In mid-January, Catalonia inaugurated a new government that promised to bring independence to this fiercely separatist region of 7.5 million people sandwiched between Spain and France. Perhaps only the Basque Country, where separatist politics are intermingled with violence, terrorism, and even racism (Basque nationalism is rooted in the idea that the Basques are a separate race), matches Catalonia’s desire for nationhood among the regions of Spain, and maybe in all of Europe. Ironically, although the Basque independence struggle is the one that usually captures international headlines, the Catalans have the stronger historical claim for statehood. Catalan nationalism dates to the Middle Ages, when the region existed as the Principality of Catalonia, before it was engulfed into the Kingdom of Aragon and later into the Kingdom of Spain, when the crowns of Aragon and Castile were united in the fifteenth century. Basque separatism, by contrast, dates only to the late nineteenth century, when the Basque nationalist movement was founded, although Basque nationalists tend to dispute this view by tying the contemporary Basque nationalist movement to the fueros, rights and privileges granted by the Spanish monarch to the Basque people going back to feudal times.

For Catalonia’s newly inaugurated government, the stakes could not be higher. It is likely now or never for the proponents of Catalan independence. For the first time since Spain became a democracy in 1978, after four decades of dictatorship under the regime of Generalissimo Francisco Franco (a regime so profoundly antiregional that it banned all symbols of Catalan culture, such as the Catalan language and flag), a political movement laser-focused on independence has won the majority of seats in the Catalan parliament. Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes), a coalition of Catalan parties supportive of independence, won last September’s Catalan regional elections. Upon assuming power, Catalonia’s new premier, Carles Puigdemont, announced plans for the creation of the Republic of Catalonia within 18 months. To underscore the seriousness of his intentions, Puigdemont, in open defiance of tradition and the law, did not pledge loyalty to the Spanish constitution or the Spanish crown. Adding insult to injury, the portrait of King Felipe, which hangs in the chamber where Puigdemont’s swearing-in took place, was covered with a veil during the ceremony.

New President Carles Puigdemont of Catalunya receives a medal from outgoing Catalan President Artur Mas during Puigdemont's swearing-in ceremony in Barcelona, Spain, January 12, 2016.
New President of Catalunya Carles Puigdemont receives a medal from outgoing Catalan President Artur Mas during Puigdemont's swearing-in ceremony in Barcelona, Spain, January 12, 2016.
Albert Gea / Reuters
For the central administration in Madrid, the standoff with Catalonia, which accounts for 20 percent of Spain’s economic activity and represents about the same percentage of the Spanish population, could not have come at a worse time. Spain is politically deadlocked after the inconclusive results of the December 20 national elections, which generated a fragmented parliament. Neither of the two parties that have ruled Spain for decades won a sufficient number of parliamentary seats to form a government without needing alliances with other political parties. Led by incumbent Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, the conservative Popular Party (PP) won 28.7 percent of the vote to emerge as the winner, and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) won 22 percent of the vote, enough to become the second most important party in the new parliament. Together, two new upstarts, the left-wing Podemos (We Can) and the center-right Cuidadanos (Citizens), got a third of the vote, a testament to the dissatisfaction of the electorate with the traditional parties. The PP and PSOE’s share of the electorate fell from 80 percent in 2011 to 50 percent in 2015.

Two options for a coalition government in Spain—which would be the first government of this kind for the country since the tumultuous Second Republic, the interwar regime that ushered in the Spanish Civil War—are generating the most buzz. The first one is a grand right-left coalition between traditional opponents PP and PSOE. It would be modeled on Germany’s current government, which incorporates former rivals Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. The second option is a leftist “coalition of the losers,” similar to the one currently in power in Portugal, encompassing the PSOE, Podemos, and Izquierda Unida (United Left), an assortment of left-wing parties including the once mighty Spanish Communist Party and the Verdes (Greens). If neither option materializes, Rajoy will be forced to call new elections. Polls suggest that the majority of Spaniards want the parties to agree to a coalition rather than to holding a new election.


As might be expected, all the talk of independence in Catalonia brings to mind last year’s epic struggle for independence in Scotland. Despite the heartbreaking outcome for Scottish nationalists, Scotland’s independence referendum is the source of inspiration for the Catalans. Yet there are many compelling reasons to believe that the Catalans face a considerably steeper struggle for independence than the Scots ever did. For one thing, a legally binding referendum, the main vehicle to potential independence for Scotland, is not a realistic option for Catalonia. Madrid has at its disposal a large arsenal of tools to block any referendum on Catalan independence, including, most notably, the Spanish constitution, which explicitly forbids any region in Spain from exercising self-determination.

Indeed, last fall, the Constitutional Tribunal, Spain’s highest court, ruled that any unilateral move by Catalonia toward independence would be unconstitutional. In making this determination, the tribunal relied on section two of the constitution, which asserts that the Spanish national territory is “indivisible” while acknowledging the right to regional self-governance. Since the transition to democracy, this concession has opened the way for the growth of regional home rule, especially in the so-called historic regions—Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Galicia—which had secured an autonomy arrangement (or were in the process of securing one, as in the case of Galicia) from the central government in Madrid during the Second Republic. Franco abrogated these agreements at the end of the Civil War in 1939.

