Catalonia and Spain: Options for the Future

In a final, extended blog, Josep Valles considers the option for the future relationship between Catalonia and the Kingdom of Spain in the build up to September’s election. 
So far in this series, we have considered how a long and rather fruitless search for a stable territorial model between Catalonia and Spain has been compounded more recently by a collapse in confidence in almost all Spanish political institutions combined with a changing understanding of the political-territorial scale resulting from globalisation, among other factors. The result of these pressures has been the creation of two conflicting majorities, one in Catalonia, the other in Spain. The former sees greater autonomy as a solution to the crisis of legitimacy and the latter sees it as the cause. 
These antagonistic majorities have been embodied by political parties in both the Spanish and the Catalan Parliaments, giving support for or standing against the initiatives to revise the present territorial model. Part of the discussion has focused on the possibility of holding in Catalonia a referendum about its presumed right to self-determination. The ensuing stalemate has contributed to the rising support for an independence as an option in Catalonia . On the Spanish side, by contrast, the signs of a reformist attitude appear to be rather scarce and the strong assertion of an “indissoluble Spanish national unity”, enshrined in the Constitution, is taken by a social and political majority as an inviolable absolute.
Up until now, neither side has shown the capacity to persuade the other to change course or to move towards a middle ground where consensus or compromise might be built. The question now is whether such a long-lasting disagreement is socially and politically tolerable without inflicting irreparable harm on the legitimacy of the whole political system. If it is not, efforts to explore alternative territorial models need to be intensified. For the purposes of any future negotiations, there would appear to be a spectrum of five broad approaches that might be considered.

1) A steady re-centralization of the existing system. 

This seems to be the option preferred by the conservative Partido Popular (PP) government, insofar as can be deduced from its decisions on several policy areas: fiscal, financial, educational, labour, environmental, local government, etc. This approach would meet the aspirations of a large part of Spanish opinion, including the governments and populations of some regions that would prefer a reduction of their own level of self-government. But it would clearly go against any chance of persuading the Catalan majority to lessen the intensity of its aspirations.

2) A gradual increase in the degree of territorial decentralization but without altering the present system’s basic principles. 

Based on the failed attempt to reform the Catalan Statute undertaken by the Catalan parties, it can be deduced that a moderate expansion of decentralization but without changes in the basic model of that relationship would hardly respond to the aspirations of the Catalan majority. 

3) The creation of a federal system. 

The term ‘federal’ is assigned to a variety of political experiences in a wide range of existing federations. Therefore, the feasibility of this option would depend on its specific features, which have not been provided by its promoters - mainly the Spanish socialists (PSOE). However, any introduction of a federal model in Spain might be hindered by two factors. First, the pluralist nature of a federal model seems hard to reconcile with Spanish political culture, which is based on the strong centralist tradition of both its parties and bureaucratic elites. A second problem arises from the need to combine the homogenizing tendency of federalism with the fact that the Catalan majority - along with Navarra and the Basque Country - has been asking for a clear acknowledgement of its national identity with all its symbolic, political and economic needs and attributes.

4) The extension to Catalonia of the "Navarre model". 

The constitutional relationship existing between the Spanish State and the Navarre Community - based on its so-called “historical rights” - comes close to some sort of “stealth confederalism”. I speak of “stealth confederalism” because this rather exceptional regime seems to pass unnoticed by staunch Spanish defenders of an only “one nation-state” interpretation of the 1978 Constitution. Nevertheless, the special relationship between the State and the Navarre Community seems to satisfy both parties in all respects: symbolic, political and financial. Transferring this model to the Catalonia-Spain relationship has recently been suggested as a way out of the current impasse, if and when an appropriate negotiation were to be undertaken. 

5) A separation between Catalonia and Spain. 

Among those in Catalonia who express a desire for change from the status quo, support for independence has recently increased as a reaction to the failure of the reformist approach that had previously been the most widely accepted. However, the demand for an independence referendum – following on from the Canadian and Scottish experiences - has been repeatedly answered with a blunt refusal by the Spanish Government and the Spanish Constitutional Court, excluding, as a result, a negotiated secession process. In response, those Catalan parties that support independence have adopted an alternative strategy: calling for a Parliamentary election to be considered a substitute for a referendum. Were these parties to win the election and obtain a majority, then they would submit to the Parliament a unilateral declaration of independence. Its approval would immediately bring about a rough and uncertain struggle between this hypothetical Catalan majority and the Spanish State that would appeal to all kind of legal, economic and coercive resources. 
Conditions for a negotiated settlement have become more unfavourable since the main actors in both the Spanish and the Catalan side – represented by their respective governments - have taken a harder line; either defending the status quo or opting for secession. Only replacing these actors would offer some room for negotiations, which neither side seems to have considered seriously in the last few years. 
The 2015 elections in Catalonia (September) and in Spain (December) could bring about such a change and offer negotiations a fresh chance. It is hard to foresee which of the options mentioned above could be the starting point for such negotiation. Either way, nobody should expect an easy and swift outcome. Even in the most propitious conditions such a deep and protracted conflict would require patience, political wisdom and leadership in order to make acceptable the costs – both immediate and symbolic - of any transaction. Whether the present Spanish political system would be able to manage this process successfully on its own is also not clear. Some sort of external cooperation – maybe via the informal involvement of some other countries or international organisations beyond just the institutions of the EU – should not be ignored when considering the broader context that makes this issue something more than just a local problem.

A selected bibliography is available by clicking on this link.

Comments policy

All comments posted on the site via Disqus are automatically published. Additionally comments are sent to moderators for checking and removal if necessary. We encourage open debate and real time commenting on the website. The Centre on Constitutional Change cannot be held responsible for any content posted by users. Any complaints about comments on the site should be sent to

Josep Valles's picture
post by Josep Valles
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB Barcelona)
22nd August 2015

Latest blogs

  • 16th October 2018

    Bavaria’s long-dominant party, the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), has reached its worst election result in 60 years. As well as causing a headache for Angela Merkel, argues Patrick Utz, this political earthquake reveals Bavaria’s predicament between regionalism and populism,.

  • 15th October 2018

    As the buildup to the EU Council meeting reaches fever pitch, Richard Parry explains that deals at dawn may work in Brussels but they don't always play to the home crowd.

  • 13th October 2018

    Theresa May’s efforts to keep her DUP allies onside may, suggests Prof Nicola McEwen, end up easing Nicola Sturgeon’s path to independence following any subsequent referendum on the subject.

  • 12th October 2018

    The Commission on Justice in Wales, chaired by Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, will further clarify the legal and political identity of Wales within the UK constitution. Doing so, explains Prof Dan Wincott, will also bring clarity to the enduring significance of other territorial legal jurisdictions.

  • 11th October 2018

    The Brexit and Environment network has spent the last year researching the implications of Brexit for environmental policy, with a particular focus on the devolved nations, which are all too often overlooked in these debates. They have developed three reports that detail their findings from meetings with stakeholders in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and they bring together insights from these in an overarching UK report. In this blog post, they summarise their key findings and recommendations.

Read More Posts