A response to an article on Catalonia in “Foreign Affairs”

A response to an article on Catalonia in “Foreign Affairs”

A response to “Farewell to Catalonia? Spain Confronts a Rebellious Region” by Omar G. Encarnación
Miquel Strubell
Imma Cabotí
Eva Riera Carol
Published on February 25th 2016.
From time to time political analysts write about events in Catalonia and Spain, which is welcome, and specially so given that before the vast pro-independence marches and rallies that started in September 2012 (with their massive precursor in 2010 following the Constitutional court’s ruling which cut back the already maimed 2006 regional constitution – or Statute of Autonomy) and captured the imagination of those who hold freedom to be a supreme ideal, Catalonia was almost completely unknown to the general public worldwide.
Yet time and again the same old clichés keep cropping up. Describing Catalans as «fiercely» separatist or «rebellious» might lead an outsider to believe that they spend all day marching around with earnest frowns on their faces. The truth is (most) Catalans simply want to be able to solve their own political, social, economic and cultural problems without (constant) interference from a hostile, self-perpetuating central power apparatus in Madrid. A State like Slovenia, Lithuania or Denmark is their aim, peoples whose «desire for nationhood» has been attained in recent decades.
Another cliché is that Catalonia, following a period of independence in the early middle ages, was «engulfed» first into Aragon and then, thanks to the Catholic Kings, into a “united” Spain. The truth is that up until the end of the war of Spanish succession in 1714, Catalonia retained control of its civil laws, taxation, currency, military rights and import tariffs and each incumbent King reaffirmed the Catalan «Constitutions». Similarly, in the 17th century, despite sharing a monarch, Scotland and England were separate kingdoms until the 1707 Act of Union. In Spain, during that same century, officials in Madrid, the seat of the royal court, in the heart of Castile, began to develop a plan for a Spain which was to become unified but achieving the assimilation of the “peripheral” nations in the Kingdom: chiefly, the Basques, the Catalans and the Galicians. For nearly four centuries there have been wars and coups, from Catalonia’s Reapers’ War (or War of Secession, 1640-1652) to the failed coup d’état in 1981, basically on the territorial issue and the closely related difference between those backing the development of a productive economy and those happy to live off the pickings of an extractive economy. In between, General Franco’s regime (1936/9 – 1975) not only «abrogated agreements» but also abolished political institutions, and shot political leaders such as President Lluís Companys (deported from occupied France), the Christian democrat Manuel Carrasco i Formiguera and numerous mayors and local councillors. Each time, Catalonia has been on the losing side.
Spain has been loath to deal with the «Catalan problem» for at least 150 years, and Spanish parliamentary debates in the early 20th century were mirrored in the 1930s, again in the 1970s, and equally since 2003. But this goes beyond «political administrations»: it is a matter of deeply-rooted unitary or Jacobin, nationalist feelings on left and right. At least since about 1870, at the time of the First Republic, a federalist political movement tried to build a federal Spain. However, its leaders and followers were Catalans (Francesc Pi i Margall and Valentí Almirall, among others), and it failed then (and has done so ever since) in the rest of Spain. And with who can one federate, when one is alone? It was the political confrontation with Madrid at the turn of the last century that led all parties except for the People’s Party (whose election results in Catalonia have always been poor, never exceeding 13%, thus reflecting its image as an anti-Catalan, centralist party) to decide to replace the 1979 Statute of Autonomy. The closest that Catalonia came to a federal model was in the resulting 2005 draft Statute of Autonomy, which received 89% support in the Catalan parliament (in the belief that it fitted within the terms of the “ambiguous” Constitution), but was then severely maimed in the Spanish parliament… before being further crippled by the June 2010 Constitutional court ruling (thus revealing how “exquisite” ambiguity is for those in power. There is nothing exquisite in ambiguity, unless the parties share equal power, and over the years the Constitution court has increasingly interpreted the law to suit Spanish governments in their conflicts with, especially, Catalonia and the Basque country). Catalan federal dreams basically ended in 2010, though both before and since, from positions of power, Catalans and others have been jeeringly accused of «acting as victims of an oppressive central government».
