting the Catalan leader in an unenviable position to either back down from independence or escalate vis-à-vis Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s threat to impose direct rule. Spain’s direct rule implies a return to force, a development that, although constitutionally justifiable, could risk further erosion of legitimacy of the central government for at least some Catalans. When polled in July, about 41 percent of Catalans favored independence and 49 percent opposed. Up until at least October 1, Madrid had a comfortable margin of support.

It is unclear whether that has changed. As they develop their response to the Catalan declaration, Spanish parliamentarians would be wise to consider the origin of secessionist movements. To understand the kind of growth in popularity that Catalan separatists have managed in the past few years, it is helpful to look at the writings of political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson. Anderson argued that modern self-determination movements imitated earlier nationalist movements in Europe and the Americas when they capitalized on national identity as a dominant political force within the “imagined communities” which they constituted. In the post-Cold War era, democratic governments came to be the primary international standard of governmentembodied in many of the founding documents and procedures of the United Nations. Many colonial and post-Cold War self-determination

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