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 movements were further innovated by hinging their arguments on these ideas of representation, in addition to the concepts of the nation.

At the root of any separatist attempt which gains this kind of traction is a fundamental argument that the central government does not channel the public will or allow for the proper and timely addressing of grievances. That is, separatist movements are founded on perceived crises of representation, and they try to build their national causes on those crises. This case is no different. Catalan separatists have made an argument that has convinced a large minority that they would be better off on their own, despite the hardship which is inherent in breaking away from Spain.

Catalonia is an autonomous region with equally deep roots as part of the Spanish state. Unlike colonial subjects, Catalans have had the same rights and levels of enfranchisement as other Spaniards (even more so, under autonomy). Catalans are Spaniards and, if pre-referendum polls still reflect the reality, most will still view themselves primarily as Spaniards. With a national self-conception as old as that of Catalonia, with its own language and culture, there may always be some group vying for independence, regardless of how good the quality of life is for its citizens. The key task for a government facing a movement this large is to make recruitment as difficult as possible. This can generally be done in two ways. The first is through punitive measures. To physically remove separatist leadership from power and replace their institutions are constitutional rights of the Spanish government. So are the other tactics that Madrid has used—for example, the Spanish government’s decree to make it easier for firms to leave Catalonia, thus threatening the region’s economy. However, with a now uncertain margin favoring Spanish unity, overreliance on force or punitive coercion may carry the risk of creating new converts.

Looking at the current situation, the removal of the leadership of a separatist movement as deeply rooted as Catalonia’s would likely provide only temporary reprieve. The crisis of representation would remain and the national-identity movement would persist. So, the second option for Madrid is to err away from the stick and towards the carrot, extending benefits that will not be matched by an independent Catalan government and offering clearer channels to address grievances and solve social and economic problems. This had been the successful approach of the Spanish government up until the Constitutional Court’s 2010 decision to overturn the 2006 expansion on Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy, which had referred to Catalonia as a “nation” and expanded certain privileges – notably powers of taxation and judicial independence. This resolution was approved by both the Catalan referendum and Spanish parliamentary vote, and its destruction was a boon to nationalists in search of an appealing argument that Catalans are collectively disenfranchised as part of the Spanish state.

As the Spanish government follows through with its imposition of direct, more-distant rule and the forced disempowerment of a local, democratic institution, it walks a very fine line. Madrid needs the main argument against secession to continue to be that which has been most popular among pro-unity Catalans and fence-sitters for the past few years: it’s a bad idea because of economic troubles, because of state-building difficulties, and because the welfare of the Catalan region has been relatively good compared to both similar regions in other countries and to the potentially difficult transition to an independent Catalonia. Although this argument has not and will not convince anyone not to identify as Catalan, it has and still can convince them that they are respected as an integral part of Spanish society. The Spanish government would have most likely won that argument in any democratically contested conversation before October 1.

Rajoy’s push for swift and transparent elections, open to all would-be incumbents, likely constitutes the last best way out of this crisis without violence.

Madrid should try to avoid creating the perception that its default response to a democratic expression that it does not like (unconstitutional or not) is to suspend local government, ignore public will, and impose more distant rule. That was the embittering argument which separatists made in 2010 and the likely root of the current crisis. If Spain is to successfully portray the suspension of the Catalan regional government as something serving Spanish democracy, it must be lightly applied and quickly remedied. Rajoy’s push for swift and transparent elections, open to all would-be incumbents, likely constitutes the last best way out of this crisis without violence. It would also provide a popular check on Spanish forces’ behavior in the meantime. Spanish officials know full well their regional allies would be punished in the polls on December 21 for heavy-handedness as Madrid moves forward with its application of Article 155, which grants the central government the right to impose direct rule in the way that it has. If pro-independence parties are winning the argument, that too will show in the polls.

Most Catalans favor regional autonomy, which makes direct rule by Madrid a very bitter pill to swallow. Madrid’s recent actions followed a unilateral declaration of independence founded on a peacefully pursued but flawed referendum, which cannot realistically be held up as an accurate reflection of all Catalans’ will. Madrid met that referendum with force, and the crisis of representation has now reached a fever pitch. Putting this situation back in the hands of Catalan voters, all of them, is perhaps the only feasible solution that could begin to address the root of this crisis and check the rash impulses of all parties. 

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
  • R. JOSEPH HUDDLESTON is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Southern California.
  • More By R. Joseph Huddleston