Why Catalonia Failed

Pitxiquin/Pro-independence protests in Catalonia in October, 2017

On October 10th, 2017, hundreds of people gathered outside the parliament of Catalonia in Barcelona. With bated breath, they watched a large TV live-streaming Catalan President Carles Puigdemont as he approached the speaker’s podium inside. The region had just completed a historic referendum to decide its independence from Spain. After a brief speech, he made the declaration that Catalan nationalists had been dreaming about for generations: “I assume the mandate of the people for Catalonia to become an independent state in the shape of a republic.”

The crowd erupted into celebration—the dawn of Catalan independence was here. I was there in the crowd that night, singing songs of freedom with strangers who had become my comrades. It didn’t feel like the end of a referendum, but a national beginning after which there was no turning back.

Then, exactly eight seconds later, it was over. It wasn’t because the Spanish police had stormed the Catalan Parliament, as they had with the voting stations. Nor did the army suddenly appear on the streets of Barcelona. Instead, Puigdemont himself announced to the cheering crowd that his government was “[asking] Parliament to suspend the effects of the declaration of independence so that in the coming weeks we can undertake dialogue” with Spain. He also pledged to search for international mediation.

Instantly, disbelief and utter confusion engulfed the crowd. The moment’s frustration was immortalized in a popular meme. Puigdemont’s time as a Catalan national hero had lasted only moments. Now, the cheers were replaced by boos, jeers, and curses.

Two weeks later, the Catalan parliament declared independence again. But by then, it had no meaning. The declaration wasn’t recognized by any sovereign state, including Spain. But in the streets and cafes of Barcelona as well as on Twitter, people directed their ire toward the very first political authority to not recognize the Catalan Republic: the pro-independence government itself. Catalonia’s dream to become a sovereign country in 2017 was over.

It wasn’t the first time. The mythos of Catalan nationalism is built around inspiring losses. Catalonia’s national day and its national anthem both commemorate moments in which Catalans took a stand against Spain. This time, independence supporters felt they were not even given a chance to fight. At the moment when all the stars seemed to align, the movement’s leaders had no plan.

Now, years later, the decision has spawned multiple theories about the independence movement’s leaders. The typical belief of many independence supporters is that the Catalan political elites never intended to achieve independence at all—the whole thing was just a career-making scheme. But this alone doesn’t give us a complete picture. Although half-hearted, the government had still organized a self-determination referendum and declared independence.

What they didn’t foresee was the outcome, or the extent to which Spain was willing to go to prevent it. Catalan elites, unaccustomed to the affairs of statehood, approached secession like an administrative measure or a policy decision—like business as usual. But Spanish elites, knowing what it takes to rule a state, took a much more serious approach to the matter. They were willing to suspend political and legal norms to stop Catalonia’s independence and prevent the breakup of Spain. In the face of the Spanish response, the Catalan government fell apart at the very moment when they seemed victorious.

Catalonia’s Political Fictions

Since 2012, the Catalan independence movement had progressively gained momentum. The movement had a grassroots character to its support, mobilizing millions of Catalans every year to demand a referendum on self-determination.

And every year, the government in Madrid held the line: there would be no referendum or negotiation on Spanish territorial integrity. Catalonia already enjoyed a settlement of limited autonomous regional powers, and that was as far as Madrid was willing to go.

Despite Spain’s opposition, the movement kept growing, especially among younger, educated residents of cities like Barcelona. As a response to this growing support, Catalonia’s government decided to unilaterally organize an independence referendum on October 1st, 2017. President Carles Puigdemont, then-leader of the Catalan European Democratic Party, was presiding over a coalition government. His vice-president was Oriol Junqueras, leader of the pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia. Along with other officials, politicians, and leaders of prominent activist groups and NGOs, they were broadly recognized as the de-facto “General Staff” in charge of guiding the actions of the pro-independence movement.

The Catalan leadership crafted its strategy around the belief that in a liberal democratic regime, the democratic will of the citizens is the deciding factor in any political dispute, and that other dimensions of power are secondary. Catalonia’s leadership believed that if they could electorally show that a significant bulk of the Catalan population wanted independence from Spain, that would be enough to surpass any Spanish opposition. That would give Catalan authorities bargaining power vis-à-vis Madrid and perhaps even force the external diplomatic intervention of the “international community.”

