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The Machiavelli Gambit: Is Mariano Rajoy Fomenting Catalan Secession?


Gambit (noun) \ˈgam-bət\ – 1. :  a chess opening in which a player risks one or more pawns or a minor piece to gain an advantage in position; 2. something done or said in order to gain an advantage or to produce a desired result[1].

“In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way.”
– Franklin D. Roosevelt

In a previous article[2], I offered a methodology for analyzing possible outcomes of the Catalan demand for a referendum on independence from Spain. I assigned probabilities to each of the decision points, which provide the cumulative probability of any individual outcome from among the many possible branchings. These cumulative probabilities are, without a doubt, highly debatable, and the greater the number of decision-points on any given pathway, the higher the level of uncertainty as possible errors accumulate[3].  Nevertheless, the range of outcomes themselves is finite; in fact, I am comfortable with a set of six potential outcomes:


Catalan separatists are attempting to achieve an amicable divorce, a negotiated secession from Spain that includes immediate admittance into the European Union and the Eurozone. The government of Mariano Rajoy is attempting to achieve either a complete abandonment of the referendum process or else compliance with whatever measures the central government eventually puts in place to prevent a referendum from taking place or the Catalan parliament from acting upon it. These measures might include the obvious “cease and desist” order from Madrid, injunctions from the Constitutional Court, legal actions against individual politicians, legal actions against the Catalan government, all the way up to police actions.

If the Catalan government fails to achieve a friendly divorce, and the Spanish government fails to convince or cajole the Generalitat into abandoning the referendum process and following Madrid’s orders, then we enter the range of “sub-optimal outcomes”: sub-optimal for everyone in the sense that some degree of civil unrest is involved, which will inevitably lead to political, economic and far more importantly, human costs. At this point, it becomes a contest of wills, and the framework does not attempt to determine any eventual “winner”: Mr. Rajoy may succeed in restoring the national authority, or Mr. Mas may succeed in establishing the independence of his country, but both will only achieve it at a high cost.

Mr. Rajoy’s government is currently following a strategy of no negotiation with the Catalan authorities prior to their renunciation of the right to a referendum. Not a postponement of the referendum; not an agreement to call it off until after a constitutional convention; the demand is for an unconditional renunciation to the right to vote on self-determination. In other words: no referendum today, tomorrow or ever in the future. This renunciation is the preliminary condition, but there is no promise made or proposal offered to what would be negotiated thereafter. It is a demand for capitulation “and then we’ll see if there is anything to talk about”.

Given that the Spanish government is attempting to reach a given outcome – abandonment or compliance – this approach seems to be the least likely to achieve it. The most probable outcome is for the Catalans to push on with their preparations and for more and more moderates to support the separatist position. Not to do so would be political suicide for the pro-referendum parties.

There are some additional considerations to this approach:

  1. The government may believe that the Catalan referendum demand is the work of a corrupt and corruptible political minority pushing an agenda that is not shared by the majority of Catalan citizens. Given the most recent electoral results[4], the most recent polling results[5], and the very large turn-outs for pro-referendum demonstrations[6], it is difficult to believe that Mr. Rajoy or his ministers actually believe their own propaganda in this regard;
  2. The government may believe that the Catalan government, while having popular support, enjoys only lukewarm support from Catalan political and business elites. Without this support, when push came to shove, the Catalan government would fold, even at the cost of severe electoral results in future elections. This is certainly possible, and the government may have evidence from private conversations to support this viewpoint; but from the point of view of the public discourse, Catalan business elites have been on the whole less vocal in their opposition to separation than Scottish businessmen on separation from the UK and British businessmen on UK continuance in the EU. That is changing, however, as the referendum date draws nearer and fears of the possible consequences begin to solidify[7];
  3. The government may be pursuing secret negotiations with the Catalan government over a possible settlement short of a referendum. It is beyond the scope of this article to enter into speculation over this possibility;
  4. The current government stance may be the strategy for “the opening moves” and the government might be more open to alternative tactics at a later date: after the Catalans celebrate their national holiday on 11th September and after the Scots have voted on independence or union on the 17th of September;
  5. The government may be willing to negotiate, but may be hamstrung by hardline elements in the Partido Popular, who do not wish to give any concessions to Catalonia on any grounds, consequences be damned. There is, without a doubt, a segment of the Spanish right that is fed up with “Catalan exceptionalism” and that argues that negotiation is fruitless, since it only leads immediately to more an greater demands.

This last consideration opens to door to an interesting speculation: what if the government – or at least influential elements in the Partido Popular – actually desire that Catalonia proceed with their referendum? Not, of course, in order to facilitate an amicable divorce. This would be a case of giving Catalans enough rope with which to hang themselves.

The motivation is two-fold:

  • First, there is thedesire to settle the Catalan question once and for all. Negotiation will neveraccomplish that. Even if the Catalans were willing to accept a deal that included most of the key elements of the 2006 Statute of Autonomy reform, and even if thePartido Popular were willing to grant them such a deal – neither of which is at all likely – there is no guarantee that one or two or five years later, Spain won’t find itself in the same situation. The opponents to any negotiation would point out that a deal would only allow the Catalans to continue their “brainwashing” of the public for many more years with even less interference from the central government. That is not an acceptable outcome.The only way to prevent this seditious behavior from continuing is to strip away many of the competencies that enable it, especially over education and public broadcasting and media. That cannot be accomplished under the existing constitutional arrangement.
  • Second, there are many Spaniards, especially conservative Spaniards, who would just as soon do away with the autonomous communities completely. There are many motivations and justifications for this: the communities are fiscally inefficient; they are politically redundant;theadditional layers of governmentonlycontribute to public sector bloat; the smaller administrations are more easily corrupted than the central government[8].It should also be noted that a central government wouldconsolidate power in the hands of national elites, tothe detriment of regional and local elites; it is worth noting then who would benefit from centralization: Madrid, the monarchy, and the national party organizations.Supporters for greater centralization received a boost during the Great Recession, when austerity demands required painful cuts in both national and regional finances, and the search for additional savings opened the door to the elimination of at least one level of the multi-tiered Spanish public sector. The proponents of such a reform have so far been disappointed; the regional model retains strong enough support that the necessary Constitutional amendment is not realistic.

