Whatever the outcome of elections in Spain, the Catalans lose

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez attended a session of parliament in Madrid, Spain, on February 13. (Reuters/Sergio Perez)

Snap elections are likely in Spain after Catalan independence parties withdrew their support from Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s government on February 13. They backed the social democrat in June in order to unseat a right-wing government that had refused any concessions to the independence movement, but Sánchez was unwilling to meet the Catalans’ ultimate demand: a legal referendum on secession from Spain.

Toppling Sánchez may turn out to be a costly mistake.

The only combination of parties that currently has a majority in the polls without Catalan support is the right-wing People’s Party (PP), center-right Citizens, and far-right Vox. All three have argued for the suspension of Catalan autonomy.

Madrid suspended Catalonia’s self-government after the region held an independence referendum in 2017 that had been declared illegal by the Constitutional Court. It restored home rule just before Sánchez came to power.

Unlike his right-wing predecessor, Sánchez was willing to negotiate with the Catalans about transferring more money and power to the region. He even raised the possibility of a referendum—but about more autonomy, not independence.

For the Catalan separatists, who had asked for such negotiations for ten years, it was too little, too late. They may once have been content with a new tax settlement that kept more of their money in the region, but the intransigence of the long-ruling PP had radicalized the independence movement. For hardliners, nothing short of a independence will do.

The PP, and the Spanish right more generally, has also taken a harder line. Its new leader, Pablo Casado, has called Sánchez’s talks with the separatist government in Barcelona treasonous. The center-right Citizens, who are teaming up with French President Emmanuel Macron in the European elections in May, call Sánchez a “danger to Spain” and have been able to siphon off votes from the corruption-plagued PP. For right-wing voters who feel even that doesn’t go far enough, there is Vox, a new far-right party that calls for the termination of Catalan self-government altogether.

The three right-wing parties took over the regional government in Andalusia after elections in December. Vox hasn’t supplied any regional ministers and only supports the other two parties from parliament. But the prospect of the far right coming to power nationally could convince voters in the middle to back Sánchez instead.

On the other hand, the only way Sánchez could stay in power is with the support of Podemos, a far-left party that wants to leave NATO and nationalize Spanish industries. Expect the liberal Citizens to argue that only they can prevent Spain from veering to one extreme or the other. If they win enough support, they could either form a center-left government with the social democrats or a center-right government with the PP.

The Catalan separatists would lose either way. For the past seven months, they enjoyed unusual influence in Madrid. They could have leveraged their position to negotiate more autonomy, which would have satisfied the broad middle of Catalan society. Instead, they bet it all and lost. Whatever the outcome of the elections, the region’s conflict with Madrid can only get worse from here.

Nick Ottens is the founder and chief editor of the transatlantic opinion website Atlantic Sentinel. Follow him on Twitter @NickOttens.