So what comes next? The Spanish government’s first move was to dissolve the Catalan Parliament and call for a snap regional election on Dec. 21. Catalonia now faces three potential ways to redefine its relationship with Spain, and to find a longterm solution to the conflict.
Scenario 1: Spain centralizes power
When Spain’s incumbent Partido Popular announced it would take back control of the regional government, police, bureaucracy and public broadcasters, we learned that recentralization is a serious option for the first time in decades.
Will Spain’s legalistic approach succeed? That depends on why secessionism has increased so much in Catalonia. Spanish political elites believe that support is temporary and volatile. Yet 48 percent of the region voted for secessionist parties in the last regional election.
Madrid believes that sentiment doesn’t go deep. Rather, this theory goes, opportunistic Catalan elites mobilized popular discontent that was simmering because of the 2008 global economic crisis and corruption scandals affecting politicians linked to the central government and even the monarchy.
If that’s the situation, the best response would be to wait for sentiment to calm down and to crack down on the parties and associations that started the trouble by taking back control of their finances, imprisoning secessionist leaders and tying up elected officials in court.
In fact, officials in Madrid think that this strategy proved successful in containing Basque nationalism two decades ago. Rather than negotiating a political agreement, Madrid decided to illegalize Basque political parties allegedly linked with terrorism and to prosecute their leaders.
Despite the fact that Catalans have shown no violent behavior, the cost of physically repressing peaceful secessionist voters and incarcerating politicians and civic leaders seems to be minimal for the central government. Spanish public opinion agrees to a large extent with this strategy, and European Commission support for the Spanish government has been unequivocal.
But this approach could be dangerously misguided. Support for independence is high across the socioeconomic continuum, which makes it more difficult to contain or co-opt. There are also signs of generational replacement in favor of stable support for independence among young and middle-aged voters.
A legal crackdown could make the situation worse. Political science research has found that when a repressive state takes away citizens’ ability to choose their own government, those citizens’ sense of humiliation and grievance can entrench the conflict and even degenerate into violence.
Scenario 2: Further decentralization
A second option would be for Spain to decentralize even further. But that’s unlikely after this week’s events, for two reasons: Catalan distrust and lack of Spanish political support for real decentralization.
Research shows that decentralization does not necessarily appease secessionist tendencies if regional parties are already strong. Moreover, once a federal conflict has escalated to this point, secessionists tend to see decentralization as “too little, too late.”
Nor are many Catalans likely to trust such promises. In 2005, 89 percent of Catalonia’s parliament voted for a decentralization proposal that enabled Catalonia to collect taxes directly, and recognized Catalonia as a nation. Despite promises to the contrary, the Spanish socialist government at the time watered down the proposal in the Spanish Parliament.
Once the less ambitious new statute on Catalan autonomy was signed off and ratified in a popular referendum in 2006, Spain’s Conservative Party challenged the deal, leading the Constitutional Court to declare some principles of the law unconstitutional in 2010.
Those betrayals led many Catalans to believe Spain couldn’t be relied upon to decentralize — and many turned their hopes instead toward full independence. Such distrust means Catalonia’s independence movement doesn’t consider decentralization proposals credible.
And perhaps they have good reason for that belief. The most important step — and one that Catalans have been demanding for years — would require serious reforms in Spain’s system of fiscal management. While each region has a great deal of responsibility for managing public services such as health and education, regions have limited powers to raise and handle tax revenue.
Comparative research shows that this mismatch is correlated with deficits, inflation and poor economic performance. While other countries see this mismatch, Spain’s is more extreme. The imbalance between the services that Spanish regions have to manage and the tax revenue that they can actually handle on their own is 30 percent higher than states and regions in other decentralized countries such as Germany, Switzerland, the United States and Canada.
This mismatch is one of Catalonia’s grievances, giving regional elites credible reasons to blame the central government for failing to allocate resources better across regions.
But Spain is unlikely to propose such reforms. Only very deep political decentralization, in which regions can shape national policy, is effective to improve governance. Unfortunately, Spain scores relatively low in that kind of power, due to a powerless Senate and an electoral system that favors national majorities.
A more decentralized fiscal federal arrangement, a reform of the Senate and the electoral system are not in the agenda of any national party. The only decentralization formulas that are known to be effective for this kind of conflict are perhaps too deep to be realistic.
Scenario 3: Legal referendum
The imposition of direct rule and lack of international recognition make unilateral independence an unrealistic scenario. But Catalonia might continue to seek another option: a legally binding referendum, like Scotland in 2014 and Quebec in 1995. In a survey this year, 72 percent of Catalans supported this option.
Would Spain agree to recognize such a referendum? Doing so would require a radical change of attitude within the central government — and constitutional reform. A majority of Spanish citizens reject the idea of a referendum.
Holding an independence referendum would be extremely complicated and may only be possible with international mediation. All parties would have to debate and agree what would establish a valid outcome. Would the requirements include minimal turnout levels? Would a simple majority or a supermajority be required?
Of course, any such requirements would have pros and cons. A requirement for an unusually high level of turnout could prompt some factions to try to keep voters from the polls. Requiring only that the independence faction achieve a 60 percent majority — meaning that if 57 percent voted for independence, Catalonia would remain part of Spain — could exacerbate the feelings of grievance that led to the current crisis.
If none of the previous scenarios generates enough support in the upcoming regional elections, the last option for Catalonia will unfortunately be deadlock and social chaos. Allowing bloodshed in one of the wealthiest regions in 21st-century Europe would mean a dramatic political failure. To avoid that result, discussion of realistic ways forward needs to start before it is too late.
Sergi Pardos-Prado is associate professor in politics at Merton College at the University of Oxford. He tweets at @sergipardos.