Pro-unity demonstration in Barcelona SOPA Images/Getty Images

A Spanish Disquisition

At first sight, the idea that Spain could descend into chaos is puzzling. But the actors in the conflict between Catalonia and Spain are facing what political scientists call a social dilemma: either side gains from selfish behavior unless the other side behaves selfishly, too, in which case both sides lose.

GOTHENBURG – Within a few days, the Catalan regional parliament may declare Catalonia’s independence, after 500 years of history with Spain. A few hours afterwards, the Spanish government may respond by sending thousands of police to detain top Catalan officials, putting an end to 40 years of prosperous self-rule. In turn, many Catalans may take to the streets, launching a revolt with scary consequences.

At first sight, the idea that Spain could descend into chaos is puzzling. The country is ranked among the world’s top-performing democracies – ahead of France, Italy, and the US according to some indicators. And it is one of the favorite destinations for investors and tourists worldwide. Having strolled through the magnificent and charming streets of Barcelona, the possibility of violent clashes there seems as unlikely as a guerrilla in the forests of British Columbia.

Nonetheless, a physical confrontation between the Spanish authorities and Catalan insurrectional forces is a possible outcome, unless the major actors change their course of action. And none of them has incentives to do so. Like James Dean and Buzz in “Rebel Without a Cause,” the Spanish and Catalan governments are speeding their cars toward a cliff, with each expecting the other to be the first to jump out.

The Spanish government assumes that Catalan’s parliament will not dare to declare independence unilaterally, because the move would receive no international recognition. And the Catalan government is confident that a repressive response by the Spanish authorities, reviving the images of police beating unarmed old women and teenagers that the world saw during the referendum on October 1, would pave the way for a peaceful rebellion within Catalonia and widespread international acquiescence.

In addition, both governments enjoy strong popular support. The ruling conservative People’s Party (PP) in Madrid can comfortably win a national election without courting voters in Catalonia, where it obtained a meager 11% of the vote in 2015. Likewise, the separatist parties can easily secure a majority in the Catalan parliament. Besides, thanks to governmental control of public broadcasters and generous public subsidies to private media outlets, both sides can deploy a reliable army of fiercely motivated journalists and intellectuals whose incendiary comments are contributing to the conflict’s escalation.

The actors in the Spanish drama are facing what political scientists call a social dilemma: either side gains from selfish behavior unless the other side behaves selfishly, too, in which case both sides lose.

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Both unionists and separatists would be better off with a second-best solution. For example, the separatists could renounce a unilateral declaration of independence in exchange for talks on constitutional reforms that would move Spain in a federal direction. A constitutional amendment that allowed symbolic changes, like an official declaration of Catalonia as a “nation,” or substantive initiatives, like a fiscal pact, would satisfy most Catalans while maintaining Spain’s territorial integrity.

The problem is that both sides believe that showing willingness to compromise would weaken their future bargaining situation. Research in political science, however, indicates that the opposite may be true. Following insights by the Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom, we know that social dilemmas can be solved using the inverse strategy: giving instead of demanding. If one party exhibits cooperative behavior, its rival may feel forced to reciprocate, leading to a spiral of cooperation instead of retaliation, and of trust instead of suspicion.

This is what is required now in Catalonia. Both the Spanish government and the Catalan separatists must acknowledge that, if they act with sensible generosity, the other side may respond with further concessions.

It will not be easy, given the current mental disconnect between the Madrid and Barcelona elites. Yet they need to consider how their behavior is endangering the hard-earned welfare of millions of Spaniards, after four decades of successful democracy. In sunny Spain, there should always be light at the end of the tunnel.

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