Ambika Varma Daniel Morales Editors' Forum Edward Tat Nancy Qin

How should the Spanish government react to the independent movement in Catalonia?

Nancy Qin – Program Editor, NATO’s Arc of Crisis


On October 1, 2017, Catalonia held its referendum to determine if its residents would prefer independence, or to remain with Spain. Independence was favoured by 90% of the voters who participated in the referendum. However, only 42% of eligible Catalan voters voiced their opinions through the referendum, thus the results of the referendum cannot be said to be reflective of the majority of Catalans. The referendum itself, as per Spain’s constitution, is not legitimate; all of Spain, not just the state in question, must be part of the referendum in order to determine its fate. Thus from the October Catalan referendum, only one message is clear: a significant number of Catalans, although not a majority, favour an independent Catalonia. Professor Cazorla-Sanchez, a specialist in Spanish history at Trent University, recognized that many Catalans wanted to renegotiate with the central government of Spain the extent of their autonomy.

Given the situation, then, the Spanish government should not have panicked as hard as it had. Employing police to hinder the voter turnout, and then rebuking the Catalans for having a voice only heightened the unrest in Catalan. The Spanish government should have reached out to the Catalan state even before the referendum; through negotiations and the media, they could have reminded Catalan leaders the unconstitutional nature of a referendum limited to one state only. If Catalan’s motives are as Cazorla-Sanchez says, then the most productive way to address the unrest in Catalonia would be to consider their separatist sentiments seriously, and then strive for a resolution through peaceful talks.


Edward Tat – Program Editor, Emerging Security


If their objective was self-survival, the best move for the Spanish government is to stop the Catalan independence movement in its tracks by immediately dissolving the Catalan Generalitat and temporarily instating federal control through Article 155 of the Constitution. Protests and unrest will result, but this will subside once the Catalans realize that they cannot take up arms. All of this, of course, is the cost of a weak and misdirected federal leadership in the past and present. If Madrid was serious about putting the movement to rest, they must realize that they have forced themselves to pay heavily in political capital.

Most importantly, the permanent solution to kill the independence movement at its core is to follow up any action with urgently needed reform legislation aimed at winning back support from disenchanted Catalans. This requires Prime Minister Rajoy’s People’s Party to offer concessions that they had previously refused. The regional fiscal autonomy desired by Catalans must be offered. The depression-level youth unemployment must be resolved. Mainstream anti-EU sentiment must be addressed by all sides, Brussels included. A Quebec-esque situation will most likely result which ought to lead to the reestablishment of peaceful dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona on what a united Spain should look like.

Make no mistake, the illegal and undemocratic referendum must be taken seriously by the Spanish government as a clear signal that their Catalan constituents remain severely disillusioned over Spanish and EU governance.


Daniel Morales – Program Editor, International Business and Economics


National identities are built through myths and legends where acts of selfless heroism in the pursuit for self-determination and the creation of a state occurs. Often fabricated or hyperboles of real events, these myths serve to ignite passion and unity around a political cause. Us versus Them. Freedom versus Oppression. David vs Goliath.

The Spanish government, headed by Mariano Rajoy, faced a difficult decision leading to October 1st. Ignore the illegal referendum and consequently undermine the state’s constitution, or confront it directly and risk an escalation of violence.  Choosing the latter, the confrontations that ensued ultimately provided the independents’ movement with an imagery of struggle for the world to see. Police charges and injured Catalan’s portrayed a battered people fighting for independence. Nothing further from the truth.

Franco’s regime and the repression suffered by Catalans last century is still very much present in the minds of many. However, Franco is dead and the Spanish democracy has come a long way since.  Although the conservative government in Madrid makes for an easy target, this should not prevent us from realizing that the referendum was in fact a parody and shockingly undemocratic. Approved hastily in the middle of the night by a small majority, it lacked the due process needed and violated many of the rules set by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. Moreover, the multiple reports of voter fraud, no public information available on the recount process and an abstinence level of almost 60%, certainly diminished the validity of the result.

The image of the central government has been tarnished. Yet, now more than ever, those in power must continue to uphold the constitution through legal and political means. Additionally, they must seek to open spaces for dialogue. It will be only through the sharing of ideas and finding political consensus that this crisis can be defused. If in fact, most of Catalonia wants independence due process must be followed to ensure a democratic outcome.  If the outcome is YES, both Spain and Catalonia should brace for impact.

Photo: Catalan Pride (2012), by Joseph Renalias. Licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.


  • NATO Association of Canada

    The NATO Association of Canada (NAOC) strives to educate and engage Canadians about NATO and its goals of peace, prosperity and security. The NAOC ensures Canada has an informed citizenry able to participate in discussions about its role on the world stage.

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NATO Association of Canada
The NATO Association of Canada (NAOC) strives to educate and engage Canadians about NATO and its goals of peace, prosperity and security. The NAOC ensures Canada has an informed citizenry able to participate in discussions about its role on the world stage.