Sub-state public diplomacy: The Catalan case

By Balázs Gyimesi | 25 July 2017

To quote this document: Balázs Gyimesi, “Sub-state public diplomacy: The Catalan case”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Tuesday 25 July 2017,, displayed on 24 March 2023

Sub-state entities such as Scotland, Flanders or Catalonia entertain external relations, however, due to the different legal frameworks of the diplomatic activities of these regions, their channels and competences can vary greatly, making it difficult to compare them. The article examines the diplomatic activities of Catalonia, an autonomous community of Spain, focusing on its public diplomacy, its legal framework, channels and digital diplomatic activities on Twitter. As the findings show, Catalonia performs active public diplomacy through numerous channels, although the legal framework remains turbulent due to a conflictual relationship with Madrid.

Diplomacy is usually seen as an intergovernmental or multilateral affair of states, who entertain relations through embassies and high-level meetings, but also conduct public diplomacy in the hope to win the “hearts and minds” of foreign publics. What about the sub-state entities in Europe, such as Scotland, Catalonia or Flanders, do they entertain external relations? Indeed, sub-state diplomacy plays an important role, with the case of Catalonia being particularly intriguing given the announcement of the Catalan government to hold a referendum on the 1st of October, 2017, on the sub-state entity’s independence. While Madrid is firmly opposed to the referendum, Catalonia is trying to shape the foreign public opinion on the issue, for which the channels of public diplomacy play an essential role. But how does the public diplomacy of a sub-state entity work? The article guides the reader through the legal framework of Catalonia’s public diplomacy, followed by its institutions and concluded by a concrete example of digital public diplomacy, the Twitter diplomacy, or Twiplomacy, of Catalan institutions, comparing their performance with that of other European sub-state entities.

Legal framework of Catalonia’s sub-state public diplomacy: conflictual relationship with Madrid

In the case of sub-state public diplomacy, the content and shape of diplomatic activities depend on the specific legal frameworks, which differ from region to region, making the external actions of entities such as Flanders, Scotland or Catalonia challenging to compare. The powers of the legislative bodies of these sub-state entities depend on the powers conferred upon them by the constitution and laws adopted by the state they are part of. Catalonia is an autonomous community within Spain, with its institutions and functioning defined by the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia of 2006, which was altered by the Judgment No. 31/2010 of the Spanish Constitutional Court, ruling several articles of the Statute, such as the formula “Catalonia as a nation”, as unconstitutional (Tribunal Constitucional de España, 2010).

The Catalan public diplomacy’s current legal basis is the Law of Foreign Action and Relations with the European Union, which was adopted by the Catalan Parliament in 2014, based on the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia. However, the Spanish Constitutional Court ruled in its Judgement No. 228/2016 on 22 December 2016, accepting an appeal filed by the Spanish government, that the Catalan Law of Foreign Action was unconstitutional, as it invaded Spain’s exclusive executive powers regarding international relations. This led to a five-month suspension of the Law of Foreign Action. Catalonia’s public diplomacy was also deemed unconstitutional by the court, which employed a strict definition of public diplomacy, referring to it as a “a group of activities with external impact, (…) whose targets can be States and international organizations as subjects of international law”  (Tribunal Constitucional de España, 2016).

Firstly, we have to state that there is no single, established definition of public diplomacy. Nevertheless, the common essence of the different definitions is the targeting of foreign public opinion. The Catalan Law of Foreign Action defines public diplomacy as “any action by a public or private actor that has an effective and positive impact on public opinion abroad with the aim of enhancing the image, influence and prestige of Catalonia abroad” (Parlament de Catalunya, 2014), including cultural, economic and sports diplomacy. The Spanish Constitutional Court highlighted on a possible intergovernmental dimension of public diplomacy in its ruling, whereas in several definitions by academics and diplomatic services, the focus lies on the contact with the general public of foreign countries. One of these definitions was coined by the US Department of State: “Public diplomacy refers to government-sponsored programmes intended to inform or influence public opinion in other countries” (Diplocat, 2017a). According to Paul Sharp, Professor and Head of Political Science at the University of Minnesota, public diplomacy is “the process by which direct relations with people in a country are pursued to advance the interests and extend the values of those being represented” (Sharp, 2005). These definitions see public diplomacy as a wider effort to win the “hearts and minds” of foreign publics, as a form of communication targeted at the general public opinion.

The Catalan public diplomacy’s legal framework demonstrates the conflictual relationship between the Spanish government and the autonomous Catalan government. Catalonia, nevertheless, pursues an active public diplomacy agenda in a transversal manner, encompassing a range of fields, including academia, sports and business.

Catalonia’s public diplomacy

The motor of Catalonia’s public diplomacy is the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia, the Consell de Diplomàcia Pública de Catalunya, also called “Diplocat”, a public-private consortium housed in the Casa de les Punxes, a modernist building on Barcelona’s central Avinguda Diagonal. The imposing headquarters and the Council’s fast-rising budget, which grew by 58% between 2012 and 2017 , demonstrate the growing importance of public diplomacy for Catalonia. Diplocat was founded in 2012 with the purpose of “explain[ing] the Catalan situation abroad (…), publicising Catalonia’s values and assets to international public opinion and establishing links of trust with the citizens and institutions of other countries” (Diplocat, 2017b). Its activities involve, among others, organising conferences in Catalonia and abroad, participating in election observation missions, granting scholarships to students and financial aid for civil society.

