Today, we publish in full the speech given by Catalan economist and politician Clara Ponsati to Westminster’s All-Party Parliamentary Group for Catalonia...

OVER the years, I have spent a lot of energy explaining why Catalonia should be independent. But today, I will address the opposite question: “How come Catalonia is not independent yet?”

Ever since the Spanish Constitutional Court dismissed the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia in 2010, Catalans have been ruled by laws we did not consent to. That year was the inflextion point; when the popular movement for Catalan independence boosted.

With millions on the streets year after year, this robust grassroots movement became a serious political challenge that Catalonian political parties could not ignore. They had to react, and they incorporated independence into their electoral platforms. In hindsight, this was probably fueled by opportunism.

In 2015, the Catalan parties ran with a platform to declare independence. They won and the Carles Puigdemont government set to work in early 2016. The referendum was called in 2017. You all are familiar with the events that ensued. The referendum delivered a majority for independence, but independence did not follow.

The National: People unfold a big banner demanding self-determination during a demonstration in Barcelona on October 1, 2018 to commemorate the first anniversary of a banned referendum on secession that was marred by police violence. - On October 1, 2017, Catalan

Despite the failure, the events of 2017 clearly revealed that if Spain were to accept a referendum, the Yes side would probably win. This would be a major crisis, so Spain concluded that Catalonia must be retained using other means. Democratic consent was not an option.

Since 2017, at each Catalan election, pro-independence parties win the majority of seats and form governments, but they have no clear strategy. After the recent Spanish election, Pedro Sánchez (below) needed their support to become prime minister again.

The National: Spain's acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez applauds at the start of the investiture debate at the Spanish Parliament in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023. Sanchez will defend his controversial amnesty deal for Catalonia's separatists in

He got their votes with the promise of an amnesty. We will see if the amnesty materialises or not. Sánchez’s strategy consists of repressing first and rehabilitating later, but only the Catalan politicians that he can control. The premise is an old one: If Catalan leaders are tamed, the voters are tamed.

Spain has shown that if you manage to keep repression at a tolerable level for international actors, you can block secession by raising the bar of violence a little bit.

The lesson is one difficult truth to swallow: When the State actor decides to block self-determination, democracy seems not to be enough – unless the seceding actor is willing to risk further violence.

READ MORE: I went to Catalonia six years after the indyref. Here's what I learned

In this context, self-determination means the willingness to endure, provoke, or cause violence. When experts say that the world is hardening, that we are again in a cycle of violence breeding violence, the problem is in part that those who could lead the alternative – like the European Union – are not willing to pay the price of dismantling the incentives for violence. The alternative to violence is the recognition of political communities and the establishment of paths towards peaceful self-determination. What is the real obstacle to this kind of progress?

As Allan Buchanan famously said, “we live in an age of secession”. One hundred and thirty-one sovereign states have been born since 1945 – a threefold increase in 70 years. But scholars blame secessionism as the chief source of violence in the world, with an average of 15 secessionist conflicts per year; about 52% of the civil wars between 1945 and 1999 involved secessionism.

Yet, they also claim that a peaceful secession is viable when the conflict happens in a democracy, the aspirant to independence has clear administrative borders and it was once a sovereign entity. Catalonia is a textbook case of these three things.

So, why is Catalonia not independent yet? How come? The reasons are many and complex, but in summary, there are two main “external” obstacles – Spain and Europe – and an “internal” one – the incapacity of our political leadership.


POOR political leadership is our most important problem because self-determination is, above all, the task of those who identify with the “self” that aims at determination.

As Michael Walzer eloquently says: “The members of a political community must seek their own freedom, just as the individual must cultivate his own virtue.

They cannot be set free, as he cannot be made virtuous by any external force.”

What Catalan leaders did during the fall of 2017, especially after the referendum, is a textbook case of what not to do if you want to gain independence. At the most basic level, the rule to follow in these situations is that in the moment of truth, you either go all in or you don’t go at all. But they did neither. After October 1, they hesitated and procrastinated for four weeks. By making up their minds as events unfolded, they were very vulnerable to all kinds of pressures, from the international community, big business – anyone who feared to lose their advantage in the status quo.

They were making their minds up as events unfolded because they did not believe that a real opportunity for independence would arise. They were vulnerable to pressures because they had not anticipated, nor prepared with conviction any way to supersede them.

