Catalonia and the Problem of Identity Politics

Leaders can harvest great rewards by appealing to narrow identities, but only at the expense of long-term stability.

The 1 October Catalan referendum on independence was a trap for Madrid. Spain’s political leaders were bound to be criticised whether they ignored the vote or tried to stop it. Shunting responsibility for dealing with the crisis onto the courts and the police was no way out. The voters in Catalonia know that. Now the Spanish government will be held to account. Political leaders everywhere should pay attention.

Let us start with the story of Catalonia. For a while now, the polls have shown that opinion in the region is evenly split.1 Many Catalans feel fervently about the cause of independence; many are less enthusiastic. The pro-independence movement has shown itself repeatedly in recent months to be anything but coherent. Such divisions offer less-than-fertile ground for a secessionist movement: independence creates too much space for uncertainty, which means that the inertia favours the status quo.

The challenge for supporters of Catalan independence was twofold. Firstly, they needed to build up the institutions they would need to govern an independent state. They have been working on that, more or less quietly, over the past 18 months. At the same time, they have been setting out the protocols that would be necessary to establish autonomous control. This work has not been secret: everyone watching the situation has known what the Catalan leadership is doing. But institution building of that sort is both technical and boring, and so it was hard for Madrid to turn this activity into a scandal sufficient to warrant open conflict with Barcelona.

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Erik Jones is Professor of European Studies and Director of European and Eurasian Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University; Senior Research Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford; and a Contributing Editor to Survival.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

December 2017–January 2018

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