Can Spain’s new government resolve the issue of Catalan independence?

Can Spain’s new government resolve the issue of Catalan independence?

Spain’s new Socialist-led government has adopted a more diplomatic approach to the question of Catalan independence, but is defiant that Spanish unity will not be compromised. How will this strategy balance out and affect the political landscape in Catalonia and across Spain?   

Pedro Sanchez’s diplomatic efforts

In contrast to his predecessor, Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s new President Pedro Sanchez sees diplomacy as the best strategy to resolve the Catalan conundrum.

Normalizing relations between Madrid and Barcelona was one of Sanchez’s first objectives as President after a year of political gridlock between the two sides. This was highlighted by a meeting with Quim Torra, Catalonia’s new pro-independence leader. It was the first time that the heads of government met in two years. A significant development from the meeting was the mutual recognition of ‘dialogue’ and the decision to restore the State – Generalitat (Catalan government) bilateral commission that had been inoperative since 2011. The restoration of the commission contrasts with the previous administration’s Catalan policy, which impeded diplomatic avenues.

As well as facilitating a framework for diplomacy, Sanchez has seemingly made some important concessions that will please Catalonia’s pro-independence leaders.

Firstly, he is in favour of a vote in Catalonia to strengthen the region’s autonomous powers. If passed, such a vote would enhance the independence of Catalonia’s citizens, financial regulations, as well as political institutions from the central authorities in Madrid.

Secondly, Sanchez has expressed his support in moving imprisoned Catalan officials back to Catalonia, suggesting recognition of their allegiances.

Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, is the government’s recent approval to exhume the remains of General Francisco Franco, Spain’s dictator between 1939 and 1976. Franco is widely reviled as the symbol of suppression of Catalan national identity. The exhumation of his grave would withdraw the national status of Franco given to him by the Spanish state.

Catalan defiance

Despite Sanchez’s diplomatic gestures, he is ultimately engaging with hardline separatists who believe independence from Spain is their destiny.

Quim Torra is widely recognized as a puppet for former president Carles Puigdemont, who is in self-imposed exile following Madrid’s clampdown on pro-independence politicians last year. On the subject of Catalonia’s position vis a vis Spain, Torra has been labelled as the ‘most sectarian voice’ in the pro-independence movement.

Torra, who is also a journalist, has made plenty of controversial remarks regarding Catalan nationalism. In 2009, he said that he couldn’t trust anyone that doesn’t make independence of his ‘country’ a priority. In a series of tweets, he said that Catalonia has been under Spanish occupation since 1714 and that Catalonia’s current status in Spain constituted a ‘humanitarian crisis’.

Despite the Spanish government’s softer approach to Catalonia, Quim Torra has opted to continue the confrontational path with the Spanish state. On coming to power, Torra posited ‘‘we’re going to mobilize and concentrate all our efforts on denouncing the grave situation that Catalonia is going through.’’

His election also shows that the strategy of confrontation with Spain is prevailing over more moderate voices in Catalonia. This success suggests that attacks against Spain will continue, despite the changing approach in Madrid.

In addition, as a show of his ambitions for Catalonia, Torra has already mobilized hundreds of thousands of pro-independence demonstrators. On September 11 an estimated one million people took to the streets of Barcelona calling for independence.  

It is almost impossible to think that Sanchez’s diplomatic strategy will force the Generalitat to abandon its strategy for independence. If anything, it will likely extend the freedom for separatists to promote independence that was restricted under Mariano Rajoy.

Internal pressures

As well as trying to appease Catalan nationalists, Sanchez’s diplomatic efforts could be undermined by conservative forces in Madrid that favour the approach of Rajoy – ‘don’t speak to the separatists’.

Sanchez’s Socialist Party only controls 84 out of 350 seats in Congress and leads a weak minority coalition. His soft stance on crucial and sensitive issues such as Catalonia could weaken the government’s support and re-energize the right.

Pablo Casado, the new leader of the conservative Popular Party – the government’s biggest opposition in parliament – has already imposed an overtly ideological focus in the party. This is a break from Rajoy’s leadership, which stressed robust technocratic management and avoided ideological conflict.

Casado has been vocal in his opposition to the government’s Catalan strategy. At a party conference, Casado insisted that ‘the DNA of the PP is not to negotiate with the separatists’.

He also issued a stark warning to the government that if it doesn’t acquiesce to separatist demands, ‘the PP would use its absolute majority in the senate to request the application of Article 155 of the Spanish constitution’, which would activate direct rule of Catalonia from Madrid.

Another key concern for the Socialist Party has been the rise of Ciudadanos, the centre-right party that has championed the unionist cause in Catalonia. Polling around 21 percent, the rise of Ciudadanos demonstrates the importance of Catalonia in winning political support across Spain.


Resolving the Catalan question involves a battle on several fronts for the new government. Any major concessions to the Catalan separatists over the next few months would most likely generate a platform for the right to surge and retake control of government in Madrid.

Alternatively, a moderate approach to the Catalan issue as well as strong performances on other issues, such as migration and the economy, would enable the Socialists to call an early election and strengthen their influence in Congress. Indeed, a Socialist-dominated government would appear to be the only plausible scenario for Sanchez to properly realize his strategy for Catalonia.  

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Niall Walsh

Niall Walsh is a political risk analyst for GRI. He holds a BA in History and Spanish from University College Dublin and an MA in International Relations from Leiden University. His main focus concerns national and regional political risk in Latin America.