Catalonia Update: Theater of the Absurd

Article written by Fernando Betancor. 

The weeks since the 27 September regional election remain busy for Spain and Catalonia as the headlines prove yet again that you really couldn’t put this stuff into a movie and have audiences believe it. The banal wickedness and obstinacy of some characters would make critics cry out: “too one dimensional, not enough character development!” while the dogged obduracy of the plot would have them shake their heads, “no one could be that stupid.” And yet we see national leaders continue to pursue failed policies and ignore the common sense solutions that have been proposed to them time and again. It is evident that Madrid and Barcelona aren’t in two different countries, they’re on two different planets.

As the results of Catalonia’s regional elections rolled in, a number of things became clear:

  1. The pro-independence party Junts Pel Si had won a substantial plurality (40%), but was short of a majority of votes;
  2. The also pro-independence, but anti-establishment, party CUP (8%) held enough seats to form a pro-independence majority government;
  3. Another important percentage of Catalans[1] (13%) were not quite up for independence, but were not about to accept the status quo either;
  4. Only 39% of Catalans were actually satisfied with the current constitutional status of their country within Spain.

On the following day another fact became evident: the kingmaker CUP really, really dislike Artur Mas and were going to make trouble for Junts Pel Si in their offer to form a government. Instead, they are advocating mass civil disobedience to “Spanish law” as a prelude to independence…which should hardly be an appealing prospect for Mr. Rajoy either.

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The governing Partido Popular went to bed without issuing a formal statement on the election results, which was probably for the best considering the inflammatory nature of most of their remarks. The next day, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy made a brief statement in which he said “the government is willing to listen and discuss anything with Catalonia, so long as it is within the law.” Unfortunately, the very next action of the government was to press on with charges against President Mas for serious disobedience and failing to uphold a Constitutional Court injunction against the unofficial referendum celebrated on the 9th of November 2014. That put paid on the possibility that the government actually wanted to talk and made evident that they are only interested in submission.

What a lost opportunity. Rather than heeding the old Roman proverb of divide et impera, the Spanish government seems to be exerting itself as much as possible and exhausting every means to make itself loathed by the greatest number of Catalans. Mariano Rajoy could have attempted to isolate Junts Pel Si by elevating Si Que Es Pot as a legitimate voice of the Catalan people in an effort to bring them into the fold with Ciutadens, Unio, the PSC and the PPC. Of course that would have required intense negotation and major concessions, but what is the purpose of government if not to heed the manifest expression of the people’s will? What use is a national parliament that will only negotiate “within the law” – have they lost their power to amend the law or to propose constitutional reform? No…they only lack the interest.

The reason for this obstinacy is clear: Mariano Rajoy wants to stay in power. The only way he can do this is by kowtowing to the demands of his highly conservative base, which absolutely refuses to even consider granting Catalonia one iota more of autonomy. In fact, these hardline factions within the Partido Popular are desperately looking for any opportunity to roll-back regional powers and recentralize them. They think the post-Franco constitution went too far in granting recognition of “historic rights” to various regions like Catalonia and Euskadi; they grew up[2] chanting “España: una, grande y libre” which means “Spain: unified, great and free” (free from anyone who disagreed with Franco). So if Mr. Rajoy attempted to solve the Catalan problem politically, through good faith negotiations, it is very likely that these same nationalistic elements would revolt against him. In fact, he received a shot across his bow during the election night when former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar accused him of indecision and incompetence on social media[3]. Mr. Aznar still leads one of the hardest of the hardline factions in the conservative party.

