Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Why Spain’s Catalonia Crisis is spiraling out of control

by Oct 21, 2017

Catalan Police officers secure the area as thousands of people chant slogans outside the General Direction of the National Police of Spain building. Sasha Popovic

Things have come to a tipping point in Spain. The head of the Catalonian Generalitat has refused to withdraw the declaration of independence made after the referendum held in the region on 1 October and announced that the regional parliament will be asked to approve the declaration.

This comes after the Spanish Constitutional Court had ruled the referendum unconstitutional and the head of the Spanish Government warned that unless it was withdrawn, the stage would be set for the central government to implement Article 155 of the Constitution. This would give it the power to take over the Catalonian government.

It seems unlikely that in going this route Madrid will secure an early end to the crisis. That said, it is going to be extremely difficult for Barcelona to create a new state – this, for several reasons.

While Catalonia can trace its history back almost a millennium, it has been an integral part of Spain since the eighteenth century, around the same time as Scotland became part of the United Kingdom. Un-entangling long-linked communities is no easy task. Just look at how problematical this is proving to be in the case of the UK and the European Union – and they have only been together for some forty years or so.

Most Catalonians are at home in both Spanish and Catalonian, but more – 47% – mainly use the former than mainly use the latter – 37%.

In the independence referendum roughly 90% of those that voted supported secession but only some 40% of the Catalonian electorate turned out. Thus less than a majority of the electorate voted si.

Catalonia is Spain’s economic powerhouse but its relative richness also depends on its integration with the rest of the Spanish market. This will take a serious blow if the commanding heights of Catalonian industry pull up stakes. Since the beginning of October, some seven hundred Catalonian firms have decided to register their headquarters outside the region. Their operational hubs could follow.

An independent Catalonia would not have many of the tools of government. It would not have many of the institutions that, say, Greece, would be able to call upon if it ended up outside the European Union, such as a central bank that can print money, if necessary.

Catalonia has received little external sympathy for its independence drive. The European Union (EU) has been loath to take sides or buy into Puigdemont’s appeal for it to mediate. This is unsurprising. If the EU agreed to do so, it would be acknowledging that Brussels was prepared to accept the referendum result as legitimate and that Catalonia enjoyed the same status as Spain.

Brussels has furthermore signaled that a Catalonia leaving Spain would also be leaving the EU. Indeed, Catalonia could not expect to easily become an EU member once independent. There is a majority-blocking coterie of EU members who want to ensure that their own unruly regions do not defect. This has implications for a plethora of issues relating to the Catalonians’ freedom of movement and economic welfare.

And then there is the question of the would-be state’s security. An independent Catalonia would not be part of NATO, certainly not for quite some time. And it would have to make substantial investments into its security sector if it were to be able to credibly protect its population.

More generally, there has been little sympathy for Catalonia’s independence project as it fails to display the typical hallmarks of a suppressed community, as widely understood by the international community. Catalonia has not been under the thumb of a colonial power. Nor have Catalonians been subject to abuse because of their identity. True, Catalonians suffered under Franco, who suppressed an earlier attempt at independence in the 1930s, but so did a great many of their fellow Spaniards. Contemporary Catalonia is not to Spain as Kosovo was to Serbia.

Another critical issue is that the Catalonian independence coalition is seriously dysfunctional. Its main players are a conservative nationalist party that wants to defend Catalonian capitalism – Puigdemont’s, conservative nationalist PDeCAT – the left-wing radical ERC, and the crypto-communist cum anarchist CUP that seeks to upend capitalism in Catalonia. The three formations share no consensus on what would be the policies of a sovereign Catalonia beyond the achievement of independence. Their complicity is hanging on the thinnest of threats.

I am reminded of the situation in Sudan that prevailed before the southern part of the country voted to secede and became the world’s newest country. Almost as soon as the referendum had taken place and South Sudan had become independent, the key components of the independence movement were at each other’s throats. They still are. Catalonia is, of course, not South Sudan, but the situation there will remain uncertain and potentially violent until a viable way forward is found.

That will probably have to involve holding another referendum, but one that is within the constitution, that offers clear alternatives, whose wording is agreed by Madrid and Barcelona, which is preceded by a full, free and informed debate on the options offered and which is carried out in an orderly manner, under effective international scrutiny. Many of these conditions did not prevail on 1 October.

A new referendum on these terms will take time to put in place. The most likely next step will be to hold new elections in the region. These would test the opposing theses of the current Catalonian government and opposition. I expect that the ruling coalition would lose its majority, but if Madrid were to overplay its hand, it just might survive.

The central government is open to negotiating constitutional change. This could see Barcelona obtaining more control over its finances, a highly sensitive issue for a Catalonia that contributes more to the central budget than it receives in return. But note that the margin for change is not unlimited. Catalonia enjoys more competencies than other Spanish regions. In fact, it can boast one of the most powerful sub-national governments in the world. Catalonia is roughly in the same league as Quebec.

Unfortunately, the central government does not seem ready to amend the constitution so as to allow for a referendum. It should reconsider. In Quebec, two referenda have taken place on the question of whether the province should remain part of the Canadian confederation. Both were defeated, the second one by only the slimmest of margins. But the Quebecois had their choice, and since having made it, they have largely been at home with one another and with the rest of Canada. If Spain wants social peace, it will need to accept that the Catalonians should have the right to decide whether and how they are to relate to Spain.

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With thanks to Neil Sedaka for Breakin’ Up is Hard to Do. This was the title of his 1962 hit. The link is to a version that he sang half a century later.


David Law
David Law is a former head of the NATO policy planning department and currently a Senior Associate of the Centre for Security Governance. For more from David, go to