Spain’s Response to Catalan Separatism Has Failed

Far from reining in the independence movement, Spain has radicalized it.

Barcelona Spain
View of the Palau Nacional from downtown Barcelona, Spain, December 29, 2013 (CucombreLibre)

Since I moved to Barcelona and started writing about Catalan independence three years ago, I’ve worried that Spain’s refusal to engage with the movement would radicalize it and hollow out the middle in Catalan politics.

This is now borne out by research.


Mariano Rajoy, the previous prime minister, hoped the Catalan problem would go away on its own. He refused to even talk about more autonomy or an independence referendum with Catalan leaders, much less give them either.

When they held a referendum in 2017 anyway, Rajoy didn’t rethink his strategy. He revoked Catalonia’s autonomy and prosecuted separatist leaders, including members of the Catalan regional government. Some have been convicted to up to thirteen years in prison. Others, including the former regional president, Carles Puigdemont, still live outside Spain to escape arrest.

The current prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, says he is willing to talk, but it’s been a year and a half and there has been no progress.


I’ve argued again and again that the longer this impasse lasts, the more the extremes will benefit.

Nafees Hamid, Clara Pretus and Hammad Sheikh have studied Catalan attitudes since 2014 and found this is exactly what has happened.

They report their findings in The Washington Post:

  • Independence supporters have become less pro-European. In 2014, they were optimistic that the EU would act as a fair broker between Catalonia and Spain. When it sided with the Spanish government in 2017, separatist faith in the EU plummeted.
  • Attitudes on who counts as a Catalan are hardening. A few years ago, independence supporters said, “Anyone can become Catalan.” Now you need to have been born one.
  • Moderates — who are either happy with the status quo or want more autonomy for Catalonia, but not independence — are increasingly identifying as either Catalan or Spanish as well. Previously they saw those as overlapping identities.
  • Separatists used to reject violence. Now a majority accept the use of some degree of violence against Spanish police in defense of their pursuit of independence.

None of this is surprising. Repression seldom works. You don’t change people’s sense of belonging by force. You only harden their attitudes and make it more likely they will use force against you.

Vicious cycle

Hamid, Pretus and Sheikh point out that opinions haven’t changed in Catalonia alone. Opposition to Catalan nationalism has hardened in the rest of Spain.

A new far-right party, Vox, wants to cancel Catalonia’s autonomy. The mainstream right-wing parties are in favor of suspending it. Sánchez has been called a traitor for merely talking with Catalan separatists about forming a coalition government. Imagine the reaction if and when he gives them any concessions.

This vicious cycle needs to be broken before it is too late.

I still believe there is a third way: more self-government for Catalonia, ideally within a federal Spain, that is put to Catalan voters in a referendum. The broad middle of Catalan society could still be satisfied with such an outcome. But time for a compromise is running out.