Catalunya independence supporters take part in a demonstration calling for unity among pro-independence parties in Barcelona, Spain, November 22, 2015. The placard reads "we are sovereign."
Catalunya independence supporters take part in a demonstration calling for unity among pro-independence parties in Barcelona, Spain, November 22, 2015. The placard reads "we are sovereign."
Albert Gea / Reuters
Madrid can also block an independence vote in Catalonia by working through the national parliament, which would have to approve any referendum on independence in Catalonia or any other region. There is a history of Spanish political administrations, from both the left and the right, using the parliament to block separatist movements. During the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, the socialist administration of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero used a series of parliamentary votes to derail a drive for independence in the Basque Country. Last fall, the Rajoy administration secured a vote in the parliament declaring any Catalan referendum illegal and nonbinding. That vote enjoyed the support of all the political parties represented in the parliament, save for the Basque and Catalan nationalist ones.

Additionally, the central government in Madrid could always force Catalonia into abandoning its independence ambitions. It could financially starve the regional government by, among other things, moving state resources outside of Catalonia. It could move the national military into the region to intimidate the local government and secure pledges from foreign nations and the European Union not to recognize an independent Catalonia. If all else fails, Madrid could pick the nuclear option: canceling outright Catalonia’s regional self-governance charter, something permitted under the constitution. Of course, no one in Spain expects the present standoff to come to any of this, but Rajoy has made it clear that he will use any means necessary to protect the integrity of the nation. “I will not allow anything that could harm the unity and sovereignty of Spain,” said Rajoy as the Catalans were about to vote in a new separatist leader.


A bigger obstacle to Catalan independence rests within the byzantine world of Catalan politics. The recent bitter fight for political control of the region, which nearly derailed the current effort for independence, broadly illustrates the point. In the Catalan 2015 regional elections, the separatist alliance, which comprises four different parties from both the right and the left, fell short of a handful of parliamentary seats to form a government, forcing it into a pact with the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), a small, far-left party whose platform is so out of the political mainstream that it calls for Spain’s withdrawal from NATO and the European Union. The CUP is also at odds with the separatists’ mostly conservative economic program.

To entice support from the CUP, the separatists embraced some of the party’s economic program, such as assistance to those struggling to pay their mortgages. But even that did not do the trick. What the CUP wanted most was the resignation of Artur Mas as Catalonia’s top chief executive. Mas had led Catalonia since 2010 and had been expected to lead the independence struggle beyond 2015, but the CUP viewed him as corrupt, untrustworthy, and too cozy with the local and external actors that brought Spain to the brink of economic ruin in 2011. To prevent the CUP from walking away from the coalition, which would have triggered new elections, at the eleventh hour, the separatist alliance unceremoniously dumped Mas. They replaced him with Puigdemont, at the time the mayor of Girona, a city north of Barcelona that is generally regarded as the most separatist of Catalan cities, who had no experience in dealing with Madrid.

The drama over the leadership of the Catalan government reveals broader instability within the coalition, since its various members often work at cross-purposes. Indeed, the alliance hangs together by a thread. In the vote that brought Puigdemont to power, 70 were in favor, 63 were against, and two abstained. Moreover, Puigdemont is an independence hard-liner, quite in contrast with the pragmatist Mas. This might do more harm than good since it is not a foregone conclusion that the majority of Catalans favor independence. Polls show that the majority of Catalans wish to remain part of Spain, although they favor greater autonomy. So, as the separatists are the first to admit, any successful effort toward independence hinges on persuading those currently sitting on the fence. Puigdemont’s tactics, such as the disrespect shown for the crown at his swearing-in ceremony, could well serve to undermine that effort.

Podemos and Ciudadanos, the new stars in the Spanish political firmament, add another layer of complexity and unpredictability to Catalan politics. These parties channel the anticorruption movement that has rocked Spain’s political establishment, including the Catalan nationalist movement, since the financial crisis. Jordi Pujol, the father of Catalan nationalism in the post-Franco era (he and his Convergence and Union coalition ruled Catalonia from 1980 to 2003 and often worked with the national parties in Madrid to expand regional autonomy), recently admitted to hiding millions of euros in offshore accounts after prior denials that such accounts existed. Both newcomers are power players in Catalan politics: Podemos controls electorally rich Barcelona, Catalonia’s glittering capital city, and Ciudadanos is the second political force in the Catalan parliament (after the separatists), where it controls 25 seats. Neither party is an advocate of Catalan independence.

