MADRID — What a difference a half decade can make — at least in Catalonia.
On October 1, 2017, the region’s nationalists staged a referendum on secession, their boldest move since the return to democracy four decades earlier. The vote — and the massive demonstrations that led up to it — reflected the unity and single-mindedness of the independence movement.
But that drive for secession, known as el procés (“the process”), failed and over the past five years the region has been temporarily stripped of self-governing powers, many of its leaders have been imprisoned or become fugitives from justice and the independence cause has been subsumed by global events. Riven by infighting, Catalan separatism is in disarray, with proponents unable even to agree on how to go about achieving secession.
“Our institutions, political parties and organizations were all united [in 2017] and we had social mobilization — with those things all aligned we went a long way,” said Toni Comín, a former minister in the pro-independence Catalan government and now an MEP.
“But when our objectives and interests are so different,” he said, considering the situation now, “it makes unity very difficult.”
The nationalist front that promoted the 2017 referendum was led by the right-of-center Together for Catalonia (JxCat) governing in coalition with the Catalan Republican Left (ERC). With the support of the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), a small far-left party, they formed a narrow pro-independence majority in the Catalan parliament, supported by influential civic organizations.
With a conservative Spanish government in Madrid refusing to engage in talks on possible increased self-rule for Catalonia, the independence movement had a clear common enemy which it cast as legalistic and heavy-handed.
When the referendum took place, in defiance of government and court orders, that image was compounded as armed police stormed into several polling stations and baton-charged voters. Although turnout was only just over 40 percent, the result was overwhelmingly in favor of secession and the region’s parliament issued a declaration of independence four weeks after the referendum.
That was where el procés started to fall apart.
After the vote
“There was a plan which had been meticulously prepared up until [the referendum], but beyond that nobody had really thought about what exactly the next step was,” wrote Lola García, a journalist and author of a book about the failed independence bid.
Within minutes of the independence declaration, the Spanish government introduced direct rule in Catalonia. Several politicians were arrested, nine of them eventually receiving lengthy prison sentences for crimes that included sedition, while others, including the then-president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, fled abroad.
Following the introduction of direct rule, then-president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, fled abroad | Olivier Hoslet/EPA-EFE
ERC and JxCat are still governing Catalonia, but clashing strategies over the secession issue recently threatened to cause their coalition to collapse.
ERC’s Pere Aragonès, who is the current regional president, is pursuing a gradualist approach, which he says is comparable to that of the Scottish National Party (SNP), with the ultimate aim of holding a legally sanctioned independence referendum. To that end, his party has provided parliamentary support to Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez of the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), in exchange for a series of negotiations on Catalonia’s future.
Speaking on the sidelines of the U.N. summit in New York, Aragonès told POLITICO that his government’s relationship with the Spanish prime minister is “a mix of conflict and cooperation.”
He added that “now we are in a negotiation with the Spanish government, we have to push, push, push them to propose a democratic solution. Our democratic solution is a referendum so we will insist on that.”
In the Catalan parliament this week, Aragonès reiterated his determination to pursue this route, saying that “only the legitimacy of a negotiated referendum can substitute October 1.”
That negotiation has been notoriously slow, in large part due to COVID-19 and the Spanish electoral calendar, although many in Catalonia believe that Sánchez, unwilling to be seen to be granting too many concessions to nationalists, has deliberately dragged his feet.
“I understand people in Catalonia who have seen the Spanish government in the last years making a lot of promises and then not doing anything,” Aragonès said of the talks. “So I understand that people are skeptical, but my responsibility is to find solutions.”
He added: “We have learned from the experience of 2017 that the Spanish state is ready to repress Catalan people, so knowing that, we have to be stronger in terms of a social majority.”
The most obvious concrete gain Aragonès can cite from his willingness to engage with Madrid are pardons the Spanish government granted to the nine jailed independence leaders in June 2021, despite opposition from conservatives and some within Sánchez’s PSOE.
Also, the Sánchez government has been tacitly supportive of Catalonia’s linguistic “total immersion” system in schools, meaning, in theory, that the regional language is used to the exclusion of Spanish, a policy that infuriates many unionists in Madrid. Meanwhile, the Spanish government has issued rather vague pledges to continue talking, while ruling out ever sanctioning a referendum on independence.
“We need to find alternatives, different solutions to solve this crisis,” Sánchez told POLITICO, adding that this would “take more than a year or two.”
