Catalan Separatists March, But Are Divided

Republicans want to give talks with Pedro Sánchez a chance. Other separatists are skeptical.

Barcelona Spain demonstration
Catalans demonstrate for independence in Barcelona, Spain, October 14, 2018 (Unsplash/Külli Kittus)

Hundreds of thousands of separatists streamed into Barcelona on Sunday. A mass of red, yellow and blue — the colors of Catalan independence — filled the boulevard along the city’s old seaport before crowding Ciutadella Park, where the regional parliament is located.

Organizers claimed 700,000 Catalans attended this year’s National Day rally. Barcelona police put the figure at 150,000, which would make attendance by far the lowest since demonstrations began in 2010. El Nacional, a pro-independence outlet, argues the low estimate isn’t credible, but 700,000 seems high given this year’s shorter route.

Whatever the number, it’s clear the separatist movement has peaked. As many as one million (on a population of 7.7 million) demonstrated for independence as recently as 2018.

The failed breakaway of 2017, that year’s suspension of Catalan autonomy and the prosecution of Catalan leaders (later pardoned) have demotivated many separatists. Polls suggest four in ten Catalans still want their own state. It was close to fifty-fifty in 2019. (Although even then, almost half of independence supporters would have been content with federalizing Spain.)

Movement has split

The movement has split between hardliners loyal to former president Carles Puigdemont, his center-right Together for Catalonia, the far-left Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) and the civil society groups Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Òmnium Cultural on the one hand and the center-left Republicans on the other. Regional president Pere Aragonès, a Republican, skipped the Diada activities of ANC and Òmnium.

Partly this is the various independence parties jostling for supporters. But there is a substantive disagreement at the heart of it: whether to give official dialogue with the Spanish government of Pedro Sánchez a chance or try for unilateral secession.

Dialogue has accomplished little

The Republicans support Sánchez, a social democrat, in the national Congress and argue Together and CUP have no better plan. Aragonès has said,

What I will not do is commit the irresponsibility of abandoning a dialogue process if I do not have an alternative.

But even he admits the results have been meager: recognizing Catalan as an official language of Congress and an agreement to “dejudicialize” Catalan-Spanish relations, without specifying how.

Aragonès argues dialogue (there have been three meetings of Catalan and Spanish ministers in two-and-a-half years) “must be understood as a confidence-building measure rather than an agreement on the substance of the negotiation,” adding they “allow us to see that both parties have the will to move forward.”

Do they?

Time is running out

Sánchez has time and again found excuses to delay negotiations: coronavirus, the war in Ukraine, the energy crisis. When Together, which governs Catalonia in a coalition with the Republican Left, boycotted the last round of talks, Sánchez tried to use that as a reason to stay away too. He knows that concessions to Catalan nationalists would be unpopular in the rest of Spain, and his Socialist Workers’ Party is already down in the polls.

To his credit, Sánchez did pardon the organizers of the 2017 independence referendum, who had been in prison for four years.

But efforts to reform the antiquated sedition law under which they were convicted have stalled, and Sánchez has made no proposals to devolve more powers to Catalonia, such as more control over infrastructure spending or the same fiscal autonomy as the Basques.

Time is running out. The next Spanish election is due in December 2023, the next Catalan election in March 2025. I doubt the Republican-Together coalition will last that long, especially if Sánchez is voted out next year. The CUP are already halfway out the door. The anticapitalists voted against Aragonès’ spending plan this year, which only passed with last-minute support from the nonaligned left.

Polls suggest Sánchez’ Socialist Party would win an early election in Catalonia (most center-right voters are for independence), but it would still need the Republicans and other leftists for a majority — which would make it the first time since 2012 that the pro-independence parties didn’t govern together.