A third cliché attributes the recent rise in the independence feeling in Catalonia to financial issues. To be true, Catalonia accounts for 16% of Spain’s population, 19% of gross domestic product and 21% of all taxation, so it is considerably more productive than the average for Spain. However the cost of living there is above the average for Spain, and in terms of per capita purchasing power Catalonia falls from 4thto 7th place(in terms of disposable income, to 9th place); and it has a disturbingly high proportion of people below the poverty line.
Our view is that for most citizens of Catalans extraction, until recently independence was desired deep at heart, but was seen as unattainable. Now, and not just as a matter of dignity and right, it is seen as the only way out, the only way ahead. There are many, many examples of Barcelona, Catalonia and the Catalans losing out because of decisions made in Madrid (or not made at all), and the growing conviction that a federal Spain that could accommodate (or appease) the Catalans, is quite impossible. The rise of pro-independence sentiment is partly a reaction to the humiliation that the Catalans have been subjected to, and partly to the collective self-esteem recovered by witnessing and taking part in the largest demonstrations in the country’s history, including the “participative process” that brought several million people to the ballot boxes to express their opinion, in the face of the dire threats of the Spanish government. It was undoubtedly the largest display of civil disobedience in recent European history.
Another cliché describes the level of Catalonia’s “autonomy” as extremely high. This is blatantly untrue, given the increasing narrow and biassed interpretation of the Spanish Constitution by the Spanish authorities and the Constitutional Court. Catalonia’s policies in terms of immigration, retail commerce,consumers’ rights, education, supporting poor families, raising new taxes, foreign policy, and many others, have been blocked in the courts by central government. The Catalan government has residual tax-raising powers and its own social and economic policies are dwarfed by those of the Spanish government.
The current institutional clash is undeniable, but it is totally unfair to attach the blame one-sidedly to the Catalans or to apply another cliché, that claims that the Catalans have been dragged, as anindoctrinated or misinformed flock, into an impossible adventure, by mad, improvising leaders. Thus, for instance, Catalonia’s White Paper on National Transition to independence is an extremely thorough set of documents, and – for instance – outlines a number of ways an official referendum could have been held (binding or otherwise). No-one in Madrid, to our knowledge, congratulated the winners of the election held on September 27, 2015, which most voters took part in as if it were a plebiscite (we do not know what the results would be in case of a clear Yes-No referendum, for the Spanish government has used all its tools to prevent such a democratic exercise). That probably explains the historically high turnout, 75% (the «Junts pel Sí» alliance won 39% of the vote and 62 out of 135 seats, six short of an outright majority; 47·8% voted for independence,2 39·1% against, while the remaining 12·5% of voters – mostly Unió Democràtica’s 103,000 votes, and Catalunya Sí Que Es Pot’s 367,000 – refused to take a stance on the subject). The former king abandoned his constitutional role as being politically neutral, in trying to call the Catalans to order, and this might explain why the portrait of the previous king in the Saló de Sant Jordi – the hall in the building the Catalan government (or Generalitat) chose as its seat in 1400 – has been covered for some years now, to our knowledge. The current king did the same even beforerefusing to receive the Speaker (who, to be fair, had said «Visca la República» in Parliament); he also signed a decree on president Mas’ resignation which, breaking with protocol, did not thank him for his services; and Puigdemont received no formal congratulations from Spanish authorities after his swearing-in, again a break with tradition. So it was hardly surprising – and especially given his political mandate and objective, an independent republic -, that when president Carles Puigdemont legally swore office as the 130th President of Catalonia he promised loyalty to the people of Catalonia, and not to the King or to the Spanish constitution. Incidentally, he did not follow the existing oath of office, which had been devised by president Tarradellas in 1980, and was therefore hardly «traditional», and certainly not laid down legally.