His government believes that its willingness to engage with the Catalan administration has contributed significantly to the reduced tensions surrounding the territorial issue and shifted attention away from hard-liners.
“We need to find alternatives, different solutions to solve this crisis,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez told POLITICO | Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images
“This is a government which is not hostile to the independence movement,” said one person in the Spanish administration. “The independence movement knows that this is its best chance of reaching an agreement with Madrid.”
But problems in the Barcelona-Madrid relationship have been all too visible. A surveillance scandal earlier this year revealed that Aragonès and other Catalan leaders had been spied on by the intelligence services, apparently as recently as 2019. Meanwhile, a breakdown of the Catalan local rail service in early September revived long-standing complaints that Spain underfunds the region’s infrastructure.
Aragonès’ coalition partner, JxCat, casts the government of Sánchez, which first took office in 2018, as merely a continuation of the inflexible conservatives who came before. Puigdemont, who until June was still leader of JxCat from his self-imposed exile in Belgium, has encouraged the party to take a strident line that harks back to the unilateralism of 2017.
“Without confrontation there will be no independence because the Spanish state is not prepared to allow independence via the negotiated route,” said MEP Comín, who has been based in Belgium for the last five years, attempting to thwart the Spanish judiciary’s efforts to extradite him.
Comín is vice president of the Puigdemont-led Consell per la República Catalana (Council for the Catalan Republic), a Waterloo-based entity close to JxCat and supported by pro-independence hard-liners whose aim is to “make effective the mandate of October 1  from exile and within.”
By contrast, Comín said with disdain, the priority of Aragonès and ERC “is not independence, it’s to manage the Catalan government within the [existing] regional system.”
“The question,” he added, “is which battle do we fight? The one against the Spanish state or the one between pro-independence parties?”
This week the feuding boiled over into a full-blown crisis in the Catalan governing coalition. Aragonès sacked his vice president, Jordi Puigneró of JxCat, which had called for a motion of confidence to be held against him. JxCat now plans to ask its members to vote on whether it should remain in the coalition. If it decides to leave it could force ERC to seek parliamentary partners beyond the independence camp.
The discontent is not confined to JxCat and its political allies. The Catalan National Assembly (ANC), the civic organization that played a key role in pushing nationalist politicians toward their declaration of independence five years ago, continues to call for a drastic strategy.
“It looks as if the politicians are trying to escape the pressure,” said ANC President Dolors Feliu. “We’ll see what happens because the pressure of the street, the pressure of voters and the social pressure makes us think that people clearly have the idea that they want to achieve independence — they haven’t dropped it — and so we think that the politicians should respond to this.”
That social pressure was once again on display at the September 11 Diada — or Catalan national day celebrations — which has become an annual show of force by pro-independence Catalans. However, this year turnout was smaller than before the pandemic and the event highlighted divisions within the movement, with many of those present booing ERC politicians for their dialogue-based approach.
Marta Vilalta, one of the targets of the boos, hit back by saying “while you shout, those of us in ERC will work to lead this country to freedom.”
Pere Aragonès, who is the current regional president, is pursuing a gradualist approach | Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images
The ANC is even more impatient than Puigdemont’s hard-liners to push ahead with secession. It wants the next Catalan election, due in 2025, to be used as a plebiscite on the implementation of the result of the 2017 referendum. But the organization has lost influence and the signs are that there is little appetite for such radical action in broader Catalan society.
Support for independence has dipped to 41 percent in favor, down from 49 percent five years ago, according to the latest figures from the Catalan government’s statistics institute.
Meanwhile, only 11 percent of respondents supported a unilateral route to independence. Voter intention also seems to endorse the policy of engagement, with the Catalan wing of Sánchez’s Socialists leading polls, followed by ERC, which maintains a lead over JxCat.
“The independence movement is weaker than in 2017 and the Spanish state is stronger,” said Francesc-Marc Álvaro, an author and columnist at La Vanguardia newspaper. “The independence cause still has a large amount of social support but it hasn’t grown and the independence leaders are in a weak position. We’re at checkmate.”
That situation shows little sign of changing at least until the next Spanish general election, scheduled for late 2023, when the conservative Popular Party (PP), with its more aggressive brand of unionism, hopes to unseat Sánchez and take a much tougher approach to the Catalan question.
Emma Anderson contributed reporting from New York.