Sedition in Catalonia — Part 1

On the brink

Miguel Otero Iglesias
7 min readOct 26, 2017

After many people asked me about Catalonia I have decided to put my thoughts on paper. I am not an expert on the Catalan issue, but I am interested in all topics in international political economy and unfortunately this has become one. [*This trilogy has been updated on the 19/11/2017]

As a Spanish and European citizen, I write these lines mired in profound sadness. Something has gone wrong in my country. I ask myself how can it be that Catalonia, one of the most prosperous, autonomous, cosmopolitan, modern and attractive regions on earth is about to jump over a cliff? The situation is so tense that the level of anxiety, doctor visits and sleepless nights has increased both in Catalonia and the rest of Spain over the past weeks. After the so-called referendum of the 1st of October 2017 — when images of riot police beating voters reached all corners of the world — most of my colleagues at Elcano and myself were not able to sleep properly. We feared that the next weeks would be dramatic, and so it has been.

On the 10th of October Carles Puigdemont, the president of Catalonia, first made a unilateral declaration of independence, and seconds later suspended it — for the moment — calling for dialogue. A few days later Mariano Rajoy, the President of Spain, sent him a letter asking whether he had declared the independence. If so he would trigger article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which suspends the autonomous status of Catalonia. However, if Puigdemont were to backtrack Rajoy would be ready to start a dialogue, but always within the current legal framework. In other words, Rajoy sent a clear message to Puigdemont: “secession is not in the cards, no matter how hard you push”.

However, Puigdemont has been pushing hard because in his response letter he explained that the independence was declared, and then suspended, but if the Government of Spain would not come to the negotiating table now and trigger article 155, the Catalan Parliament will vote the declaration of independence. This apparent threat let Rajoy to call for the application of article 155 by the Senate starting on Friday 27 October and as a response [on the same day, Puigdemont finally went for the unilateral declaration of independence in the Catalan Parliament. The brinkmanship game went all the way to the edge. Catalonia is now governed out of Madrid, Rajoy has called for new elections in Catalonia to be held on the 21 December while Puigdemont has escaped to Brussels.]

This game of chicken, which reminds us to that between Syriza’s Government and the Eurogroup in 2015, has, of course, its economic costs. During this diplomatic back and forth between Puigdemont and Rajoy, most of the big companies of Catalonia, including the two big banks: CaixaBank and Sabadell, have moved their legal headquarters to other parts of Spain. Business people have had enough of the independence dream and have started to vote with their feet. Roughly 150 companies have moved out of Catalonia every day since October 2 reaching now more than [2,300], but the [ former members of the] Catalan Government do not seem to care much. They say it is a ploy from Madrid against them.

To bring even more tension to the drama, on 16th October, Carmen Lamela, a judge from the Spanish High Court, sent the two leaders of the main pro-independence civil society organizations, Jordi Sánchez (ANC) and Jordi Cuixart (Òmnium) [and on 2 November, after the proclamation of the independence, the entire former cabinet of the Generalitat (the Catalan Government) — apart from Puigdemont and a few other members who fled to Belgium –] into custody on charges of sedition. Yes, sedition, which the Oxford dictionary defines thus: “conduct or speech inviting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch”. Yes, indeed, sedition is what we [have witnessed] in Catalonia. There is no better word to describe it. And, believe me, it is not for a noble cause (Ghandi would not approve). I will try to explain why in the following paragraphs.

As a Galician who speaks Galician at home with his parents, and was born and raised in Basel (Switzerland), where the language used in daily life is baseldütsch (which is quite different from Hoch Deutsch, High German), I have always been sympathetic to the Catalan desire to preserve the regional language and culture. I have also admired the Catalan people’s capacity to be united, fight for more autonomy and, whenever their moderately conservative “nationalist” party Convergencia i Unió (CiU) was necessary to build a majority in the Spanish parliament, extract from the central government in Madrid as many concessions and privileges as possible. Yes, in certain ways, I admired the Catalans. I thought we Galicians should do the same. Only thus would we get the infrastructures necessary to be connected to the outer world. Bear in mind that even today the train journey from Madrid to A Coruña (where my parents live) lasts six hours, while that from Madrid to Barcelona two hours and a half (the distance is similar).

Politics, democratic politics that is, is a game, and the Catalans have always played it rather well. So much so that they have convinced many people, including myself until relatively recently, that they should have the so-called “right to decide” their future (the Catalan version of the right of self-determination). As the Scots and the Québécois had the opportunity to decide in a referendum whether they wanted to be independent or not, why shouldn’t the Catalans have the same right? Overall surveys say that roughly 80% of Catalans want to have a vote on this matter. Following this logic, I have always thought that if one part of Spain wants to leave the union, then the rest of Spain has a problem. It is not attractive enough. Perhaps a referendum (as I thought when I was living in the UK about a referendum on the EU) would finally make the case easier to understand. Intellectuals and politicians would come out and explain why it makes sense for Catalonia to be part of Spain.

You cannot just say: “oh, I don’t like this type of democracy. I have tried to change it, but I can’t, so I will create my own democracy”

However, I was wrong on Brexit and on Catalonia too. In recent years after many discussions with my cousin, who has Galician origins but was born in Catalonia, feels Catalan and speaks Catalan daily, I have started to change my mind. He pointed out to me in clear terms that according to the Spanish Constitution — incidentally approved by roughly 90% of the Catalans in 1978 — the only sovereign is the Spanish people and any decision affecting them needs to be decided by the Spanish sovereign as a whole. In other words, if Catalonia votes to be independent this would affect him as a Catalan but also me as a Spaniard so I should have the same right to vote than him. Looked from this angle, things are slightly different: Spain has a problem if Catalonia wants to secede but Catalonia, or at least those that want independence in Catalonia, have equally a problem if they are not able to convince the rest of the Spaniards that it is in the best interests of the Spanish sovereign for the Catalans to have “the right to decide”.

The democratic tools are certainly there. The Spanish Constitution can, and could, be reformed in order to allow for a binding referendum in Catalonia. To do that it is necessary to have two thirds of the votes in the Spanish Parliament. It is a high bar. But all advanced western democracies have such a high threshold for an institutional change of this order. The separatists in Catalonia claim that this argument is fallacious. It will be impossible for them to ever reach a two-thirds support in the Spanish Congress and therefore -after asking for years to negotiate- they are now compelled to pursue the unilateral route.

This is a weak argument. You cannot just say: “oh, I don’t like this type of democracy. I have tried to change it, but I can’t, so I will create my own democracy”. While no Spanish Government has ever had an electoral mandate to negotiate a referendum with the Catalan authorities (because the overwhelming majority of Spaniards do not want it and this needs to be respected, something that the secessionists in Catalonia forget), over the years, support for a binding referendum has increased in Spain. As a matter of fact, Podemos, the new left-wing party which obtained over 20% of the votes in the last general election in 2016, and which draws support from all over Spain is in favour of the idea. Who knows? Perhaps in 10 or 20 years the issue would have ample support among Spanish citizens.

But no, the Catalan secessionists have not had the sufficient patience nor the necessary long-term strategy to convince the rest of Spaniards. Independence needs to be achieved now, no matter what. This is not very democratic.

This is part 1 of a trilogy. You can find Part 2 here and Part 3 here (although I don’t advise you to jump to part 3 before reading part 2).



Miguel Otero Iglesias

Senior Analyst, International Political Economy, Elcano Royal Institute. Also at IE University & ESSCA School of Management