Prohibited sub-state public diplomacy: the attempt to dissolve Catalonia’s DIPLOCAT


The attempt by the Spanish state to dissolve the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia (DIPLOCAT) in the aftermath of the 2017 Catalonian referendum on self-determination is an interesting story in and of itself but it also has implications for understandings of public diplomacy and relationships between state and sub-state governments. This article is the result of academic and practitioner collaboration to provide a detailed critical account of the recent occurrences in Catalonia’s public diplomacy history. One part of the authorship provided an auto-ethnographic account of his experiences and a history of DIPLOCAT’s activities, providing evidence where necessary to confirm accuracy. Once this was completed it was sent to the academic party of the authorship who had control over the structure, theoretical framework and the critical analysis that is provided on these pages. The research reveals that DIPLOCAT managed the pro-independence organisations within its consortium relatively well. However, its dissolution in the aftermath of the 1st October 2017 referendum appears to be case of guilt by association with a group of organisations that Spanish central power sought to punish and dissolve. This is despite DIPLOCAT following a similar strategic focus and structure to its predecessor organisations, which were tolerated by Madrid, and the Rajoy administration not seeking the closure of public diplomacy organisations in other Spanish regions with similar structures. To this end, DIPLOCAT was targeted by Madrid for two reasons. First: its work, and its foundation under the acronym DIPLOCAT in 2012 amidst other pro-referendum and pro-independence pivots in Catalan politics, led to a (not unreasonable) perception of its preference for Catalan statehood; and second, the very fact that it gained traction with distinguished international audiences and was perceived as being successful at raising Catalonia’s profile and foreign awareness of issues surrounding the province at a time when Madrid would have preferred a greater amount of control over the political narrative. As such, Madrid’s hard-fisted actions reveal their own tacit awareness of their communications weaknesses and fears over the power of DIPLOCAT.

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  1. 1.

    Ahead of their trials, Fotis Filippou, the Deputy Director for Europe at Amnesty International, wrote about the situation, saying that, “[t]here is no justification for keeping Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart in pre-trial detention and we reiterate our call for their immediate release.” (see Amnesty International 2018). This position was backed by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions.

  2. 2.

    There are some exceptions to this. For example, the unique way in which the United Arab Emirates is structured as a Federal Monarchy permits each Emiri administration significant decentralised autonomy over its foreign interests and international communications.

  3. 3.

    The Generalitat was the main institution of Catalan self-rule, made up of the Government (a President and Cabinet), and the Catalan Parliament. It takes its name from the Catalan self-governing institution created in 1359, which ruled Catalonia until the loss of sovereignty in 1714. The Generalitat was recovered during the Republican years (1931–1939), but was eliminated once again by the Franco regime in 1939. Following the execution of President Companys in 1940, Catalonia’s presidents lived in exile throughout the Franco dictatorship, first in Mexico, and later in France.

  4. 4.

    At the time of writing there are nine international delegations representing Catalonia abroad (European Union, France, Great Britain and Ireland, Germany, United States, Italy, the Nordic Countries, Switzerland, the Balkans) (see Ministry for Foreign Action 2019).

  5. 5.

    It should be noted that the President of the Generalitat was also the President of DIPLOCAT. DIPLOCAT’s Secretary General (one half of the authorship of this article) was appointed by its plenary but proposed by the President of the Generalitat.

  6. 6.

    In March 2019 the Spanish Court of Auditors released a report which claimed that 74.3% of all DIPLOCAT activities between 2012 and 2017 could be interpreted as, “aimed at promoting, publicizing, justifying or promoting the sovereignty process” (see Teller Report 2019) DIPLOCAT’s response to this report has been to highlight that the Court of Auditors is far from independent because, of its eleven members, seven have been elected by the PP and only four by the PSOE. Moreover, the report was not supported by all members of the Court. It seems clear to members of DIPLOCAT that anything related to the internationalisation of Catalonia between 2012 and 2017 has been interpreted as having pro-independence intent simply because the activity coincided with socio-political movements towards a referendum and pro-independence public sentiment.

  7. 7.

    The founder of the FC Barcelona, Johan Gamper, was Swiss; the coach who took the team on a tour of North America during the Spanish Civil War, and thereby saved the club from bankruptcy, was Irishman Patrick O’Connell; and the former coach most loved by the fans is Dutchman Johan Cruyff, who lived in Barcelona until he died in 2016. These international managerial figures, as well as the club’s numerous international players, have helped to grow Catalonia’s international brand and the familiarity that foreign audiences perceive of the region.

  8. 8.

    DIPLOCAT also established an international advisory board during this time. This was with the objective of benefitting from the knowledge and experience of notable figures whose work was recognised internationally. The Board consisted of forty Catalans and foreigners with links to Catalonia from a variety of sectors including economics, politics, culture, research and sports. These included the musician Jordi Savall, the opera singer Josep Carreras, the Irish author Colm Tóibin, the chef Carme Ruscalleda, the economist Andreu Mas-Colell, footballer Xavi Hernández and the tennis player Alex Corretja, as well as a former Minister of Industry in the Spanish government, two former ambassadors (from the US and Mexico), and Catalans who had held senior positions in the EU and the UN.

  9. 9.

    DIPLOCAT also co-organised events with Spanish universities with the objective of promoting an exchange of opinions between Catalan academics and those from the rest of Spain. These events went beyond what would normally be considered public diplomacy, but it was an attempt to promote dialogue between Catalonia and the rest of Spain.

  10. 10.

    One of Madrid’s accusations against DIPLOCAT is that it invited electoral observation missions from overseas in a bid to validate the 1st October 2017 referendum. For this, its former Secretary General Albert Royo i Marine is being prosecuted for embezzlement. The allegations are refuted on the basis that the group in question were foreign researchers without formal observation capacity whose trip formed part of DIPLOCAT’s international visitors programme and would have taken place whether there was a referendum or not. The case continues.


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Alexander, C., Royo i Marine, A. Prohibited sub-state public diplomacy: the attempt to dissolve Catalonia’s DIPLOCAT. Place Brand Public Dipl 16, 238–250 (2020).

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  • Catalonia/Catalunya
  • Referendum
  • Sub-state
  • Public Diplomacy