The most benign explanation is that they had not considered the scenario that the referendum would really work. I guess they either expected that Spain would stop it before it happened, or that the Catalan people would not turn out with such numbers and force, especially after thousands of policemen were deployed to block it. But the opposite happened. The Spanish aggression sparked people to defend their right to vote because they understood at a gut level that if you back down for fear of police repression, then your life – both politically and personally – is defined by cowardice and humiliation.

READ MORE: Scotland desperately needs its own National Assembly like Catalonia’s

Leading a process of self-determination if you are not willing to go through with it until the end and you have not prepared yourself mentally and strategically to handle the huge pressure that such a process necessarily entails, is a major irresponsibility. Because once self-determination became the core of the Catalan public debate, it was impossible to use it for anything else than its own purpose. The fact is that at every moment in the modern era, in every context, the toxic relationship with the Spanish state determines everyone’s position – be it in favour of assimilation or resistance. Once you’ve made the idea of self-determination tangible, no one can deal with the consequences as if they were simply another issue to bargain with.

In hindsight, it looks as if Catalan politicians hoped that the bid for self-determination would make them strong enough to gain bargaining power for a better devolution deal, but not strong enough to really challenge the status quo and lose control of the situation. In good or bad faith, they implicitly saw their job as the stabilisers of the secular conflict between Spain and Catalonia. They were part of a political elite whose value was tantamount to their ability to defend Catalans from the uniformising forces of the state.

In the decades prior to the referendum, they were ineffective at this job, and the popular response in demand of freedom was too great for them to tame it. This is their tragedy – they were politicians for weaker, more cynical times, not for stronger, hopeful ones.

At the end of the day, however, they feared the Spanish response more than they feared the pressure of the Catalan electorate — and with good reason, the six years that have passed since, have shown that the Catalan electorate is trapped, it is a captive audience, so to speak. The Spanish electoral system makes it very very difficult for new political parties to emerge, or new individuals to challenge the leadership within the parties.

So voters face a dire choice between our own failing leaders or the parties that deny the very existence of the Catalan nation. No wonder we are seeing more and more people disengaged with politics.

The National: Spain Catalonia Sedition

There’s a further reason for their mistakes – the fratricidal rivalry between the two parties in the Puigdemont (above) government. They played a game of chicken. They both thought that the path towards the referendum would eventually reveal the weaknesses of the other. PDCat believed that the referendum would fail and reveal the incompetence and amateurism of Esquerra. Esquerra in turn believed that the failure of the referendum would show that PDCat were so entrenched with the status quo that they were of no use to independence.

So they both believed they had something to gain from the threat of a referendum vis-a-vis Spain, and something to gain from its failure, vis-a-vis their immediate political competitor. But the referendum had unleashed the genie that could not be put back in the bottle, and they did not know what to do. Who was going to tell people that their courage defending ballot boxes was worthless because nothing was prepared?

Nobody wanted to be the bad guy. So they pushed one another to the cliff, and at the last minute, with none wanting to be a traitor, the situation pushed then-president Puigdemont to declare independence symbolically and do nothing else.

Two explanations were given. First, the risk of more violence. But after all, we are talking about police brutality, not a military intervention. It was the first and only time in the history of Spain and Catalonia that a push for self-determination did not end in bloodshed. The novelty is restraint in the use of violence. But our leadership aggrandised the threat of violence to excuse the surrendering. This is toxic because it turns repression into the main political subject. It accepts Spain’s blackmail and tells people they are weak and hopeless. It is a psychological poison.

The second was that popular support was not strong enough. The argument goes that if 80 or 90% of the electorate supported independence, then they would have done it. In other words, if Spain had given them permission instead of sending the police and if the people had made their jobs easier, they would have led it.

Well, if they indeed held such beliefs since the beginning, they should have never brought the situation to a moment of all or nothing – because it was obvious that the result would be nothing.


OF course, Spain does not make things easy. According to Ryan Griffiths: “Catalonia is a hard case […] because it was once a sovereign state, and because its current autonomous status is both the consequence and cause of nationalist ambition. Yet even in this case, we can see the strategic realities of the metropole. Madrid cannot recognise Catalan independence without setting a precedent for others such as Galicia and the Basque Country. The Spanish administrative architecture shapes Catalonia’s possibilities.”

Since Spain contains at least three dissident nations, self-determination for one implies it for the others. And that risks dissolution, as in Yugoslavia. So, if Catalonia were to secede, and if others followed suit, what would Spain become?