As if to emphasize their complete insensitivity to Catalan sentiment, the date chosen for Mr. Mas’s deposition was the 15th of October, the 75th anniversary of the execution by firing squad of the last President of an independent Catalonia, Lluis Companys. Mr. Companys had fled to France after his short-lived Republic was violently repressed by the forces of the Spanish Republic; but in 1940, after France fell, he was handed over by the Nazi stooge government of Marshal Petain to the Third Reich, who promptly handed him back to their good friend Franco. Mr. Companys was taken to Madrid where he was tortured and humiliated for a few days, convicted of treason and then taken back to Barcelona where he was shot in the military barracks of Montjuic as an abject lesson to the Catalans. As Mr. Mas strode to the tribunal chambers, he was accompanied by 400 town mayors and thousands of citizens chanting “in-de-pen-den-cia!” His demeanor was serious, but I must imagine that in his heart, the smile was ear-to-ear. Not only had Madrid just turned him into the embodiment of Catalan nationalism, it had reinforced his case with CUP to make him the leader of a pro-independence Generalitat. The Spanish government naturally insisted that it had nothing to do with pursuing the indictment or with the scheduling of the arraignment, but given the notorious politicization and conservatism of the Spanish judiciary, that is extremely hard to believe.

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Rajoy’s policy of persecution has continuously backfired. Three years ago, it was almost impossible to find Catalan independence in a Google search much less in mainstream media. Thanks to the folly of the Spanish government, you now have the issue routinely covered in the New York Times, the BBC, Le Monde, Der Spiegel. More unsettling for Rajoy is the fact that numerous European governments have begun to take notice and in a manner wholly unfavorable to the Spanish position. While Germany and France continue to indulge Madrid, some important middle tier nations, like Denmark[4], have held Parliamentary Q&A regarding the situation, recognizing the peaceful and democratic nature of the “Catalan Way” and issuing statements urging Madrid and Barcelona to negotiate peacefully. Even some US Congressmen have gotten on the bandwagon[5]. That is not exactly support for independence, but it is far from Rajoy’s “resistance is futile” stance. Nor should Mr. Rajoy continue to count on the support of the Franco-German partnership unconditionally.

During what should have been routine hearings at the European Commission[6], the EU Minister of Economic Affairs Pierre Moscovici questioned Spain’s proposed budget, doubting that the country could meet the deficit reduction targets that had been agreed to with the bailout and also expressing worry that Spanish reforms remained incomplete and were unlikely to continue. This is was a complete change of tone from previous rubber-stamp sessions: after all, Madrid has never met its deficit reduction targets despite being the poster-child of austerity, yet it was always given a pass. This was a torpedo in the side of Mr. Rajoy’s electoral ship, since the EU’s good seal of approval was one of the government’s (few) selling points. Mr. Moscovici was then torpedoed by his boss, EU President Jean-Claude Juncker, who doesn’t like anyone else to deliver bad news. Then the Germans rushed in, with Wolfgang Schäuble doling out his now usual “nein” and declaring that they would “take it offline”. So much for democratic transparency. The cracks in the arrangement were nevertheless evident as Mariano Rajoy desperately began to burn up the phone lines. In the end, it appears that everyone will simply agree to disagree and ignore the implications of the defective budget, which will be left up to the next government to correct[7].

Given that Mariano Rajoy is basing his entire electoral campaign on his reforms, the economic “recovery”, and his great relations with Germany and France, it must be unsettling to him to see each leg of that triad being pulled out from under. This will give him less, rather than more, room for maneuver regarding Catalonia.

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Desperate to apply more pressure on the Catalans, despite the fact that the scaremongering tactics have not just failed but backfired, Madrid pressured Standard & Poor into issuing a downgrade of the Catalan regional bond[8], while having upgraded Spain’s rating the week prior[9]. The absurdity and clear bias of these two rating changes ought to be self-evident: if the threat of independence is bad news for Catalonia, how on earth could that same threat be good news for Spain? And if the Spanish rating is based on the improved performance of the economy, how is it that Catalonia isn’t also benefiting from the improvement? Not to mention the fact that S&P makes no effort to solve its own internal logical inconsistency: if the Catalan debt is regional, then it is backstopped by the sovereign and should move in parallel with that sovereign. If Catalonia becomes independent, then you can no longer treat it as regional debt; it must be rated as sovereign debt with an analysis of the capability of the new Catalan Republic to service it. No such analysis is forthcoming of course, so don’t hold your breath[10].

