Barcelona and Madrid Are on a Collision Course

The unstoppable force of Catalan nationalism is about to meet the unmovable object of Spanish chauvinism.

View of the Columbus Monument in Barcelona, Spain
View of the Columbus Monument in Barcelona, Spain (Unsplash/Benjamin Voros)

Since Catalonia’s regional government announced it plans to hold an independence referendum in September, tensions with the central government in Madrid have been rising:

  • Catalan leaders have said they would declare independence within 48 hours of a vote to break away from Spain, regardless of turnout.
  • Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has dismissed the plan as an “authoritarian delusion”.
  • Defense Minister María Dolores de Cospedal has warned that the armed forces are tasked not only with “protecting the values of democracy and the Constitution, but also the integrity and sovereignty” of Spain.
  • Spain’s Constitutional Court has blocked the €5.8 million the Catalan government had set aside to pay for the referendum.
  • Catalonia is in the process of separating its tax agency from Spain’s in case the region does decide to secede.

It’s tempting to find fault with either side — and there is plenty to criticize about the Catalan plans. What if only a minority turns out to vote, as happened in the 2014 “consultation” on statehood? And why rush to secede?

But it’s the Spanish attitude that is making it harder to deescalate.

Challenge

I’ve argued before that Rajoy is making Catalan secession more likely by refusing to hear out the region’s demands and belittling its sense of nationhood. He is giving the Catalans no choice but to either accept a status quo they are unhappy with or press for independence unilaterally.

Spanish nationalists like Rajoy misunderstand their challenge.

It’s not to prevent the Catalans from breaking away. If they clearly and really wanted to, what is Spain going to do? Send in troops?

It’s to convince the Catalans they are welcome and respected in Spain, so there is no reason for them to break away.

Not desperate for independence

This shouldn’t be so difficult. Most Catalans speak Spanish as their first language. Many have friends and relatives in the rest of the country. Catalan businesses operate across Spain. Many Catalans work for Spanish companies. The economics argue against independence, not in the least because it would mean giving up and then reapplying for EU membership.

Catalans aren’t desperate for independence. Even now, few surveys find a majority in favor. But eight out of ten do want a referendum. They don’t want politicians in Madrid deciding for them. They want to control their own fate.

If only Rajoy and the rest of Spain could trust them to.