The Catalan government, as well as the broader independence movement, attributed inherent power to the performative action of casting a ballot. The vote in the referendum was seen as the culminating point of the struggle, not its beginning. Catalan leaders invoked the precedents of the self-determination referendums of Quebec in 1995 and Scotland in 2014—neither of which ended in secession. The government itself seemed to view the foundation of a new Catalan state as a mere administrative question, not a moment of sovereign exception against the Spanish state. Nonetheless, even before October 1st, it was clear that Catalan independence wouldn’t be a costless transition.

The referendum was clearly outside the Spanish constitutional order. From a pro-independence standpoint, that made perfect sense. The declaration of October 1st would have been Catalonia’s first act of sovereignty, its foundational moment.

However, that was already beyond the limits of the Catalan government’s worldview.

In Madrid, a different worldview prevailed. The prime minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, with the cooperation of all the major Spanish political parties, opted to put Catalonia under a non-declared state of exception during the autumn of 2017. Police raided newspapers, post offices, and the Catalan ministerial headquarters. Websites linked to the referendum were censored.

On October 1st, despite crackdowns by the police on voting stations where around a thousand Catalan voters were injured, the referendum was completed with relative success. The turnout was lower than the independence movement had hoped for: about 43%, mostly supporters of independence. In total, just over 2 million Catalans voted for secession, out of 5.3 million eligible voters. The government estimated that up to 700,000 votes were not cast due to police raids causing shutdowns of voting stations.

It had been neither the best environment nor the best numbers to decide Catalonia’s future. But given the circumstances, it showed a strong base of support. It was the only kind of referendum Catalonia could realistically have.

The Moment of Truth

According to the laws approved by the Catalan parliament, the result of the referendum was supposed to be implemented two days after the vote, on October 3rd. That day, the pro-independence movement organized the largest general strike in Catalonia’s—and Spain’s—history. The shock caused by the images of the crackdown of the referendum gave the independence movement the moral high ground. Even within the pro-Spanish camp, many considered Madrid to have gone too far.

The pro-independence supporters were marching in the streets of Barcelona and in every major city in Catalonia. If there was ever a moment for the pro-independence government to act, this was it.

Nothing happened. No one declared independence on October 3rd. Catalonia’s leaders hesitated at the very brink of their defining moment.

But Spanish authorities did not. On the evening of that same day, King Philip VI of Spain made his own speech on events in Catalonia. He accused the Catalan government of “disloyalty to the state” for positioning itself outside the law. He asked the “powers of the state” to reimpose the constitutional order in Catalonia. Puigdemont had remained silent since the day of the referendum, but he reappeared to reply to the king. The speech of King Philip had inflamed independence supporters, who were more ready than ever for action. They expected an equally strong response from their own leaders.

Instead, Puigdemont expressed his disappointment with the lack of empathy by the king of the country he was trying to break away from. The Catalan government, he said, expected the king to play a mediating role—as if the monarch, as head of the Spanish state, wasn’t an interested party.

Puigdemont’s response was a prelude to the fateful speech he would go on to make on October 10th. It was not the answer of a sovereign entity to another sovereign. Catalan authorities were still acting as if they were playing within the ordinary frameworks of the Spanish system, in which, the monarch is supposed to play the role of a neutral arbiter.

But the role of the monarchy is inseparable from Spanish unity. The figure of the king is one of the unifying elements of both Spanish elites and Spanish nationalism. Among intellectual, political, and business elites, green ties have become a mark of support for the monarchy and the idea of a united Spain it represents. This is because verde stands in royalist circles for V.E.R.D.E: Viva el Rey de España—Long Live the King of Spain.

King Philip always knew his role in this crisis. After the referendum, the monarch personally contacted top Catalan business executives to ask them to support Spain and move their companies out of Catalonia. Many followed his advice, including Catalonia’s two most prominent financial institutions: Banc Sabadell and CaixaBank.

Years later, the contrast between Puigdemont and King Philip’s speeches remains the most illustrative example of how the Catalan and Spanish elites understood the situation. Legally, Catalan politicians knew they had gone beyond Spain’s constitutional order. However, in practical terms, they expected to keep playing within the rules of Spanish governance. That was something that Madrid could not accept. At that moment, the events in Catalonia were way beyond the ordered procedures of institutional liberalism and had entered the realm of sovereign state power. That was unknown territory for Catalonia’s “General Staff.”

Despite the political situation, pro-independence activists were still confident in their leadership. Then came the fateful eight seconds of Catalonia’s independence on October 10th. After it was evident that the Catalan government wanted to back down, that confidence collapsed.

