How Spain Misunderstood the Catalan Independence Movement

Rather than resisting the vote, it could have supported it and demonstrated its faith in democracy.

Spanish Civil Guards stand next to their patrol car which was damaged by protesters outside the Catalan region's economy ministry building during a raid by Spanish police on government offices, in Barcelona, Spain, early September 21, 2017.  (Jon Nazca / Reuters)

Today, millions of citizens of the Spanish region of Catalonia hope to vote in a referendum to declare their independence. Many Catalans feel that they are, historically, a separate people with their own distinct language and culture that must be protected through the restoration of their own nation.

But Spain’s government is vehemently opposed to such a referendum even taking place. The country’s constitutional court has declared the referendum illegal, and the national police have arrested 14 senior Catalan officials and confiscated millions of ballot papers. Judges have ordered the police to seize any building or materials related to the referendum to ensure that a vote does not take place. These actions have prompted mass protests, and Spain’s Interior Ministry has deployed thousands of extra police to the region ahead of what it expects to turn into a violent day.

As researchers at Artis International, an organization of academics and practitioners that conducts field-based research on political conflicts around the world, we sought to study the underlying psychology of the Catalan independence movement to better understand what could strengthen or weaken it. Our study consisted of 24 in-depth ethnographic interviews with leaders of the “independentist” movement, and several dozen more with supporters and non-supporters of independence. In addition, we conducted 68 longitudinal psychometric surveys with independence activists during a non-binding—and thus symbolic—referendum held in 2014 that was not recognized as legitimate by Spain.

The actions of the Spanish government reveal a deep misunderstanding about the psychology of the independence movement. Authorities are attempting to wear down the movement by denying a vote. Our findings suggested that Madrid’s current approach may well backfire: The government’s muscular response to Catalans’ desire for self-determination could increase the number of independentists and heighten their passion, which, in the long run, may further erode the stability and reputation of Spain’s central government. Allowing a vote to proceed, meanwhile, could actually strengthen Madrid.

The current strain of the Catalan independence movement began under the rule of fascist dictator Francisco Franco, who took over Spain in 1939. Under Franco, the public use of the Catalan language was banned, and all specifically Catalan institutions, such as the Government of Catalonia, were abolished as part of an attempt to end regionalism in Spain. Shortly after Franco’s death in 1975, the government reinstated Catalonia’s status as an autonomous community within Spain. But a small minority of activists still wanted full independence.

The share of those favoring independence began to rise steeply in 2010, from 25 percent to its peak of 57 percent in 2012. The first reason for this rise was likely the 2008 economic crisis. Using government data from 2005 to 2016, we found a very high correlation between support for independence and unemployment in Catalonia. The second reason for this rise was public outrage at the 2010 constitutional court’s cutting down of reforms aimed at increasing sovereignty in Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy, its equivalent of a constitution. Both events led many to feel that Catalonia would be better off under self rule. Since then, Madrid has been adamantly opposed to an independence referendum, arguing that it is illegal according to the 1978 Spanish constitution (which mentions the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation”).

Since then, the Catalan independence movement has been building. It is driven by strong personal identification with Catalan culture and what social psychologists call sacred values: moral values of the highest significance that, in some cases, people would give their lives for.

According to our research, the top two sacred values motivating the Catalan movement were the right to vote for independence and the protection of Catalan identity. In studies of conflicts around the world, our colleagues have found that threats to sacred values and identities often lead to increased activism and, sometimes, violence. The denial of a vote is a threat to these values and identity and, most likely, will only further fuel the independence movement. Until recently, many supporters of the referendum have been undecided on the question of independence. However, the denial of the vote by Madrid has outraged some, turning them into pro-independence activists.

Denying Catalans their vote may only increase the sense of distrust towards Madrid from Spain’s other regions, such as Galicia and Basque country, both of which have had their own independence movements of varying degrees of popularity. Many Spaniards do not have confidence in the country's democratic institutions. For example, the People’s Party, the current ruling party, has been implicated in 65 cases of corruption. President Mariano Rajoy has stood by many of those involved, causing many to question their government’s interest in the public good.

A study conducted by our colleagues at Artis International found that only 23 percent of Spaniards regarded democracy as a sacred value. In interviews  with ordinary Spaniards in different regions, we found that one explanation commonly offered for this low belief in democracy was the perceived unresponsiveness of the central government towards the needs of its citizens. The lack of jobs for ordinary citizens was seen as especially unjust when compared to the embezzlement allegations against senior government officials. “We can hardly support our families, and [government officials] steal millions from us. They don’t care about our families, they only care about holding onto power. That’s Spanish democracy,” one young man in the Basque city of Bilbao said.

The Spanish government would have been more likely to achieve its goals of national unity by allowing a vote in Catalonia in which it demanded that more options appeared on the ballot. Such options would have included the choice of remaining an autonomous community but with greater sovereignty, or becoming a federal state. However, the current choice is a binary one—to either be for or against independence, with the “fors” as the loudest voices. According to Catalan government data from July, 41 percent support independence when it is presented as a binary; when presented with those other options, support for total independence drops to 35 percent. Allowing additional choices would achieve two things: it would offer diverse options that represent the spectrum of voter attitudes, and lower the support for total independence.

What the Spanish government has failed to understand: Even a no vote in the referendum will tame the independentists. Our longitudinal surveys of independence activists before, during, and after a symbolic vote for independence held in November 2014, for example, showed that voting has a cathartic effect. We found that the strength of Catalan identity expressed by independence activists decreased after the vote. Using a psychometric tool known as identity fusion, activists can indicate on a survey how much their sense of self is defined by being Catalan. Before the vote, 75 percent of activists felt “fused” with Catalonia; after the vote, the number dropped to almost 50 percent.

Catalans’ willingness to make sacrifices in defense of their values also decreased. These sacrifices were assessed on a series of scales ranging from “willingness to lose one’s job” to “willingness to lose one’s life.” Before the vote, activists were, on average, willing to be imprisoned to protect Catalan culture via independence; after the vote, they were barely willing to risk their jobs for the same cause. In fact, the more engaged the activists were, the less willing they were to continue sacrificing for independence after the symbolic vote. At the same time, the perception of the strength of Catalonia increased while Spain was seen as weaker. Taken together, though carrying no practical effect, the vote reduced the passion of the independentists while allowing their sense of dignity to increase.

Madrid’s strategy of denying a referendum will not cool the independence movement. Its obstinance will backfire, inflaming the passions of some Catalans and further maligning the undemocratic image of the central government in the eyes of other Spaniards. Conversely, allowing a vote with multiple options could have driven down support for total independence and had a cathartic effect on the most passionate of independence activists, even if they lost. Allowing an official referendum will work in the favor of the central government and lead to more unity, not less. Unfortunately, Madrid has chosen the path of greatest resistance.