Spain’s obsession with subduing its peripheral nations is the wound that has shaped its political culture and all its institutional and economic structures. The gargantuan investment in high-speed trains is a paramount example. While the less dynamic areas of the peninsula are linked to Madrid with fancy trains that run empty, the most dynamic and densely populated coastal territories are linked with deficient highways and degraded trains. This absurd centralising mania applies to taxation, judicial control, cultural priorities, you name it. It suffocates the periphery and has huge costs for everyone. No wonder Spain never accomplishes the economic miracle that decades of European investment should have produced. But this is what defines Spain.

If Catalonia were to break free, Spain could stop wasting resources – material and spiritual – to deny reality, and could use its forces for good. But in the immediate aftermath, the entire hierarchy and political identity of Spain would suffer an overhaul.

The National:

And the extractive elite in charge today would see their oversized power diminish, if not disappear.

Now, the alternative is no solution. An increased need to repress Catalonia’s aspirations only delivers more corruption. Degrading Spain’s democracy is degrading everything good that has come from it. So Catalan self-determination demands the courage to challenge the deep wound that sustains Spain. It is not something that can be done frivolously. The outcome may even not be independence – everyone must accept the possibility of losing in a democratic system. But there is no hope for the Iberian peninsula – and thus Europe – unless we take this challenge.


THE EU is very good at preventing states from trying to kill each other again. It is very good at creating an internal market that allows companies and workers to move freely and prosper. It is very good at regulating certain things at a grand scale because of the sheer power of aggregation of hundreds of millions of citizens and their pockets. And, sure, it is very good at telling itself that it is a beacon of human rights and high culture.

Good for us!

But it is very bad at dealing with the problem of diversity of peoples. The foundational horizon of the post-war European ethos is the promise not to repeat the horrors of Nazism. But what must we not repeat exactly? Nazis aimed at annihilating the Jews and other “undesirables” in the name of an Aryan people. Conventional wisdom has come to define this as “nationalism” and the EU as the project to stop it. Hence, any claim from a national minority is easily dismissed as evil “nationalism”. But they forget.

They forget that Nazis hated nationalism because they were imperialists. The EU has become the lock on this oblivion.

When experts call the EU a “club of states” and worry that suprastate integration is difficult because the state elites resist giving up their power, they forget that this also applies downward. States protect each other when it comes to disregarding abuse against the nations that subsist under their grip. And as long as the EU protects the realities that were created through violence in the modern era, its democracy and its understanding of freedom and equality, will only degrade towards bureaucratic authoritarianism. The values it claims to endorse are nothing but hypocritical excuses.

The National: The European Union flag

Catalonia has become the stress test of this problem. If it were a simple exception, a sui-generis case – which in a sense it is – there may be a way for the EU to recognise its right to self-determination while leaving the rest of the state-based arrangements untouched. But everyone suspects that once the claim of Catalonia is heard, many other things must change. This is why powerful states insist time and again that this is a story of nationalists – us – versus cosmopolitans – them.

So Catalonia is not independent yet because Europe has not found the need to evolve towards its true self. But if the world keeps turning violent and sectarian, if the influence of China keeps growing, if the remnants of the Russian empire keep spiralling into delusion, if the US turns its gaze even more towards the Pacific, then the only solution for Europe will be to reconcile its ambitions with its realities.

My view is that we should not wait for others to need our freedom, but that the change we want in Europe should come from our own impetus. It’s we, the Catalans, who must force Europe to come to grips with this uncomfortable, untold truth. That people trapped inside the borders of member states cannot seriously believe that Europe is built on democracy and freedom if they are not treated as equals with an equal right to sovereignty and an equal access to the engine of social reproduction of culture and identity that a state is today for everyone else.

Catalonia had an opportunity in 2017. I believe what we then had was enough to go through with it. We could have lost, sure, but when the bully is taunting you, you have to show your strengths, not your weaknesses; when the international community is looking down on you is when you have to show them that you are ready to endure hostility or disdain for your uncompromising commitment to freedom.

But our political leadership did not grab that opportunity.

And instead of taking responsibility for their failures, they increased people’s fear of violence and told them that they were not enough. This is just plain wrong, and stupid because it weakens your own constituency for the future.

So, six years after the referendum, the movement is divided, lost, without clear leadership, and the confidence of electorate is eroded. Polls show that many people no longer believe Catalonia will be able to secede from Spain.

Now it has become much more difficult to turn the desire for independence and freedom into an articulated political movement because we need some degree of trust and self-esteem to succeed. But that is our job. And we have no other option but to do it, or else we face extinction. Sometimes, from the depths of your failures, you find the strengths for your endurance. Let us hope.