The results of the referendum had forced the Catalan government to cross the line from symbolic politics to real questions of sovereign power. Vice President Oriol Junqueras told voters they had “plans A, B, and C.” But they weren’t ready to pursue a rupture without Spain’s agreement, nor did they have the will to keep fighting. Most likely, it was never even an option. The movement simply was not built for action beyond electoral politics within the Spanish system.

Once Spain began to prepare its reaction, the pro-independence camp lost its momentum. For the governing coalition in Catalonia, the question was no longer how to lead the struggle against Spain, but who would pay the cost of letting down the independence movement in the next elections.

Catalonia’s Fragile Autonomy

Puigdemont did not want to get caught in this trap by his coalition partners and reiterated Catalonia’s declaration of independence on October 27th. But he gave no directions for how to proceed and didn’t ask for any civil disobedience or street action.

The government itself scattered. Puigdemont and half of the Catalan ministers went into exile in Brussels. Oriol Junqueras and the others surrendered themselves to the Spanish government and were held in prison until their pardon in June 2021.

In the immediate aftermath, Spain took direct control of Catalonia’s government. There were no calls to resist from the Catalan authorities. Some pro-independence officials lost their jobs, but many high-ranking figures of the previous pro-independence government kept their positions and actively collaborated with Madrid. Pere Aragonès, a pro-independence politician who is now the president of Catalonia, spent this period as its vice-president and Minister of Economy and Finance.

Catalan nationalism had worked to give a mirage of statehood to their autonomous institutions for the forty years leading up to the referendum. That helped reinforce Catalonia’s identity and smoothen possible frictions with Spain. But autonomy also allowed for the emergence of a new elite linked to the power of the regional administration. They could participate in a mirage of state power while not participating in any of its most sensitive elements. They could receive the treatment of state elites—complete with political offices like the Catalan Foreign Minister–without having to hold their responsibilities.

Current Catalan political elites developed their careers in this environment, emerging from sectors linked to political activism, tourism, and administration. Puigdemont himself began his career as a journalist before becoming the mayor of Girona and eventually the president of Catalonia. In many ways his success was accidental. He became the president of Catalonia because his predecessor was mistrusted and disliked by the pro-independence left, while Puigdemont was unknown enough to generate consensus. Oriol Junqueras was a college history professor before becoming a politician. Carme Forcadell, former President of the Parliament of Catalonia, led the prominent pro-independence activist organization Catalan National Assembly.

The influence of the “General Staff” was primarily dependent on their positions in the autonomous region’s administrative bodies. Once Madrid took control of Catalonia’s government, the fragility of their position became evident. The primary source of their power was borrowed from the very Spanish state they were trying to break away from.

They had no backup, having not bothered to cultivate more independent sources of power outside the regional institutions. While Catalonia has its own police force, most of its members are pro-Spanish. Its major companies rely on Spain for the international ties they benefit from. The judiciary, likewise, remained intertwined with the Spanish legal system and had no particular loyalty towards the independence cause. Catalan elites had simply never foreseen a scenario in which the loyalty of the security forces, corporate sector, and state administration could be crucial for achieving their goals.

Instead, both the government and the independence movement viewed these hard dimensions of power as obsolete. Ideologically, the Catalan leadership was informed by European civic liberalism as a strategy for creating a state, not just governing one. They could not fathom the use of force on a large scale against a political movement that portrayed itself as peaceful and democratic. Even if Spain took extra-legal measures, they believed that the international community would step up for them because Catalan independence was a democratic cause. After all, a democratic state member of the European Union would need to restrain itself to remain in good standing.

In the end, their naive idealism ran up against political reality when even EU institutions supported Spain’s actions to preserve its territorial integrity. With real state interests on the line, only local activists and Catalan politicians carefully insulated from sovereign politics believed in liberal democracy as a practical path to challenging Spanish sovereignty.

State Power and Spanish Elites

On the other side, Spain’s elites were much more familiar with the political terrain that Catalonia was treading. The process of the centralization of power in Madrid began centuries ago. However, the current structure of Spanish elites was consolidated during the second half of the twentieth century. The governing class in Spain had survived through Europe’s revolutionary era, the two World Wars, and the Cold War.

Most importantly, they won a bloody civil war. Franco’s Spain consolidated a unified and centralized modern state elite around the army, the judiciary, and the top bureaucracy based in Madrid. These institutions are intimately linked to Spanish sovereignty and were constructed specifically to overcome internal opposition to the state. It is not surprising that Madrid grasped the gravity of what the attempted secession of Catalonia implied for them in a way that pro-independence elites never dared to acknowledge openly.