How to accomplish the desired goal of amending or replacing the current Constitution in favor of a centralized state when not even the worst financial crisis in 80 years was insufficient cause? You need to generate massive public support for the amendment. And perhaps you need someone else to shred the old Constitution for you.


If Catalonia voted for independence, and the Catalan parliament unilaterally seceded from Spain, the majority of Spaniards have already indicated that they would support the government in the use of any and all means to force compliance with the existing laws[9]. Personally, I feel that the level of support would be considerably higher due to the anger and hostility that an actual Catalan secession would produce, in contrast to a hypothetical thought experiment taken during a newspaper survey. With overwhelming support for using “all means necessary” it is not unthinkable for the government to argue that:

  1. It was the failings in the current constitutional arrangement that allowed the situation in Catalonia to deteriorate to the point they reached;
  2. Neither Catalonia, nor any other region of Spain – such as the Basque Country – can ever be allowed to challenge the unity of Spain in the future;
  3. The Spanish Constitution already has an explicit prohibition of secession, and it was only the excessive powers devolved to the autonomous government that allowed them to go as far as they did down the path to independence;
  4. Ergo, the solution is to eliminate the autonomous regions, concentrate most power back in the hands of the responsible people who have successfully kept the nation together, and end once and for all the whole nonsense of a nation of Catalans, Basques, Castilians, Gallegos, etc. They are all Spaniards, and that is what they will remain. Q.E.D.

This scenario has a compelling and consistent, if morally questionable, internal logic of its own. It explains perfectly the government strategy of non-negotiation: either the Catalans capitulate to the status quo or they secede, destroying themselves and the Spanish constitutional order in the process, and the Partido Popular is enabled to push for a unitary model of government. Heads I win, tails you lose.

It is morally questionable for what should be the obvious reason: that such a strategy has a high probability of resulting in considerable economic suffering all over Spain, but also in the injury and death of many Spaniards, mostly Catalans.

There is no need to stray into the realms of conspiracy theory to believe in such an interpretation.  There is a perfect historical example in our own history that shows how this process could operate. In the 1860 Election, the southern states threatened secession if Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate, won the Presidency. He did, and they followed through. War resulted, though neither Mr. Lincoln nor the South truly desired, and despite the fact that Mr. Lincoln never intended to abolish slavery where it already existed. If he had made abolition a campaign promise, the vast majority of Americans would have voted against him.

Yet during the war, precisely because of the war, Mr. Lincoln was forced to adopt the abolitionist position. There were sound reasons for doing so: to win the moral high ground and forestall European intervention; to deny resources to the South and gain willing manpower for the North; to shore up his political base with the Radical Republicans. These were finally able to force through the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery; a constitutional amendment that was inconceivable just five years earlier. And during those three years, the American public experienced a sea change of opinion, and went from majority opposition to abolition, to majority support for abolition. The Civil War marked a turning point in American nationalist sentiment: we stopped being “these United States” and became “the United States”.


There are many Spaniards who long for a similar development in their own nation: the subsuming of regional identities into the national identity. Catalans, in their desire for independence, may be helping to create the unitary, Spanish, monarchical state that is the very antithesis of their objective. It is possible that the Partido Popular, while preferring Catalonian acceptance of the status quo, nevertheless sees the benefits of “Plan B”: a constitutional crisis that will allow them to reshape the nation according to their own preferences and to their own benefit.

It is worth noting, in our own history, that after the 1860 election, the next time a Democrat sat in the White House was 1885[10]. The Partido Popular – and the increasingly discredited Spanish monarchy – might fancy that they would enjoy similar longevity in the new, more powerful government as the “saviors of the Spanish nation”.

Sources and Notes:

[1] Merriam Webster Dictionary Online

[2] Fernando Betancor, “Catalonia and Spain: Endgame Scenarios,” Common Sense, 21 April 2014

[3] I would like to point out that the multiplication of the cumulative errors applies as much to Mr. Rajoy and his advisors, and to Mr. Mas and his advisors, as it does to me. This makes any sort of political analysis of outcomes a highly dubious affair even for the so-called experts.

[4] Ortiz, Fiona and Phillips, Branden, “Separatist parties win Catalonia election in Spain,” Reuters, 26 November 2012

[5] “47% of Catalans would vote for independence while 28% would oppose it,” Catalan News Agency, 30 April 2014

[6] Stephen Burgen, “Catalan independence rally brings Barcelona to a standstill,” The Guardian, 11 September 2012

[7] Tobias Buck, “Catalan business takes a nervous look at independence,” Financial Times, 18 March 2014

[8] Like any complex issue, there is truth and falsehood mixed into all of these justifications. I do not intend to argue either case in this article, only present the reasons as evidence of the desire to accomplish the change.

[9]Daniel G. Sastre, “El 46% suspendería la autonomía de Cataluña si hay consulta ilegal,” El Mundo, 21 April 2014 (Spanish only)

[10]Grover Cleveland.

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