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Who Is at Fault in Spain’s Catalan Crisis? Secessionism presents a repudiation of the pluralism on which the country was founded. A pluralist interpretation of democracy calls for nuanced policy solutions based on compromise, not for the majoritarian “win-lose” logic that underpins independence referenda.

By Natividad Fernández SolaRafael Martínez, and José Javier Olivas Osuna January 6, 2020 Image: Sergio Pérez

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 among its neighbors, the country is very diverse, with multiple identities that overlap and coexist. 

Secessionism presents a repudiation of the pluralism on which the country was founded.

The Catalan independence movement aims to segregate this community along ethno-linguistic lines. In this sense, secessionism presents not only a threat to Spanish political unity but also a repudiation of the pluralism on which the country was founded. Yet contrary to what Balcells suggests, pro-independence politicians are not considered illegitimate interlocutors; they participate freely in Spanish political life. Catalan secessionists hold seats in the Spanish Congress and control the regional government in Barcelona, more than 700 local councils (60 of them in coalition with the socialist party PSC), and most public institutions in Catalonia, including Catalan public TV and radio, some trade unions, and the region’s biggest cultural associations.

In adopting a “maximalist” and uncompromising stance vis-à-vis Catalonia, Balcells argues, the Spanish government has taken a page from the playbook it developed during its decades-long fight against Basque separatism and the terrorist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or ETA. The lesson Spanish leaders took away from that conflict, she writes, was that repression had worked and that it would work again elsewhere. 

But the analogy to the Basque conflict is extremely problematic. To begin with, Balcells mischaracterizes the nature of Basque fiscal autonomy. That the Basques do not pay any taxes to the Spanish central government is not the result of concessions made to Basque nationalists; rather, the special fiscal status of the Basque Country and of neighboring Navarre can be traced back to the nineteenth century, well before Basque separatism emerged as a political movement. Even during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, from 1939 to 1975, the Basque province of Alava retained its fiscal autonomy. Biscay and Gipuzkoa —the other two provinces that make up the Basque country—lost such autonomy in 1937 but recovered it during Spain’s transition to democracy in the late 1970s, thus simply returning to the old status quo. 

Balcells correctly notes that the Spanish police were instrumental in weakening ETA and putting an end to its attacks, which had claimed over 800 lives. But ultimately, multiple factors precipitated the terrorist group’s demise, among them the group’s internal divisions, civil society’s opposition to the violence, coordinated efforts by nonseparatist parties, the international de-legitimatization of terrorism after the 9/11 attacks, and new, more comprehensive anti-terrorist legislation. In 2003, the Spanish Supreme Court banned the Basque secessionist party Batasuna and several other organizations. Doing so did not curtail the “Basques’ freedoms of expression and assembly,” as Balcells claims it did. There was ample evidence that the groups in question had enabled ETA’s terrorism by helping it select targets, providing covert financial support, glorifying its attacks, and participating in extortion rings. To disband these organizations was to protect the civil rights and freedom of expression of those who lived in fear and under harassment. And there were many: between 1980 and 2000, more than 150,000 people left the Basque Country, often in order to escape the violence and unrest that roiled the region. 


The notion that today’s Spanish elites equate Catalan and Basque secessionism is a dubious one. Balcells adduces as evidence a statement that Pablo Casado, the leader of the center-right People’s Party, made on the campaign trail last year. But to cast the opinion of a single opposition party leader as that of “Madrid” or of “Spanish political and social elites” is to oversimplify Spain’s heterogeneous political arena. Many other Spanish politicians do take into account the obvious and significant discrepancies between the Catalan and Basque cases—some of which are described in Balcells’s piece—and recognize that the two cases call for different responses.

The imprisoned politicians are not victims but perpetrators.

Balcells takes a similarly reductive turn when she recommends an amnesty for imprisoned Catalan politicians and activists. Those imprisoned in the wake of Catalonia’s 2017 independence referendum, she writes, “have inevitably become political martyrs for the Catalan nationalist movement.” She omits that these politicians were condemned not only for sedition but for embezzling public funds, and disobeying public authority, and that theirs was a fair trial conducted under public scrutiny. Their actions in 2017 breached both the Catalan Statute of Autonomy and the Spanish Constitution. 

The imprisoned politicians are not victims but perpetrators. Balcells writes, “That Madrid has continued to arrest and prosecute protesters and activists has only added fuel to the fire.” Yet most arrests have had little do to with the national government in the first place: out of the 194 people arrested during a week of riots in Catalonia in October, only 32 were arrested by Spanish National Police. The vast majority were detained by the Mossos d’Esquadra, Catalonia’s police force, which answers to the regional government in Barcelona. Attributing to “Madrid” the detention and prosecution of these violent protesters, many of whom will be tried in Catalan courts, reinforces a simplistic “Madrid vs. Barcelona” narrative that has little grounding in reality. Rather, what is truly at stake is the rule of law. 


