Although Spain’s economic outlook has steadily improved in recent months, its secession crisis has quietly been worsening. Tensions between Madrid and Catalonia―a region of 7.6 million people that accounts for almost 20 percent of Spain’s economic output―are worse than ever. Seventy percent of Catalan citizens say they want an independence referendum, despite the Spanish government’s insistence that any such plebiscite would violate the constitution. When the Catalan government attempted to organize an independence vote (in the form of either a referendum or a so-called citizen participation process) on November 9, Spain’s Constitutional Court intervened, suspending the effort. The Catalan executive ultimately went forward with a purely symbolic vote, in which 80 percent of over two million Catalans (32 percent of eligible voters) opted for independence.

But Madrid’s approach has been needlessly adversarial. Rather than resist Catalan’s aspirations, the Spanish government should welcome its commitment to a democratic process. After all, Spain has a long history of nationalist groups―most notably the Basque nationalist group ETA―turning to terrorism, rather than the ballot box, to pursue their goals. Madrid has chosen to portray its disagreement with Catalonia in legalistic terms. But the crux of the matter is a political problem: how to accommodate the region’s aspiration for independence within Spain’s existing national framework. The sooner the Spanish government recognizes the true nature of the problem, the sooner it can restore calm throughout the country.


Catalan nationalists have traditionally sought to strengthen their region’s independence by demanding more political and fiscal autonomy from Madrid. In recent years, however, the number of Catalans who believe that this sort of institutional reform is feasible has dwindled; ever larger numbers of people believe that only full sovereignty would be a viable safeguard of Catalan home rule. According to a poll organized by the Catalan government, the percentage of Catalans in favor of independence has quadrupled in the last ten years and now stands at 49.4 percent.

On the national issue, the Catalan debate is dominated by two polarized camps. On one side, there are Catalan nationalists who argue that the root of the problem is the Spanish state’s alleged inefficiency and its chauvinism toward Catalan language and culture. On the other, Spanish nationalists argue that Catalonia's pro-sovereignty movement is merely a product of the country’s ongoing recession. In recent months, the Spanish and Catalan governments have become the leading mouthpieces of these views, with media outlets and the broader public in both jurisdictions backing their respective sides. 

It’s difficult to understand whether Madrid has an endgame. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy says he is determined to defend the territorial integrity of Spain and has barricaded himself behind the constitution while refusing to engage with Catalan demands. This plan may have been the product of sound legal advice, but it is a poor political strategy. Rajoy’s hard-line stance may have produced temporary gains for his conservative party in the rest of Spain and distracted voters from the numerous corruption scandals it is facing, but it has also strengthened the hand of Catalan hard-liners. 

The Catalan government’s strategy is easier to explain. The party in power, Convergència i Unió (Convergence and Union), argues that Catalonia pays too much and gets too little back from Spain and that the Great Recession has forced the regional government to enact harsh austerity measures, which have hit local health services and schools. Given that the Catalan government has little cash in its coffers, the regional executive has decided to invest all of its political capital in holding a referendum on independence. Catalan nationalists have long argued that statehood would allow it to solve its own economic woes, because an independent Catalonia would have an additional eight billion to 15 billion euros per year, the estimated fiscal deficit of Catalonia with Spain.

This polarized atmosphere has left little room for political parties advocating a program of institutional reform and dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona. Instead, the most radical parties have been the greatest beneficiaries. Opinion polls predict that if elections were held in Catalonia now, the region’s most vocally pro-secessionist party, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, would win in a landslide. The leader of ERC, Oriol Junqueras, has openly acknowledged that Rajoy’s rejection of dialogue with Catalan has been one of the most important factors in his own success. 


Conspicuously missing in the current debate is an honest assessment of the potential merits and drawbacks of secession. Pro-secessionists have highlighted the benefits of independence and minimized the costs, whereas proponents of the status quo have painted a bleak picture of what secession would mean for both Catalonia and Spain. Generally, the discussion has focused on whether Catalonia has a so-called right to self-determination, not on the practicality of political independence. 

For example, one issue that has remained unexplored in the public debate is the international consequences of secession. This may not be surprising, given that secession, in its early stages, is such a fraught domestic issue, with nationalist leaders focused on gathering resources and fostering mass mobilization. 

But to become independent, nations need influential friends―preferably powerful ones. The historical record demonstrates that new states―including Kosovo, Montenegro, and South Sudan―have required the support of great powers to gain broad international recognition. Currently, few European states openly support independence for Catalonia, because they fear it could create a domino effect of secessionist movements that could destabilize the EU. This lack of support should worry secessionists, because any independent Catalan state would have to gain membership to the EU if it hoped to be successful. 


A reasonable solution to Spain’s present conflict would resemble the agreement recently struck between Scotland and the United Kingdom, in which London promised to expand Edinburgh's self-rule. But given the current parliamentary majorities in Barcelona and Madrid, such a resolution is unlikely in the near term. The Rajoy government in Madrid currently holds a comfortable absolute majority and still has a year until it has to face voters. Unless the Spanish economy recovers immensely in the next few months, the conservatives are likely to be replaced by a left-wing government led by either the social democrats of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers' Party) or a new left-wing party called Podemos, which has been compared with Greece's antiestablishment Syriza party. 

The situation in Catalonia is even more fragile. The incumbent government may soon be forced to call snap elections, in which the likely winners, ERC, would be even more pro-secessionist. It’s possible that this would increase the chances of a collision with Madrid. But it’s also possible that ERC―a left-wing party that has been critical of austerity―would find it easier to compromise on the national issue with a government in Madrid led by PSOE or Podemos.

But before either Madrid or Barcelona receives new governments, tensions between the two regions are likely to increase. The current Spanish and Catalan governments remain convinced that polarization works. That may be true on narrow partisan grounds, but it’s hard to argue that either side’s strategy serves the people it is meant to represent. 

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  • DIEGO MURO is an assistant professor at Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals.
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