What the Spanish Far-Right Is Getting Wrong About the Catalan Crisis



Tensions have risen as Spanish voters have failed to understand the Catalan Crisis.


For some time, the absence of a far-right party was a source of pride in Spain — until a week ago. On Nov. 10, the international community saw with great horror how the Spanish far-right party Vox became the third most voted-for party in Spain, going from zero parliamentary seats a year ago to 52 representatives. 

The phenomenon of Vox is part of a global trend that countries like the U.S. itself are also experiencing. This new political trend is characterized by far-right parties and authoritarian individuals gaining popularity through populist speeches that appeal to the protection of the nation against the perceived threat of immigration, foreign powers and liberal movements.

Despite being the typical anti-immigration, EU-sceptic and anti-feminist far-right party, Vox’s agenda is somewhat different from that of other far-right parties. Vox is, first and foremost, defined by strongly advocating for the recentralization of Spain as a response to Catalan nationalism. According to their views, the only way to solve the Catalan crisis once and for all is to take away all the political power that the Catalan government held since the approval of the Spanish Constitution in 1978. 

I refuse to think that the more than 3.6 million Spaniards who voted for Vox last Sunday were all racist, homophobic and sexist, even though some of their social media activity and public statements indicate otherwise. What is clear is that all of them think of the Catalan crisis as an identity issue that is impossible to solve through dialogue and negotiation. 

The tragedy is that while these 3.6 million people think they are solving the problem and ensuring the territorial unity of Spain, they are actually deepening the breach between Spain and Catalonia at the same time they perpetuate the crisis. And, what’s more, they give wings to a party that is outspokenly advocating for cutting civil and social rights, which puts all Spaniards’ rights in danger. Vox’s emergence also questions how well informed people outside of Catalonia are of the Catalan reality.

It seems that we have far too often allowed the identity narrative to get in the way of a coherent, historically grounded argument about the actual roots of the Catalan crisis. Yes, Catalonia and Spain may exhibit the ugly face of identity politics, but this is not by any means the full measure of what is happening in the Iberian peninsula. The popular explanation of the “Balkanization,” or identity-based fragmentation preached by the media, political parties and even experts has simplified the question and has, consciously or not, diverted the public’s attention from the real cause, which is the territorial balance of civil, economic and political power in Spain.

The Catalan crisis began when the Spanish central government denied greater political power to Catalonia. It was only when the Constitutional Court of Spain modified the new Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia proposed by the Catalan Parliament that the question of independence came to the table. Thus, we are in front of a political issue whose roots lie in the division of power redacted in the Constitution of 1978.

Spain’s historic nations like the Basque Country and Catalonia have been uncomfortable with Spain’s political structure and power division for some decades now, similar to the place of Scotland in the UK. The Spanish so-called “Transition” toward democracy that started in 1978 promised to break away from the repressing centralization carried out by Francisco Franco’s fascist dictatorship and give some power of self-management to these unique regions. However, sectors of the Catalan and Basque society feel that the 1978 project towards democracy has become a Castilian enterprise that has striven for the assimilation of these territories into a centralizing political model. In other words, there is the feeling that Madrid has striven for holding all the political power at the expense of Catalonia and the Basque Country, which are seen as the Periphery. Centralizing the power in the capital and reducing the self-management power of these regions is harmful to all actors, but especially to Madrid, as it has lost legitimacy in front of those Basques and Catalans who resent their unequal status and treatment. 

The problem with this model is that it disregards the cultural diversity of Spain and the unique characteristics of Catalonia and the Basque Country. These two regions have their own distinct history which stretches back to the early Middle Ages. They both constitute stateless nations with their own linguistic and cultural identities that coexist along with the Spanish language and culture. As a result, many Catalans and Basques are bilingual and may identify themselves with their Catalan or Basque culture along with the Spanish culture. 

Nowadays, these historical and cultural differences take the form of strong national identities as evidenced by the contrast between both region’s socio political realities and those in the rest of Spain. The most obvious example of these distinct realities was evident when on Nov. 10 Vox only won 2 seats out of 48 possible in Catalonia and 0 seats out of 18 in the Basque Country. Meanwhile, in the rest of Spain, Vox achieved its best result in a general election of its history, winning 28 more seats than in the past election that took place last April.

The Catalan conflict is striking at the belly of the beast. The political turmoil around Catalonia is evidencing that Spain’s current political division is dysfunctional and damages Spain’s economy and international reputation at the same time it threatens its territorial integrity. Madrid’s biggest mistake in the past few decades has been to try to treat all its regions equally, applying a centralist vision that undermines the economic capacity of one of its richest and more dynamic regions at the same time it ignores its plurinationality. 

The Catalan crisis might inevitably lead to a reconfiguration of power through which Spain is redefined based on its plurinational nature. The question is whether Madrid can come up with a way to accommodate and empower its diverse nations before Catalonia decides to ride freely. In this sense, any political answer to the Catalan question that only touches on the identity factor will inevitably fail, as it has done for a decade. 

All those Spaniards who last Sunday thought they were administering the right medicine to Catalonia by voting Vox completely misinterpreted the diagnosis of the Catalan crisis. I am afraid the cure may become worse than the disease.