Catalonia Unmasked: Bringing Light To A (Purposefuly) Muddied Issue

Javier Martín Merchán discusses Catalonia’s bid for independence, in terms of the historical rationale behind it and the potential consequences for Spanish democracy.

By Javier Martín Merchán

2017 has been a remarkable year for Spanish politics. I intentionally use the word “remarkable”, which ostensibly differs from outstanding, extraordinary or other adjectives possessing positive connotations. Indeed, 2017 has been nothing but alarming for the Spanish political spectrum. A series of circumstances have contributed to this situation, but one particular matter has monopolised the political debate while filling the headlines of innumerable newspapers, both domestically and in the international arena. The restive region of Catalonia might have caused the biggest political schism in Spain since the establishment of democracy in the 1970s.

It is hence of extreme relevance to analyse the surreptitious dynamic of such a central issue for the history of Spain. The question, nonetheless, arises: why do so here? Simply because writing this article in English provides me with two privileges. The first one resides in the fact that I will be able to unmask the myriad falsehoods published by the either misinformed or purposely tendentious international press. Secondly, I will be able to distance myself from the Spanish approach to this issue, an approach based, at best, on a nonsensical debate embedded in spuriously constructed positions within two radically opposed blocs. This allows for an assessment of the Catalonian case without ineluctably taking one side, thus without being called either a rancid pro-Spain fascist or a sectarian in favour of Catalonia’s coup d’état. Surprisingly or not, maintaining a neutral position recognising the merits and errors of both sides seems to become treacherous for the nation, this nation being either the Spanish, the Catalonian or the “Tabarnian” one. Likewise, we, the people who find ourselves in this fatiguing situation, tend to be labelled as ambiguous podemitas, the ludicrous tag we are assigned for fighting for the suspicious cause of democracy and people’s welfare. After all, this is the fate awaiting the ones who believe that the people, unlike nations built upon a staggering arbitrariness, constitute the very essence of any society, as well as the real political actor, subject to rights and duties.

When addressing the Catalonian issue, there is a tendency to shrug our shoulders in the face of prejudice, negligence and incomprehension. The result is a superficial debate entangled in predetermined perspectives that hardly comprehend where the problem comes from. This is the first aspect to be considered, namely, the origin of Catalonia’s bid for independence. It cannot be ignored that, before 2010, it was unusual for more than 20% of Catalans to support independence. The political status quo changed around 2010 for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, there might be external factors encouraging secession. Globalisation, EU integration, free trade and international governance have proved that states no longer need to be big to exploit economies of scale. Therefore, the economic and political risks of independence that otherwise could threaten Catalonia are lower within a supranational entity such as the European Union. Indeed, Catalonia did not seem to be alone in this respect. The 2012 negotiation by which the Scottish National Party agreed on a binding referendum for Scottish independence arguably set out a plausible and respectable precedent for democratic secession within Europe. Moreover, Catalonia suffers the pandemic phenomenon that has been threatening the world’s political status quo for the past few years: populism. Stability measures linked to the Eurozone crisis, EU-led austerity and increasing central control over regional finances have all encouraged populist messages of fiscal rebellion, presumably in a similar manner to UKIP and Lega Nord.

Secondly, internal factors are also crucial in explaining the motives of such a craving for secession. After 1978, despite moderate nationalists contributing to Spanish governance, a feeling of mutual distrust emerged, creating tension around the realisation of the Spanish national project. This tension was worsened by the implementation from the 1980s by the Catalan elites of an outright process of building up a national identity that differs from the Spanish one. In fact, the education system and regional television broadcasts have often veered to become indoctrination tools. One of the most striking occurences of this discord occurs in 2010, when the Spanish Constitutional Court, following an appeal by the centre-right PP (then in opposition), partly disallowed the Catalan Autonomy Statute, which had been previously approved in 2006 by a referendum in the region. Furthermore, the PP replaced the Socialists in power in Madrid in 2011, giving room for a more conservative and centrist adversary to the Catalans. Secessionism thus became an attractive escape route to combat the conservative government of Madrid, depicted as a terrible centralist monster pursuing the oppression of the Catalonian people. The secessionist movement even attempted to rebrand itself in a more progressive disguise to widen its appeal. The result is what can be observed today: the mobilisation of nationalist civil society and nationalist elite polarisation feed off each other, with the latter entering a headlong competitive spiral of radicalisation that explains, together with the swift erosion in the Spanish political system’s legitimacy, the subsequent rise of secessionism from 2010 onwards.

This may indeed partly justify Catalonia’s bid for independence, but there is still a substantial aspect of the equation missing: Francoism. By reading this, most Spanish political elites would become terrified, their legs beginning to tremble. The Catalonian authorities, for their part, would applaud me for bringing the name of such a criminal dictator to the issue. Francoism does have an undeniable impact on the Catalonian case, but such impact has nothing to do with what both blocs make of it and understand by it. I am referring to a political mindset, subtly distilled over the years of dictatorship, which has penetrated the way of thinking and behaviour of Spaniards, which also includes the Catalans. It is a form of understanding power, a way of facing it whenever any conflict of interests or ideas emerge. In this sense, it could be claimed that, with the transition, those who learnt to be in command with Franco retired, but those who learnt to obey and disobey with Franco still remain in work.

