The fate of Catalonia has consumed Spanish politics for the last two years. In 2017, separatist leaders organized a controversial independence referendum over the objections of the Spanish Supreme Court. Just this past October, that court sentenced several Catalan leaders to long prison sentences and separatists took to the streets of Barcelona to protest. The unrest has since died down, but the secessionist movement behind it lives on. Now, acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has decided to form a new government with the support of ERC, a pro-independence Catalan party in the Spanish Parliament. ERC’s lawmakers will likely use this newfound influence to put their cause on the agenda once again.
Will the separatists be able to extract meaningful concessions from the central government? In a thought-provoking recent article for Foreign Affairs (“A Way Out of Spain’s Catalan Crisis”), Laia Balcells answers in the negative. Madrid, she argues, has staked out an inflexible position on the issue, modeled in part on its fight against violent separatism in the Basque country. Such intransigence, according to Balcells, has served to deepen the fault lines between the two sides. Only if the central government changes course—specifically, by adopting a legal, binding secession referendum—can it put the issue to rest. Yet neither Balcells’s characterization of the conflict nor her advice on how to resolve it stands up to scrutiny.
Balcells argues that the Spanish government’s opposition to Catalan separatism is emblematic of modern Spain’s “deep distrust of subnational diversity.” She goes on to blame this disposition on the historical weakness of the Spanish nation-building project. But Spain in fact goes to great lengths to preserve and promote its regions’ cultural and political particularity. The Regional Authority Index, a project tracking devolution in 81 states, ranks Spain as one of the most decentralized countries in the world, second only to Germany. Precisely because the drive to build a unified nation was, as Balcells rightly points out, weaker in Spain than
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