Catalonia at a Crossroads

With both sides in the Catalan dispute seeing the world from mutually exclusive perspectives, says Daniel Cetra, there is no clear way of finding a way forward. 
This is yet another significant episode in the greatest constitutional crisis in Spain since the restoration of democracy. 
There is a deep polarization both within Catalonia, between supporters and opponents of independence, and between Catalonia and the rest of Spain. Two distinct worldviews have grown apart over the Catalan quest for self-determination and independence that started in 2012 – and have been driven further apart by last October’s referendum and declaration of independence, Spain’s subsequent direct rule, and the events of recent days.
The majority view in Spain is that this is a legal issue. Catalan leaders broke the law and need to pay the legal price. This is the view of the Spanish government, led by Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular (PP), as well as the opposition Socialists (PSOE) and Ciudadanos (C’s). It is also the perspective of the majority of public opinion.
By contrast, the majority view in Catalonia is that this is a political issue. The last two elections returned a pro-independence majority in the parliament, and the claim is that Spanish institutions are not respecting the democratic mandate of the people and are abusing judicial powers for political purposes, including the jailing of political opponents.
These diametric opposed worldviews ensure that both camps have mutually exclusive takes on the events unfolding in Catalonia and across Europe. In addition, neither side has much in the way of an incentive to deescalate the situation.
The PP and C’s are battling each other to be seen as the greatest defender of state unity. The Socialists are fighting a rear-guard action on the same territory, desperate to avoid losing votes by seeming accommodating. Within Catalonia, rival parties – Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), Carles Puigdemont’s electoral platform Junts Per Catalunya (JuntsxCat), and Partit Demòcrata (PDeCat) – are also in a fight for the leadership of the independence movement.
In terms of the constitutional dispute between, rather than within, those two groups, the quest for independence was defeated last autumn.The declaration of independence passed by the Catalan parliament did not result in a break with Spain and so was, ultimately, a symbolic gesture or perhaps even a rather empty one. 
In addition, the pro-independence camp is disorientated and divided between those supporting a moderate roadmap focused on restoring Catalonia’s political autonomy and those defending continued disobedience.
However, the Spanish Government seems determined to continue to fight a battle it has already won. The Spanish institutions would do well to refrain from attempting to humiliate the Catalan movement and instead seek a political solution
The hopes for a negotiated settlement face another hurdle however. All of the main Catalan leaders are either in jail or exile. There are therefore no obvious interlocutors to enter such a dialogue and neither are their obvious leaders of the movement to develop new strategies and chart a new course.
The current round of arrest warrants and the series of events that preceded it have also done very real damage to the notion of the courts as neutral arbiter. Indeed, Spain now runs the risk of crossing the line between the rule of law, in which judges hold the ring of political dispute, to the rule by law, in which judicial powers are abused for political ends.
Solving this crisis requires a nimble political intelligence that has so far been absent. It also requires both sides to recognise each other as a legitimate political interlocutor and a recognition of past mistakes. Independence parties unwisely adopted a maximalist strategy (declaring independence unilaterally) without a clear democratic majority. The Spanish response of treating this issue as a legal challenge, as opposed to a legitimate political demand that needs to be addressed politically, did nothing to resolve the crisis.
It remains to be seen whether both sides have it in them to set aside the mistakes of the past and find a path forward. 

Comments policy

All comments posted on the site via Disqus are automatically published. Additionally comments are sent to moderators for checking and removal if necessary. We encourage open debate and real time commenting on the website. The Centre on Constitutional Change cannot be held responsible for any content posted by users. Any complaints about comments on the site should be sent to

Daniel Cetrà's picture
post by Daniel Cetrà
University of Aberdeen
27th March 2018
Filed under:

Latest blogs

  • 12th February 2019

    CCC Fellow Professor Daniel Wincott of Cardiff University examines how Brexit processes have already reshaped territorial politics in the UK and changed its territorial constitution.

  • 7th February 2019

    The future of agriculture policy across the United Kingdom after Brexit is uncertain and risky, according to a new paper by Professor Michael Keating of the Centre on Constitutional Change. Reforms of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy over recent years have shifted the emphasis from farming to the broader concept of rural policy. As member states have gained more discretion in applying policy, the nations of the UK have also diverged, according to local conditions and preferences.

  • 4th February 2019

    In our latest report for the "Repatriation of Competences: Implications for Devolution" project, Professor Nicola McEwen and Dr Alexandra Remond examine how, in the longer term, Brexit poses significant risks for the climate and energy ambitions of the devolved nations. These include the loss of European Structural and Investment Funds targeted at climate and low carbon energy policies, from which the devolved territories have benefited disproportionately. European Investment Bank loan funding, which has financed high risk renewables projects, especially in Scotland, may also no longer be as accessible, while future access to research and innovation funding remains uncertain. The removal of the EU policy framework, which has incentivised the low carbon ambitions of the devolved nations may also result in lost opportunities.

  • 1st February 2019

    The outcome of the various Commons votes this week left certain only that the Government would either secure an amended deal and put it to a meaningful vote on Wednesday 13 February, or in the overwhelmingly likely absence of this make a further statement that day and table another amendable motion for the following day, the Groundhog Day that may lead to a ‘St Valentine’s Day Massacre’ for one side or the other. Richard Parry assesses the further two-week pause in parliamentary action on Brexit

  • 24th January 2019

    Concerns about the implications of the Irish backstop for the integrity of the domestic Union contributed significantly to the scale of the 118-strong backbench rebellion that led to Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement being defeated last week, by the extraordinary margin of 432 to 202. What do the arguments made during the Commons debate tell us about the nature of the ‘unionism’ that prevails in the contemporary Conservative Party?

Read More Posts