25th Feb 2024


The political spillover of Spain’s unresolved Catalan question

  • Spain's municipal elections in May will provide a telling litmus test of the political climate ahead of the parliamentary vote in December (Photo: Roser Vilallonga/
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As Europe ushers in 2023, attention will soon turn to the most pivotal known unknowns of the year ahead. Spain, which will hold national parliamentary elections in December, is worth watching closely.

In the European Union's fourth-largest country, the unresolved question of Catalan independence continues to drive political debate—despite its relative simmering since the explosive crisis of several years ago—and will be a major factor ahead of the elections.

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Worryingly, there is a high probability that December's contest will only further entrench the pernicious influence of the Catalan issue on both Spanish and EU politics.

The current relationship between Catalonia and the Spanish government was immeasurably shaped by the unsanctioned 2017 independence referendum.

The movement that fuelled the referendum arose from years of perceived injustice committed by Madrid, including the overhaul of the region's 2006 Statute of Autonomy and continued clashes over taxation policy and Catalan linguistic rights.

Over 90 percent of voters supported independence at the polls, though low turnout of around 43 percent cast doubt on claims of an overwhelming victory.

In response, former prime minister Mariano Rajoy temporarily stripped Catalonia of its autonomous powers and dissolved the regional parliament.

Tensions remained high through 2019, when violence broke out on the streets of Barcelona as nine of the referendum's organisers faced charges of sedition and misuse of public funds, risking up to 13 years in prison.

Although support for independence within Catalonia has since dwindled, the Catalan question continues to dominate Spanish politics.

While a Madrid-sanctioned referendum remains unlikely, the conciliatory approach adopted by Catalan president Pere Aragonès and prime minister Pedro Sánchez has opened a new window for negotiations and concessions to the Catalan cause.

In June 2021, Sánchez pardoned the nine Catalan politicians charged with sedition.

This past December, the government went further by eliminating the sedition law from the country's penal code, fulfilling a key request by Catalan leaders.

Despite these overtures, revelations of the government's use of spyware on Catalan politicians, political infighting within the separatist movement, and a perception of anti-Catalan judicial interference have prevented tensions between Madrid and Barcelona from fully subsiding.

As the general election approaches, parties across the political spectrum will undoubtedly highlight these developments in attempts to garner support. Since Alberto Núñez Feijóo became leader of the Popular Party last May, the conservative opposition party has consistently held a lead in polls.

But with a year of campaigning ahead, the race is tightening. In an effort to call Sánchez's national loyalty into question, Feijóo has criticised the government's recent reforms and approach to Catalonia.

Similarly, far-right party Vox hopes that the government's efforts to work with Aragonès will backfire ahead of election day. Meanwhile, the Socialists (PSOE) and their allies—including the Catalan parties whose support is needed to govern—are billing decreased tensions with Catalonia as a success, making this record a selling-point with voters.

The continued political precedence of the unresolved Catalan question is taking its toll on Spain. The polarised stances of Spain's major parties have driven fragmentation and deadlock, with the stalled appointments to the General Council of the Judiciary cited as a primary factor behind the Economist Intelligence Unit's recent downgrade of Spain to a "flawed democracy."

This dysfunction has evidently rubbed off on Spaniards, 68 percent of whom professed dissatisfaction with democracy in a recent survey of 19 advanced economies—the highest figure of all countries polled. The situation could deteriorate further if Feijóo's ploy to drum up support by inflaming the Catalan conflict pays off, with recent events suggesting the PP may seek to form a coalition with the far-right.

Such a scenario would carry risks not only for Spain but for the European Union. A Spanish government including Vox would add to the recent EU trend that has seen the far-right come to power in both Italy and Sweden, strengthening illiberal opposition to deeper cooperation on urgent issues such as migration. Moreover, Feijoo's likely return to the hardline approach taken by Rajoy could throw a wrench in the European Union's recently revitalized enlargement agenda.

The parallels between Catalonia and Kosovo, whose independence Spain still does not recognize, threaten undermining the EU's credibility in its ongoing efforts to broker a deal between Pristina and Belgrade that is needed for the Western Balkans' full integration into the bloc.

Much will depend on how the next several months play out. Spain's municipal elections in May will provide a telling litmus test of the political climate ahead of the parliamentary main event.

If the right is in fact poised for victory, time may be running out for any more meaningful negotiations between Madrid and Barcelona. Yet forging a clear path forward is essential—leaving the Catalan question open-ended any longer will only continue to poison the politics of Spain and Europe more broadly.

Author bio

Nicholas Lokker is a researcher in the Transatlantic Security program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and Michael Angeloni, also of the CNAS.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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