Andrew Dowling – The ongoing crisis in Catalan Independence

Andrew Dowling sees a rising leftist influence in the Catalan independence movement, seeking a wider popular basis in Catalonia for independence and progressive policies.

Andrew Dowling, Senior Lecturer in Catalan and Spanish History at Cardiff Univeristy. He is the author of ‘The Rise of Catalan Independence. Spain’s Territorial Crisis’ (Routledge)


The reverberations from the failed attempt at secession in October 2017 by the movement for Catalan independence continue to play out.  The movement is ruptured internally, and split both strategically and ideologically.  Part of this rupture is a divergence of analytical approaches as to why the independence movement so dramatically failed in the autumn of 2017. A further component is the intense competition between the two major pro-independence parties. Finally, there is the diminishing credibility of Carles Puigdemont, the former President of the Catalan regional government, now in exile in Belgium.

A torrent of new studies on the events of September and October 2017 now give us the opportunity to more accurately assess the dramatic failure of Catalan independence to achieve any of its goals. We now know that the movement had no real strategy for independence and continued with its push, desperate for European intervention to force Madrid to the negotiating table. The rivalry between the centre left Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia), ERC and the ever-changing names of the mainstream centre-right nationalist force once known as Convergència prevented public recognition that the independence push was simply a bluff.  However, whilst the mainstream political representation of Catalan independence was bluffing, the Spanish state was not. The Catalan parties and their leadership had not anticipated that they would end up being charged on a range of counts, including rebellion, and many leading figures imprisoned. We now know that after the declaration of independence on 27 October 2017, Carles Puigdemont called on his cabinet to attend their ministries on the following Monday, 30 October. Yet Puigdemont himself had already decided to flee to Belgium, without even informing his cabinet.  Thus within 24 hours of what simply became a symbolic declaration of independence, Puigdemont had departed. Puigdemont’s principal political rival and leader of ERC, Oriol Junqueras, was imprisoned on remand soon by the Spanish authorities, together with other Catalan civic and political leaders. Due to these events and the unknown backstory, Puigdemont for a time came to embody the Catalan independence struggle, both internally and internationally.

These new details have only emerged in recent months and increasingly Oriol Junqueras, now imprisoned for almost a year, has attained ever greater moral leadership, whilst that of Puigdemont is rapidly eroding.  Significantly, Junqueras and ERC have interpreted the failure of October 2017 quite differently to the ultra-nationalists and rightists loyal to Puigdemont.  ERC has been pro-independence since the late 1980s and now argues that it is essential for Catalan independence to obtain more support than the 47% it has received in two elections, in September 2015 and December 2017. The goal of independence remains central to its narrative but so is the belief that independence can only be achieved by a super-majority of Catalans, in the absence of international support and with Spain unwilling to countenance secession.

Puigdemont represents the ultra-nationalist line, now supported by a party that was once on the political left, the CUP and, the main civic organisation the ANC, as well as the shock troops of the street, known as the CDR. This ultra-nationalist alliance of hard rightists and (supposed) leftists believes that independence can only be achieved by disobedience and rebellion. Furthermore, the fact that at least half of Catalan society is opposed to independence for reasons of origin, class position and language use, is largely seen as irrelevant. Independence is seen as being for true Catalans. This strange mixture of street agitation, radical leftism and nationalist ultras has increasingly fused into a hard-right populist independence and is particularly hostile to Junqueras and ERC. This populist movement promised rebellion in the form of both a Catalan Spring and a Catalan Autumn. However, the former came and went without incident and the Autumn ‘revolt’ has yet to appear.

For most of the past year, populist independence has been in the ascendant with ERC struggling to construct a narrative of the necessity of greater popular support. Oriol Junqueras, much less visible than Puigdemont, struggled to craft a persona from prison. This has now changed and Junqueras will stand as candidate and head of the party list for the European elections for May 2019. As the moral credibility and integrity of Junqueras has risen, that of Puigdemont has crashed. As well as the revelations of him abandoning his cabinet to its fate, Puigdemont has been desperate to assert his leadership of the whole independence movement. Thus in May 2018, he chose as his representative as President of Catalonia, Quim Torra, a figure with no political experience and highly dubious past as nationalist rabble rouser. Simply put, Torra has been a disaster. His ethnicist nationalism has damaged the international credibility of the Catalan independence movement, has ensured that support for independence cannot grow and his own amateurish leadership has often been excruciating to watch. Torra is Puigdemont’s creature and the failures of Torra have greatly eroded Puigdemont.

Puigdemont’s dream of imposing his leadership across the Catalan independence movement, sometimes called the SNP strategy, has imploded. ERC and Junqueras have now emerged with greater confidence and Puigdemont/Torra veer erratically from one bad decision to another. The strategy of Puigdemont/Torra and their ultra-nationalist populism has been a gift to the socialist government in Madrid. Enormous international sympathy and attention in the autumn of 2017 for Catalan independence has been eroded and external pressure on the Madrid government to address the issue has receded. Catalan independence is now at a crossroads. The battle lines are now clear between a progressive movement attuned to the social reality of Catalonia, represented by Junqueras and ERC. Or the populist fanaticism represented by Torra/Puigdemont and their unholy alliance. It should be abundantly clear where the European left should situate itself in this internal struggle for the soul of the Catalan independence movement.

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