If anything, the S&P decision only plays into the hands of pro-independence groups. They will pick on the rating agency’s citation of “weak budgetary performance” as a reason for the downgrade to argue: “Of course! When we send Madrid 16 billion euros a year and get only 4 billion back how can our budget be strong?” They will say – rightly – that Catalonia will never get a fair hearing so long as it is subordinate to Spain. The solution for both conundrums, in their eyes, is simple and obvious and what they’ve been working towards.

Are they going to get it? That remains uncertain: anyone who claims to know otherwise is deluded. The cards remain stacked against independence, simply because there are so many powerful interests in Spain and Europe that do not desire it. However, Spain’s weakness is very real and Catalonia might yet be able to take advantage of it to break free. If the continued survival of the European project is Germany’s goal, then having the Spanish turn Plaça Catalunya into Tianamen Square is even less conducive to it than having the Hungarians set up a new Iron Curtain with Serbia. Yet Spain has a long history of suicidal stubbornness, and the use of force becomes increasingly likely as the general election date nears. The Partido Popular may decide that the only issue that will see it through to victory is Catalonia; and so they may attempt to provoke a rupture in November in order to quash it and so reap the electoral benefit. The worst sort of populist nationalism? Yes…but it just might work[11].

The obvious ploy would be to push the Constitutional Court to suspend Artur Mas from his functions as Catalan President and make him ineligible to serve in any public capacity for a period of 5 or more years. Mr. Mas has already said that he might consider such a ruling as illegal and ignore it. Mr. Rajoy then countered that if the Constitutional Court ruling was ignored, he might have to suspend that Catalan charter of autonomy, so sorry. That is where the conversation ended, but Mr. Mas has already said that the “roadmap to independence” had numerous “early exit” scenarios, depending on the actions of the Spanish government. This is obviously one of them. Thus the Partido Popular has a crisis ready served and at hand should its electoral fortunes begin to wane.

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At this point, it is hard to see any way back. Neither side can climb down: the Populares would tear themselves apart if they negotiated, while numerous Catalan politicians would now be facing jail time and substantial fines. Nor is there much chance of a leftist coalition forming after the December 20th elections with sufficient strength to offer the Catalans anything they’ll actually want. So a rupture seems almost certain now. With only two months before the elections that will almost certainly result in a loss of power for the conservatives and political instability in Spain, the Theater of the Absurd may quickly turn to Tragedy.

Sources and Notes


Warning: In compliance with Spanish Intellectual Property law, Common Sense no longer quotes nor reproduces links to sites based in Spain. Verification of the veracity of this information is the sole responsibility of the reader.

[1] Si Que Es Pot, Unió and “Other”

[2] Considering that the actual Falangist Party in Spain polls consistently below 1% support and the left-wing parties are anathema to the conservatives, it is not a stretch to say that all of the sons and daughters of Franco’s ministers went to the Partido Popular when it was formed.

[3] España, Libertad Digital, 28 September 2015 – link deleted

[4] Danish Parliament, Catalan News Agency, 19 May 2015

[5] US Congress, Catalan News Agency, 10 September 2015

[6] Tobias Buck and Jim Brunsden, “Brussels warns Spain risks missing deficit targets,” The Financial Times, 12 October 2015

[7] Maria Tadeo, “Guindos Says Spain to Defy EU Request to Revise 2016 Budget,” Bloomberg Business, 12 October 2015

[8] “S&P downgrades Catalonia to “BB-” with negative outlook,” FXStreet, 09 October 2015

[9] Maria Tadeo, “Spain’s Credit Rating Upgraded to BBB+ by S&P,” Bloomberg Business, 02 October 2015

[10] Fernando Betancor, “Why the Fitch Warning on Catalonia is Totally Wrong,” Common Sense, 01 October 2014

[11] Fernando Betancor, “The Machiavelli Gambit: Is Mariano Rajoy Fomenting Catalan Secession?” Common Sense, 17 May 2014

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