In the Spanish governing class, the link between legislative and judiciary power is especially common. Mariano Rajoy, prime minister of Spain during the Catalan referendum, embodies the history of Spain’s political elites. He came from a family of regional magistrates and jurists from Galicia, then became the right-hand man of Jose Manuel Fraga, founder of Spain’s People’s Party and a former Franco-era minister. His chief of staff, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, eventually went on to take control of Catalonia’s autonomous government in 2018.

The cabinet of Pedro Sanchez’s current socialist government includes four former magistrates. Two of them—Defense Minister Margarita Robles and Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska—were involved in the Basque region when the armed separatist organization Euskadi Ta Askatasuna was active.

In contrast to Catalonia’s administrators, Spanish national elites tend to have far more experience working with the coercive dimension of the state. Catalonia’s politicians saw independence in terms of freedom in government, public policy, and budgetary issues. Spain’s elites saw it as an existential threat. The real question at stake was the overall legal and political order ruling Catalan territory. Only the Spanish side was willing to force a state of exception to the constitutional order to answer it.

Performative Action Turns Real

A popular hypothesis among independence supporters is that pro-independence elites understood the October 1st referendum as a performative act that would give them bargaining power vis-à-vis Madrid. That seems backed up by the defense strategy that imprisoned pro-independence leaders used in their trial. According to this explanation, they were not ready to achieve Catalonia’s secession because they did not aim for it in the first place.

But even in this scenario, the Catalan leadership could never have avoided the question of sovereignty. If they had backed down before the referendum, that would have made much more sense—and in fact, there were some attempts to do so.

But once the Rubicon was crossed, they had gone beyond the normal game of Spanish internal politics. The non-sanctioned referendum by itself, whatever the result, was an open challenge to Spain’s sovereignty over Catalonia. King Philip chose his words carefully when he reminded the Catalan government that the regional institutions of Catalonia were part of the administration of Spain. As he correctly expressed, Madrid had no option but to “take them back under the legality” of the state if it was to maintain sovereignty over all of Spain.

The problem for the pro-independence leadership was that, regardless of whether they wanted to remain in the symbolic terrain, their actions had meaning in real life. For a nation-state, especially one with weak internal cohesion, such an open challenge to its sovereignty is a serious threat to its existence and cannot be left unchallenged. If Spain had accepted the negotiation, it would have generated a dangerous precedent. Catalan independence could only ever be unilateral. That meant that a Catalan Republic would have to take actual control of the region and state institutions via the security forces, which would have to be convinced to defect from the national government. Catalan leaders were not just unwilling to do this—they never even seemed to contemplate it.

Critics from within the movement have argued that the government should have sanctioned mass civil disobedience as a way to impose costs on Spanish intervention. But two elements likely made this an unacceptable move for Catalan politicians.

The first is that Catalan nationalist elites remained wary of any alternative power source emerging from civil society. Even though they embraced independence once popular support emerged, part of their tacit agreement with Spain has always been to control the secessionist temptations of Catalan society. This was the very logic under which Catalonia gained its original autonomous status.

The second is that pursuing the path for independence and rupture from Spain would have meant acting as true state-founders. As the answer of Puigdemont to Philip VI showed, they did not have the mindset to assume responsibility for the fate of the country. Appeasing Spain seemed more realistic because no other option existed in their models of political action—and so there was no other outcome they could prepare for.

In the end, it seems that Spain took the Catalan authorities more seriously than they ever took themselves.

The grassroots independence movement itself, in contrast, went in a different direction. When new protests arose in 2019, pro-independence protestors were capable of challenging Spain’s sovereignty in Catalonia, blocking the border with France, occupying Barcelona’s airport, and confronting the Spanish police in the streets of their capital. The movement’s demands then were centered around the amnesty of imprisoned Catalan pro-independence leaders, whom Spain would later pardon.

Spanish authorities have recognized the continuing threat to state sovereignty. They have closely monitored the pro-independence movement and Catalan politicians since 2017. The events following the referendum left a scar on the activists and sympathizers of independence. Sympathy for civil disobedience like that seen in 2019 continues to rise. While Madrid has disciplined Catalonia’s politicians, the new generation of movement leaders is growing up with more radical, confrontational tactics and less faith in the electoral process.

But radicalization is not the same as a viable path to statehood. Though the Catalan conflict remains open for now, it’s a conflict in which both sides are operating on Spanish institutional terrain—one in which Madrid holds all the cards.

Miquel Vila is the executive director of the Catalonia Global Institute. His research focuses on the geopolitics and geoeconomics of East Asia and on nationalist movements. He tweets @MiquelVilam.