With a parliamentary mandate for independence obtained in September 2015, the Catalans now enter a political minefield. However, it is quite misleading to believe that «Scotland’s independence referendum is the source of inspiration for the Catalans». They had been wanting to vote on independence since at least September 2009, when hundreds of unofficial polls began to take place. Having said that, the refusal of Spain to allow a referendum is in stark contrast to the UK’s government’s position. Spain’s response has not been political: it has shown no willingness whatsoever to sit down and discuss Catalonia’s claims. It has refused to appease the Catalans in any way at all. On the contrary, it has only fuelled the flames, time and again. Parliamentary resolutions, and even committees have been deemed unconstitutional. Several leading politicians, including former president Mas could be politicallydebarred or even sent to prison. Among other threats, the Spanish Constitution has a widely-quoted article, 155, which does not however contemplate the «cancelling» of Catalonia’s regional constitution; while Spain’s media archives are full of voices calling on the Spanish government to put an end to Catalonia’s claims – and moves – to nationhood, by the use of force if necessary.
On the economic scene, it would seem to be following a scorched earth policy in terms of investment in essential infrastructures, some of which are missing, while others (such as the interstitial railway network) are completely obsolete. Spain has been financially starving the regional government and Catalonia as a whole for at least 30 years. There is a systemic outflow of public money equivalent to 8% of Catalonia’s GDP, which is crippling Catalonia’s economy. Part of this outflow is due to serious direct under-investment by Spanish ministries in infrastructures in Catalonia.
To cope with the coming roller-coaster months, the «separatist alliance», holds 62 out of 135 seats, six short of an outright majority. The other separatist group, the radical left CUP has 10 seats, while the other parties (not all of which are openly hostile to independence) hold 63 seats. This is why three months of negotiations led to an agreement for a stable legislature during which the state structures and legislation will go through Parliament. This included president Mas’ personal decision to stand down, (he was certainly not «unceremoniously dumped»!), to ensure the support of the CUP and thus avoid new elections.
However, to say that “the members of the government are working at cross-purposes” or that “the alliance hangs by a thread” is false, unfair and ridiculous (even wishful thinking, we venture to speculate), as the government was constituted just sixteen days before Professor Encarnación’s article was published, and at that moment there was no evidence whatsoever of that. And of course, in Catalan politics one can expect to find the same type of internal tensions within parties and alliances as in any other part of the world. But Catalonia is different in that, leaving history to one side, the movement towards independence is driven by its grass-roots, not by political parties. And the main NGO, «Assemblea Nacional Catalana», will certainly settle for nothing less than independence.
Is there an alternative to independence? The widespread feeling in Catalonia is that there is no turning back, and the boats have been burnt (by the opponent!). Most Catalans have, after 150 years of seeking a federal solution for Spain, simply given up. The “enough is enough” feeling that has swept across the country explains why the Catalan independence movement has grown so much. Catalans want problems to be solved, while those in power in Madrid (and by no means just the government) seem to want the Catalans to be crushed.
It is easy from afar to claim that now is the time for federalism. But what does «federalism» mean, beyond a fairly vague statement of distribution of power among equals? How much power would the federated states agree that Madrid should have? A leading specialist on federal systems, Prof. Ferran Requejo, concludes (2011) that the lowest level of federalisation that most Catalans would (grudgingly) accept is well above the highest level of federalisation that most Spaniards would (grudgingly) accept. Ne’er the twain shall meet, especially given what all polls say.
Fundamental changes to what is not a federal Constitution require such an elaborate process and such large majorities that no-one in their right mind can honestly believe that this is a feasible option (the amendments made up to now have affected secondary issues only). Has «unequal autonomy» increased since 1982? Every Tom, Dick and Harry now has his public regional TV channel; all regions are now responsible for the running of the schools; some have commercial offices and delegations abroad (and spend considerably more than Catalonia on them!). True, only Catalonia runs its prisons, but that has been the case since 1984! And other than traffic policing, which was taken over by Catalonia in 1997, we can’t see any «increase in recent years» in the differential. Had the 2005 draft Statute prospered, things might have been different. But even there, other regions have levelled the playing field by copying the 2006 Catalan statute… without their text being taken to the Constitutional Court.

Our view (and Brussel’s, according to one report) is that the long-standing “Catalan problem” is really, essentially a “Spanish problem”, and we are convinced that Catalonia and Spain will in the near future get along much, much better as (equal) neighbours.

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