Balcells concludes by saying that Spain’s “true healing” would require a new, binding independence referendum in Catalonia. In her mind, the region’s powers of self-government are not now sufficiently protected, since “under Spain’s current constitutional architecture, the central government can reclaim its devolved powers at any time.” In fact, devolved powers—powers transferred to regional governments—are protected under the Spanish constitution and regional statutes of autonomy. They cannot be recentralized, and no Spanish government has ever attempted to do so

A new referendum would almost certainly exacerbate the divisions within Catalan society.

Balcells claims that a “distrustful Catalan public” would not accept a negotiated devolution agreement granting greater powers of self-government. In truth, Catalonia is divided. Only 41.9 percent of the population currently supports independence—less than the proportion that prefers a negotiated agreement involving higher levels of devolution. Needless to say, Catalan separatists are eager to sweep any solutions that are compatible with the current, quasi-federal system under the carpet and insist that only a referendum can resolve the conflict. The mere organization of such a referendum would be a victory for them, as it would imply the recognition of Catalan sovereignty. 

Far from being a silver bullet, a new independence referendum would almost certainly exacerbate the divisions within Catalan society. Referendum questions that are clear and free of bias are almost impossible to formulate. Worse still, referendum campaigns can polarize societies and deepen pre-existing sociopolitical cleavages. Look no further than Brexit. 

A definitive referendum result would not make the underlying problems disappear. Catalan secessionists would not likely cease to seek independence if they lost. And if they won, millions of citizens might lose their preferred nationality and become foreigners in the country they have always called home. Since support for secession is asymmetrically distributed, an independent Catalonia would have to deal with areas, such as Barcelona, where a large majority of the population would wish to reunite with Spain. For these and other reasons, with only very few exceptions, democracies do not rely on secession referenda as tools to solve ethnolinguistic or other identity-related conflicts. 

A pluralist interpretation of democracy calls for nuanced policy solutions based on compromise, not for the majoritarian “win-lose” logic that underpins independence referenda. Spain should explore alternative, less traumatic ways to resolve the conflict. Giving voice to more stakeholders may be a first step toward forging a new common project and sense of belonging. Spain has accommodated diverse identities throughout its history. There is no indication that it cannot continue to do so. 

NATIVIDAD FERNÁNDEZ SOLA is Distinguished Visiting Professor at Georgetown University.

RAFAEL MARTÍNEZ is Professor of Political Science and Administration at the University of Barcelona.

JOSÉ JAVIER OLIVAS OSUNA is Senior Research Fellow at the National Distance Education University in Madrid and Research Associate at the London School of Economics.


There are many areas of disagreement, and several of my critics’ claims do not hold up to scrutiny, but as my space is limited, I will focus on three points of rebuttal. 

That Spain is a decentralized state does not negate the concerns at the heart of the Catalan conflict. As scholars of federalism have noted, Spain’s system of regional autonomy has important shortcomings. Levels of autonomy vary across regions (hence the Basque Country’s fiscal autonomy, whose reintroduction in the 1970s was indeed a return to a previous status quo but was nonetheless also a concession to Basque nationalists). The regions have little ability to participate in central policymaking. And even though regions have significant autonomy, the central state can de facto recentralize that power: the government can withhold funds from the regions, and it has repeatedly challenged Catalonia’s regional laws in the Constitutional Court, which has disproportionately sided with the government. 

Likewise, Spain celebrates its regional diversity but does not accommodate non-Spanish national identities. According to the Constitutional Court, Catalonia cannot officially call itself a nation because there is “no other than nation than that of Spain” in the country. As recently as the twentieth century, the state forcefully tried to assimilate national minorities in Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country. Many people alive today remember a time when they were forbidden to speak their native languages.

My critics point out that the imprisoned Catalan leaders have been found guilty by the Spanish Supreme Court. But this finding does not change the fact that the leaders have become martyrs of the independence movement. Polling indicates that a large majority of Catalans of diverse backgrounds and ideologies disapprove of the verdicts. That sentiment has found outside reinforcement: Amnesty International has called for the release of two of the prisoners, and the European Court of Justice ruled that another politician’s imprisonment violated his immunity as an elected member of the European Parliament.

Finally, we should not dismiss the benefits of holding a binding, free referendum just because we might not like its result. Polling shows that Catalans overwhelmingly support holding such a referendum, even though they are divided on the issue of independence. My critics argue that such a vote would be a concession to separatists—but prohibiting one is a concession to those that deny the sovereignty of the Catalan nation. While there is scholarly debate on whether referenda can solve territorial conflicts, sovereignty referenda are common, and several Western democracies have held successful ones (Canada is a prominent case). Denying Catalans that same right and forcing them to accept the territorial status quo is unlikely to lead to a lasting and peaceful resolution. 



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