The public-private consortium adopts a transversal approach by regrouping public institutions such as the Government of Catalonia and the Catalan Provincial Councils; financial and business associations such as the General Council of the Official Chambers of Commerce, Industry and Navigation of Catalonia; social, trade union and sporting organisations such as FC Barcelona; and universities, business schools and academic institutions such as the University of Barcelona and the Pompeu Fabra University. This allows Diplocat to leverage Catalonia’s influence in several fields, targeting foreign publics on several fronts. However, Diplocat is not the only Catalan institution conducting public diplomacy.

Besides its contribution to Diplocat’s work, the Genralitat de Catalunya, which comprises the political bodies of Catalonia – the Government, the Parliament and the President of the Generalitat – is also directly involved in public diplomacy, as it operates several delegations, whose role is to “defend the interests of Catalonia and to promote the country abroad” (Parlament de Catalunya, 2014). The Generalitat’s eight delegations are located in Brussels (delegation to the EU), Paris, Rome, Vienna, Berlin, Lisbon, London and New York. The delegation to the EU is equipped with an exhibition space and conference hall, the Espai Catalunya Europa, which is an important tool for Catalonia’s cultural diplomacy. Furthermore, the cultural diplomacy of Catalonia is strengthened by the Institut Ramon Llull, a cultural institution which was founded by the Generalitat in 2002 to promote the Catalan language and culture in the world. The Institut is co-funded with the Government of the Balearic Islands (whose own language is Catalan, too), which has led to conflicts in the past due to different views on the question of the secessionist movement, which is not part of the political mainstream of the Balearic Islands. The Institut now has four external offices, in Berlin, London, Paris and New York.

Catalonia is also actively conducting economic diplomacy, co-ordinated by the Generalitat, which operates Catalonia Trade & Investment Offices in over thirty cities worldwide, providing international companies interested in investing in Catalonia with support to set up their businesses. Nevertheless, there are several other ways to reach target groups beyond the physical presence of delegations, one being social media, and in particular Twitter.

The role of Twitter in sub-state public diplomacy: Catalonia’s solid performance

Twitter is an increasingly popular tool used for digital diplomacy, which is employed by several official bodies to promote their activities and shape the general public opinion of foreign countries. The official Catalan institutes involved in public diplomacy all have their own Twitter accounts in English with the exception of the Institut Ramon Llull, which has the specific purpose of promoting the Catalan language. However, the English accounts of the other institutions allow them to connect to a wider public, who might not speak Catalan but be interested in Catalonia’s political and cultural life. Besides its official Twitter presence, Diplocat also launched an additional Twitter account called @CatalanVoices, where each week a different Catalan or foreigner living in Catalonia takes over the account, sharing insights into their lives in Catalonia and their connection to the Catalan culture. This format of interactive public diplomacy via Twitter was pioneered by Sweden with the @Sweden Twitter account, and later also used by Scotland with its now defunct @Scotvoices account.

The most successful among the English-language Catalan public diplomacy accounts is the one of the Catalan Government, which has 25,552 followers. Diplocat’s English account (@ThisIsCatalonia) and the Institut Ramon Llull’s Catalan account (@IRLlull) have a similar number of followers, the former 13,046, the latter 12,046. The Catalan Government and Diplocat’s accounts were dominated by the referendum, as using the Twitter analytics site “”, the word “referendum” came up as one of the most used words by these two accounts.

The most followed Delegation of the Government of Catalonia abroad is the Delegation to the EU in Brussels, which has 6,479 followers, followed by the delegations in New York and London, with most other delegations having around 2,000 followers, except for the delegation in Lisbon, which has only 317 followers.


Nevertheless, in order to assess the Catalan Twitter accounts’ performance, it is informative to compare them with the Twiplomacy of other sub-state entities. For this purpose, we will compare Catalonia’s Twiplomacy with the one of Flanders and Scotland. Flanders only has one public diplomacy-related Twitter account in English which is not the account of a specific delegation, the Twitter account of the Flanders Investment & Trade agency. Scotland, on the other hand, has several public diplomacy-related accounts, such as the accounts of the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament, and also Scottish Development International, an institution which supports inward investment to Scotland and has a role roughly equivalent to the Flanders Investment & Trade agency and the Catalonia Trade & Investment Offices. Furthermore, Scotland operates the official Twitter account @AboutScotland, which is used to promote Scotland as a destination for work, studies and leisure. The accounts of the Scottish Government and Parliament are not strictly public diplomacy accounts, as they are also used to inform domestic audiences, since English is also the language of Scotland, whereas English-speaking Catalan accounts of public institutions are mostly used to target foreign audiences.

Among these accounts, the Scottish Government and Parliament have the highest number of followers, however, the Catalan Government’s English twitter account has one fourth of the followers of the Scottish Government. Diplocat’s number of followers exceeds the number of followers of @AboutScotland. However, Scottish Development International is more successful on Twitter than the Flemish and the Catalan Trade and Investment Offices, which both have a similar number of followers. This comparison demonstrates the solid Twitter performance of Catalan institutions in comparison with the Twiplomacy of other European sub-state entities.


Despite the turbulent legal background, Catalonia pursues an active public diplomacy, involving several institutions such as the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia, the Generalitat de Catalunya, the Institut Ramon Llull and other public bodies. Catalonia’s digital public diplomacy performs solidly in comparison with other European sub-state entities, demonstrating that an active public diplomacy is possible on a sub-state level, encompassing several dimensions of the term. The developments concerning the announced referendum on Catalonia’s independence will be a test for Catalan public diplomacy and its ability to navigate and also shape the public opinion abroad.


Image: Casa de les Punxes in Barcelona, photo credit: Balázs Gyimesi.



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