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Madrid’s Intransigence to Blame for Catalan Separatism

Spain’s refusal to give the Catalans a say in their future has galvanized the independence movement.

Barcelona Spain demonstration
Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Barcelona, July 10, 2010 (Wikimedia Commons/Josep Renalias)

Undeterred by the Scottish “no” to independence, Artur Mas, the president of Catalonia, has called for a referendum to break away from Spain.

To comply with Spanish law, the referendum would not be binding — although it is difficult to imagine how the authorities in Barcelona and Madrid could ignore the outcome if a majority votes to secede.

In an attempt to block the vote, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has asked Spain’s Constitutional Court to declare it illegal.

“It is false that the right to vote can be assigned unilaterally to one region about a matter that affects all Spaniards,” he argues. “It’s profoundly anti-democratic.”

Rajoy has a point. But it is the intransigence of the central government he heads that is to blame for the situation.

Struggle for rights

The Catalan culture and language were suppressed for almost forty years while Spain was a dictatorship. After Francisco Franco died in 1975, and Spain transitioned to democracy, a new constitution promised Catalonia autonomy.

It took until 2006 for the region to get self-government. An overwhelming 74 percent of voters approved the constitutional changes in a referendum that year which defined Catalonia as a “nation” and gave it its own parliament. The Catalan regional government was given broad powers over cultural, education, health, justice and transportation policy.

But other regions and Spanish nationalists, especially in Rajoy’s conservative People’s Party, were dismayed by the changes and fought to reverse them.

After four years, Spain’s highest court ruled that fourteen of the new statute’s articles were unconstitutional and a further 27 had to be rewritten.

Perhaps most painfully, it said the definition of Catalonia as a “nation” had no legal standing.

The same court suspended Mas’ referendum on independence, a decision which Catalonia’s regional parliament is appealing.

Separatist sentiment

Through it all, support for independence has soared.

Polls suggest that around one in two Catalans would rather break away from Spain at this point and that 80 percent want the referendum.

Little wonder. Catalans have been denied a say in their political constellation for generations by politicians in Madrid who obsess about forging a single sense of Spanish nationhood where none exists.

Separatist sentiment has also been fueled by Spain’s recent economic mismanagement.

Compared to the rest of the country, Catalonia is fairly well run. It has only 16 percent of Spain’s population but is responsible for more than a fifth of its gross domestic product, giving it an economy the size of Denmark’s. Catalan trade accounts for 35 percent of Spain’s total. An estimated $21 billion in Catalan taxes, equivalent to 8 percent of the region’s economic output, is invested in other parts of Spain.


That is not to say Catalonia should go it alone. Independence is not without its risks. Among the thorniest issues is European Union membership, for which an independent Catalonia would need to reapply.

That includes the use of the euro. Being forced out of the single currency could hurt tourism, which brings in $12 billion per year.

Devolution of powers, similar to Scotland, would satisfy many Catalans. So would a federal structure similar to Germany’s. The Catalans are a nation, but they don’t necessarily want their own state.

It is the central government’s refusal to even consider such options that has caused more and more Catalans to favor outright independence.

If, at some point, they do decide to break away from Spain unilaterally, Madrid will have itself to blame.


  1. The article lacks some background facts: Spain is already one of the most decentralised countries in Europe. Like other regions in Spain, Catalonia has its own president and a parliament with devolved powers for issues such as education, health services, public media outlets, etc. Unlikely other regions in Spain, it even has its own police force (the Mossos). And Catalonia is recognised as a nation in the Spanish constitution, alongside Galicia and the Basque Country.

    Also, in spite of Mas’s aggressive propaganda campaign, only a third of those entitled to vote in his 2014 referendum bothered to do so, so independence was supported by a grand total of just over a quarter of the Catalonian electorate. Not very impressive.

    Granted, the whole thing has been mismanaged from Madrid, but Catalonia is no example of good governance. Heard of the 3% commission on public contracts? And that money was swelling the coffers of Mas’s party.

    Btw, The Economist published an article on this issue about a month ago which got it about right, imho. Its title was: “In their search for independence, Catalans can resemble Brexiteers”.

  2. Hey, Ana, thanks for your comment!

    No doubt the Catalans aren’t blameless. Mas’ party has used independence as a wedge issue for its own, short-term political gain. The Catalans do have a high degree of autonomy already, yet their regional administration doesn’t always inspire confidence they could handle more.

    That said, my issue is with the attitude taken by Madrid, which I don’t think has been productive.

    Instead of negotiating a semi-federal solution that would satisfy the vast majority of Catalans, they have refused to even discuss further devolution, instead using the courts the bully the Catalan regional government into submission.

    The result, as far as I can tell, has been to radicalize those Catalans who are dissatisfied with the status quo and leaving them with no choice but to either give up their aspirations altogether or push for independence.

  3. Yes, I completely agree. However, don’t forget that the Popular Party has its own (Spanish) nationalist constituency to answer to. The whole thing has been instrumentalised by vested interests on both sides.

  4. Yes, and I guess a similar logic is at play there, right? Rajoy’s party needs to be seen as uncompromising on the Catalan issue in order not to risk losing nationalist support.

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