MADRID—Catalan pro-independence leaders and the Spanish government have intensified their efforts to take their family feud global as 12 Catalan leaders are being tried before the Supreme Court in Madrid. This fight now goes beyond the October 2017 referendum on Catalonia seceding from Spain, which was declared illegal by the Spanish government, and the subsequent declaration of independence from Catalonia’s regional parliament. In what has become a pitched battle between dueling messaging campaigns, Catalan separatists have upped their rhetoric, casting Spain as a “low-cost democracy” and the trial in Madrid as “an alarming act of state repression.” The Spanish government, trying to protect its democratic reputation, is countering by pointing to Spain’s consistently high rankings in various democracy indexes.
Why does the world’s opinion suddenly matter so much in this internal feud? Much of this stems from a Spanish obsession with its international image, known inside Spain as #MarcaEspana, or “Brand Spain.” The Spanish people are so aware of their country’s branding efforts that the hashtag #MarcaEspana is invoked for all manner of commentary about Spain, from the sarcastic to the sincere. Since 2012, according to an annual report on the state of Spain’s image abroad from Real Instituto Elcano, a Madrid think tank, the Spanish public has thought that this image is significantly worse than it actually is. In Russia and China, on the other hand, people consistently think their national image abroad is wildly better than it is, and so do Americans, but to a lesser extent.
2012 is also the year that The New York Times ran a front-page photo of someone dumpster-diving for food in Madrid, which prompted a Spanish newspaper headline about “Brand Spain on the Front Page of the New York Times.” The story dominated the national conversation for weeks and prompted King Juan Carlos to meet with The New York Times editorial board to explain the “real” state of Spain’s economy, as the Spanish press widely reported. Even today, it’s a very touchy subject among Spaniards.