Catalan Independence and Sub-State Public Diplomacy

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Although it hasn’t garnered much attention in the U.S., tensions are high and escalating between the Catalan region of Spain and the national government in Madrid. The latest incident came Sunday when Spanish Defense Minister Pedro Morenes said that the military was “prepared” in the face of “absurd provocations,” presumably referring to recent calls for Catalonia’s secession from Spain.

The friction provides a window into the intriguing but under-studied topic of what is sometimes called sub-state public diplomacy. Like many sub-states – e.g., Quebec and Scotland – the Catalan government has recently embraced public diplomacy as a means toward promoting their region and pursuing their own economic and foreign affairs goals.

Yet if those goals shift to include independence, this could have profound and challenging implications for how Catalonia conducts its public diplomacy.

First, some quick background for those not familiar with the Spanish case. Following the death of the Fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, Spain was divided into 17 autonomous regions, with each controlling education, health, and cultural policies within their borders, while other policy areas remained under the purview of the government in Madrid.

Yet Catalonia has a strong independent streak rooted in the fact that it had been autonomous for centuries before being conquered by Spain in 1714. Catalans are a notoriously proud people, with their own language and a strong cultural history that includes Miro, Picasso, and Gaudi, to name just a few luminaries.

Catalonia and its capital, Barcelona, also represent a driving force in the Spanish economy. This means that Spain needs Catalonia at least as much as the other way around. This is as true during the terrible economic crisis both are currently enduring as it is in good times.

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