Having discussed this, it is time to analyse the anomalous and troubled process that seems to have led to the disruption of democratic politics and civic coexistence in Catalonia. Here is where the ignorance of part of the international press reaches unsuspected heights. Those headlines defining Spain as a violent, intransigent, Francoist and even dictatorial country have abounded, suggesting, in certain cases, underlying tendentious purposes. One statement condensed the total abject ignorance about the issue: “Why do they not allow them to vote? Is there anything more democratic than voting?” Let me tell you, dear reader, that the respect of democracy itself is a more democratic value. In the Spanish case, the respect of a democratic Constitution that the secessionists attempt to violate and destroy with an ineffable degree of incongruence seasoned with a good dose of populism, manipulation and spurious democracy. These post-democrats (because they declare themselves above democracy) strive to put an end to the constitutional document that brought democracy to Spain, including Catalonia. Maintaining independence approaches, fighting to vote in a binding referendum, and changing the current status quo are all totally respectable and even desirable choices; nonetheless, this must always be done within the democratic means provided by the Constitution that allows Spain to be called a democracy. Do we want to change that Constitution? Let us do it, but again, through the democratic means provided to conduct such adjustment.

Puigdemont and his henchmen may be thinking: why focus on and resolve everyday problems when we can overlook the diversity and plurality inherent to a democratic society and create an artificial antagonism that sets one half of Catalan society against the other? It certainly seems much more entertaining to opt for the latter. It may be a new model of politician: the recalcitrant civil servant concerned with generating new divisions and cleavages. It might be only me, who is stubborn in believing that politicians should be concerned about the search for the common good, but I find it concerning. Democracy and, more concretely, the rule of law, has become a punch ball for the Catalonian independence elites. The first attack on this rule of law already occurred on September 6 and 7, with the vote by a narrow nationalist majority in the Catalan parliament in favour of the regional government’s decision to unilaterally stage a referendum on Catalan independence. Such a plebiscite is a flagrant contravention of the Spanish Constitution, the document which, in turn, serves as the foundation and guarantee of Catalan autonomy. Such a vote was held in absence of the opposition legislators, who had previously abandoned the chamber in protest of  its clear illegality. Despite all of this, the illicit referendum was celebrated on October 1.

No one in the international arena recognised the validity of this unilateral pseudo-referendum, neither the Spanish government, nor international organisations. Notwithstanding this, Puigdemont and his nationalist followers used the aforementioned referendum to not only illegally, but also illegitimately, declare independence in late October. Besides defying the law, these actions ignored and marginalised the entire half of Catalan society which declared itself against independence. Indeed, huge demonstrations have taken place on the streets of Barcelona in favour of a continued union with the rest of Spain, and the results of the December elections demonstrate that more than a half of Catalans (52%) oppose the process of independence, thus considering themselves simultaneously Catalan, Spanish and European. 

Having addressed this, a final (and probably most relevant) question arises: what should be done then? Here it is where the Spanish government (not only the Catalan) possesses an enormous responsibility. The decision to apply direct rule to Catalonia (via article 155 of the Constitution) arguably allowed the Spanish Executive to restore the rule of law and safeguard the national interest. I state “arguably”, because, in the end, the government misused Article 155. Indeed, the Spanish Constitution was used to give legitimacy back to a group to which the Constitution had previously denied such legitimacy. It must be one of Rajoy’s brilliant strategies that no one, in our utter ignorance, can understand. In any case, Article 155 temporarily stemmed the unsustainable panorama in the region, but did not solve the problem at all. In fact, it could not even be intended to solve the problem, as political issues require political responses and solutions, and not mere judicial mechanisms. Indeed, political responses need to be formulated beforehand to modify the judicial framework in order to later achieve the most convenient solution.

The current situation from which a political response must emerge is as follows. The December election disclosed the profound and now irreconcilable cleavage between nationalists and constitutionalists. The latter won the popular vote by 52.1% and, for the first time since the restoration of Catalan autonomy in 1980, a non-separatist party (the liberal democrat Ciudadanos) won a regional election. However, since the electoral system disproportionately benefits rural areas –which are nationalist strongholds–, Ciudadanos stayed far away from an overall majority of seats in the Parliament (68 MPs), a majority that the three main separatist parties can claim if together. Although an agreement within the pro-independence bloc is almost definitive, with no single party being able to form government on its own and with Carles Puigdemont enjoying in Brussels the freedom of movement that the Spanish citizenship provides him, political uncertainty has become the central element dominating Catalonia. Moreover, this panorama somehow extends towards the rest of Spain. The Partido Popular, Spain’s governing party, won just three seats in the Catalan elections (down from eleven). Its irrelevance for the future of Catalan politics is hence evident, and Rajoy’s inaction to correct the political bias created over the past decades in Catalonia, alongside the aforementioned misuse of article 155, may plunge the Spanish government into a deep crisis.

Back thus to the final question, what is then to be done? Plain and simple: a reform of the Spanish Constitution. What is obvious at this point is that the State of Autonomies, as we know it, is outdated. This demands the construction of Catalonia’s future in a constituent form for both the nationalist and the constitutionalist blocs. The Spanish Constitution, even though a paradigm for any democratic constitution around the world, has become partially obsolete to face the secessionist crisis. Moreover, this Constitution and the Autonomy Statute, which is a materially constitutional norm of the law, are not accepted by a great part of the Catalan society, therefore becoming sterile norms. This is precisely what differentiates the Constitution from the general law: whereas the law does not need to have public support and engagement (although it would be convenient), any Constitution needs the public support to maintain its efficacy; otherwise, it turns into a sterile norm.   

The problem resides in the fact that achieving the balance to create a level and lawful playing field is, of course, a complex task that might expand over the coming years. There is no consensus in Spain about the type of Constitution we want to have. However, no other solution seems plausible in order to diminish the tension between the national and the regional governments and reunite the various poles of Catalonia’s broken society. Be that as it may, what we know is that Spain is the strongest country of the world; after all, as Bismarck reasoned: “Century after century, Spain has tried to destroy herself and still no success.” 

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