Honour guards wait for the arrival of new President of Catalunya Carles Puigdemot (not pictured) for his swearing-in ceremony as President of the Generalitat de Catalunya at Palau de la Generalitat in Barcelona, Spain, January 12, 2016.
Honor guards wait for the arrival of new President of Catalunya Carles Puigdemot (not pictured) for his swearing-in ceremony as President of the Generalitat de Catalunya at Palau de la Generalitat in Barcelona, Spain, January 12, 2016.
Albert Gea / Reuters
The Madrid-based Podemos is committed only to supporting a referendum on Catalan independence, not to independence itself. This support will likely be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency should Podemos join the PSOE to form a new government in Madrid. Ciudadanos, which is based in Barcelona, actually opposes independence for Catalonia. This stance, alongside the party’s center-right political profile, makes it an ideal force to join in a government led by either the PP or the PSOE. Ciudadanos’ potential for playing the role of power broker on the national political stage was demonstrated at the reopening of the Spanish parliament on January 11. The party joined the PSOE in a pact to elect Patxi López, an old socialist hand who served as the president of the Basque Country from 2009 to 2012, as the next Speaker. The PP abstained from putting forth its own candidate, implicitly supporting the PSOE-Ciudadanos Speaker’s pact. This is the first time since democracy was restored that the Speaker is not from the party in possession of the majority of parliamentary seats.


Finally, Catalan independence seems unlikely because separatist battles in Spain have historically been driven less by the desire for independence than by the more realistic goal of expanded autonomy—especially in Catalonia. During Pujol’s long reign at the helm of the Catalan government, Catalan politics was all about keeping the separatists at bay and securing the best autonomy deal from Madrid. Even though the current impasse between Madrid and Catalonia can be traced to the enactment in 2006 of the Nou Estatut, or New Statute, a revamping of the Catalan autonomy charter that referred to Catalonia as “a nation,” it was the reluctance of the Rajoy administration to accommodate the Catalans’ request for greater control over their finances that brought the current crisis to a boiling point.

If anything, the constant drive for autonomy is fed by the imperfections and shortcomings of Spain’s existing system of autonomous governments. When the system was set up, following Franco’s death, the country struck an exquisitely ambiguous constitutional compromise between the regions demanding autonomy, led by the Basque Country and Catalonia, and a central administration that, still imbued with Francoist visions of a culturally homogenous Spain, was fiercely opposed to federalism. At the heart of the compromise was that Spain would retain its traditional structure of a unitary state (the 1978 constitution studiously avoids the term “federalism”) but that the regions would be entitled to individually petition autonomy from the central government, a process concluded in 1981 with the creation of a system of 17 autonomous regions. Cementing the compromise was a long history of failed attempts to decentralize Spain. In the nineteenth century and during the Second Republic, this effort led to civil wars. After Franco, a similar outcome seemed likely. The granting of autonomy to the Catalans and the Basques triggered an aborted military coup in February 1981, the most serious threat to Spanish democracy since Franco’s passing.

Spain’s piecemeal decentralization has resulted in a process that is dictated more by politics than by logic, with each region having its own autonomy charter with the central government and its own range of regional powers. Thus, certain regions, especially the Basque Country, enjoy an extraordinary level of autonomy, which they have secured over the years by coercing and even bribing the central government. For instance, alone among the regions, the Basques are allowed to collect and administer their own taxes. The majority, including Andalusia, Spain’s most populous region, have limited autonomy and are administered by Madrid like colonial possessions. This asymmetry in autonomy among the various regions encourages constant bargaining with the state for greater autonomy as well as confrontational stances between regional leaders and Madrid, with regional leaders often acting as victims of an oppressive central government. From this perspective, the recent eruption of separatist demands in Catalonia is hardly unexpected. In fact, it is what Spaniards have come to expect.


A full jump to federalism, which would allow each region in Spain significant administrative responsibilities and the same level of autonomy from the central government, makes the most sense for the country, especially now that the ghosts of civil war and the Franco dictatorship have been fully exorcised. But major obstacles stand in the way. For one thing, the constitution will need to be amended before a federal structure can be imposed. Since 1978, this has happened only twice: to allow EU citizens the right to participate in local elections and to introduce a cap on the public deficit. Moreover, there is a dearth of political will by the major political parties to pursue federalism. The PP, which barely tolerates the current system of regional autonomies, will do everything in its power to stop any attempt at federalization, which it views as one step closer to the disintegration of Spain. Although a historic advocate of federalism, the PSOE has taken no steps to push for it in the many years it has ruled the country in the post-Franco years.

Oddly enough, in the topsy-turvy world of Spanish separatist politics, the biggest obstacles to federalism are the regions themselves. In 1982, when the socialist administration of Felipe González Márquez tried to even out the differences in autonomy among the regions, with the Law on the Harmonization of the Autonomy Process, the Catalan and the Basque governments took the central government to court, arguing that equality in autonomy among the regions would violate their constitutional status as “historic” regions. They reasoned that if every region in Spain had the same level of autonomy, their uniqueness would be rendered unrecognizable. The Constitutional Tribunal apparently agreed with this reasoning, allowing unequal autonomy to persist and actually increase in subsequent years.

But the time has come for Spanish regional and national leaders to rethink their aversion to federalism, since it is clear that the current system of regional autonomies, although a useful arrangement for getting the nation out of the Franco dictatorship and through the post-transition years, no longer serves the regions or the central state. In fact, as the current standoff in Catalonia suggests, it undermines both.

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  • OMAR G. ENCARNACIÓN is Professor of Political Studies at Bard College and author of Democracy without Justice in Spain: The Politics of Forgetting (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).
  • More By Omar G. Encarnación