What Game Theory can teach us about the Catalonia crisis

What Game Theory can teach us about the Catalonia crisis

After the arrest of several Catalan ministers and the exile of the rest in Belgium, the situation remains tense and the ultimate outcome unclear, pending December elections in the region. Marc Hernando Santacana argues that game theory can help.

Game of Chicken

The escalations of events, starting from the Referendum on 1 October until the self-exile of Catalan President Carles Puigdemont in Brussels, fits the mold of the so-called Game of Chicken perfectly. According to this model, two or more players are in a car race. Obviously, both of them want to win. However, after the finish line there is a cliff, into which neither of the players wants to fall. The players can either accelerate or to brake. If both players accelerate all the way to the finish line they will fall; if one of them accelerates and the other one brakes the former will win; and if both of them brake, they will tie. Essentially, it’s a game of escalation.

The current strategy played by both Catalonia and Spain is that of acceleration: in other words, acting aggressively in order to outpace their rival. This process started in June with the proclamation of a date for the referendum by the Catalan government. The response to this first move was to deploy onto Catalan territory a vast majority of Spain’s police. In the face of Catalan defiance, Spain stepped up the game by using force during the referendum vote. This, in turn, was used by the Catalan as a way of gaining international support. The rest of the process is already well-known. So why are both actors, while presumably rational, playing a strategy that does not seem to offer the best outcome for either of them in the long-run?

Last man standing

The principle of the game is that the last player standing will benefit as long as the other decides to yield in the end. Judging from the rhetoric on both sides, both the Catalan and the Spanish governments believe that the other will eventually comply. If this does not happen eventually, both seem to be more than keen on using any  means necessary to assure that the outcome is favorable to them. The Catalan side, up to now, has used any kind of action by the Spanish government as a way to stoke nationalist sentiment and seek international sympathy and support. Spain, however, responds with intimidation. This, supposedly should deter those who still support independence.

Taking a step back, it seems like neither of the strategies has accomplished what they were conceived to do. On the one hand, it is true that Catalonia seems to have won the sympathy of the general public. However, the European Union has yet to openly support its cause, and regional and international powers still classify the problem as a sub-national one, and do not wish to intervene. On the other hand, despite Spain having jailed some of the ministers under charges of treason and violent revolution, the public opinion does not seem to have changed, and Madrid has had to admit that the imprisoned officials will still be able to be eligible as members of Parliament in the election to be held on 21 December.

Prisoner’s dilemma: no end in sight

It seems clear that both players would be better off by stopping the escalation and arranging a deal that would leave. The Prisoner’s Dilemma can help explain part of the reason as to why both race cars are still heading towards the cliff. This second game is used to explain why, in scenarios in which both players would be better off by cooperating, they decide not to do so. In general, the lack thereof is due to both players not trusting one another. Again, when applying what the theory says to reality, the multiple times the Spanish government has not fulfilled its promises to Catalan institutions has had lasting effects on the relationship.

The obvious conclusion is that the conflict will not end anytime soon. With the elections scheduled for 21 December, nationalist parties are poised to gain an absolute majority in the Catalan Congress, giving further reason to pursue an aggressive strategy against Spain. On the Spanish side, more intimidation can be expected: the Spanish government has indefinitely prolonged the stay of cruise ships filled with Guardia Civil riot police in Barcelona Port.

An alternative would be for the European Union to intervene and force a settlement upon the two parties. However, it does not appear that the EU is willing to do so.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Marc Hernando Santacana

Marc Hernando Santacana earned a BA in Economics with a Minor in Political Sciences from the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia. Throughout his studies, he focused mainly in topics surrounding Game Theory, Non-State Armed Groups, International Security and State Building. He speaks Catalan, Spanish, English, French, German and Chinese.