Sedition in Catalonia — Part 3

A solution

Miguel Otero Iglesias


Photo by Druh Scoff

This is a trilogy on Catalonia. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here

The pro-independence movement is broad and heterogenous. Its glue is a formidable idea: the sentiment of having the chance to build a new country from scratch. It is like having a blank sheet in front of your eyes and fill it with your dreams and desires. The petite bourgeoisie (the big one is not supporting independence, they are doing well inside Spain and the EU) is hoping to have more influence so that they can get regulations from the new state more suited to them; the professional liberals, and some well-respected Economics professors like Xavier Sala-i-Martin, think they will have a less bureaucratic and corrupt administration and lower taxes like in Switzerland; the socialists believe they can build a more developed well-fare system and make Catalonia like Denmark; the farmers hope to obtain more social recognition and status and the anarchists and anti-capitalists (which right now support the Government of Catalonia in order for Puigdemont to have the majority it needs in the Catalan Parliament and drive most of the radical agenda) dream of a communist utopia. Yes, you have read right. The petite bourgeoisie and the anti-capitalists are here in the same boat. Very odd indeed but it also shows the strength of these movement of more than 2 million people.

Overall, the buzz word is: regain sovereignty. Take back control. Or in this case, gain for the first time sovereignty and independence, since Catalonia has never been really sovereign (before being part of the Kingdom of Spain it was part of the Kingdom of Aragon). This explains the desire to break free and to insist on the repression suffered during the Franco dictatorship, when speaking in Catalonian was banned and Madrid ruled the region by stealth. This sense of oppression and grievance has developed into a pathology of victimism based on a number of myths that have been debunked by Xavier Vidal-Folch and Ignacio Torreblanca. One of these myths is that an independent Catalonia would continue to be member of the EU. In other words, that there would not be any costs associated with independence. Here the Catalan Government, like Tsipras and Varoufakis before, show that they do not understand how power works in the EU. The European Council, formed by nation-states, will never side with a region that rebels against another member state. This would establish a dangerous precedent. A different proposition would be for Scotland to leave the UK and ask for accession once the UK has left the EU. The power dynamics are very different.

The sad story is that based on all these unfounded myths and grievances a minority of radicals and fanatics have brought Catalonia to the brink, creating a lot of social tension in Catalonia. To the point where Spanish journalist feel harassed and intimidated (see the account of David Alandete). These radicals have a majority in the Catalan Parliament made up of the heterogenous coalition described above but they do not have the majority of the popular vote (this is due to the fact that rural areas are overrepresented compared to urban and less independentist towns). This important detail did not matter on the 6–7 September, however, when they passed the two so-called laws of disconnection (the binding referendum of the 1st of October and the transition to independence). This action was not only illegal, but also illegitimate and one could argue even undemocratic. Not only did it go against the Spanish Constitution, making the whole process illegal according to Spanish law, it also went against the normal reform procedures of the Catalan Statute. Normally to reform the statute or even to undertake substantial decisions of regional importance like appointing and dismissing the director of the Catalan public broadcaster, you need to have two thirds in the Catalan Parliament. The independentists just had a small majority but they rammed through anyway.

For many casual watchers around the world the feeling is that the Catalans just want to vote and that Madrid does not let them. So when people saw the images of riot police beating voters at poll station they clearly sided with the Catalanist cause. The police violence of that day was certainly unfortunate, and in some cases disproportionate, but it was also produced because the Catalan police (Mossos d’Esquadra) did not [do enough to] stop the process in the months and weeks before the poll. It is generally assumed that voting is very democratic. But if it is done without sufficient legitimacy it is profoundly anti-democratic. Imagine if I bring together a big number of neighbours in my street and convince them to hold a referendum on whether we should make our street car-free. We organize the vote and declare that if the majority votes yes, we will shut the street and declare our small independent car-free republic. It is obvious that if we start to put ballot boxes in the middle of the street, soon the police will show up and take away our “right to decide” by the legitimate use force (if need be), while we cry out that this is fascist, antidemocratic and goes against basic human rights. I guess the absurdity of this example shows the level of mass madness that we have reached.

The acronym in Spanish of unilateral declaration of independence is DUI. This is what the Catalonian government is now threatening with doing. DUI in the US is short for “driving under the influence” of alcohol or drugs. This is what appears to happen. These drugs have been a massive campaign of propaganda and fake news that has let many in Catalonia to believe that their region would soon be independent. To the point, I am told, that many people believed that in a matter of weeks after the 10 October they would get in their homes their new Catalan passports. MAD! Not even Cervantes or Valle-Inclán would come up with that. There is a Spanish word for this: esperpento.

Fortunately, the nationalist dream is beginning to vanish. The reality is kicking in. The big companies are moving their HQs, the economy is starting to suffer from this independentist folly, [the escape of Puigdemont to Brussels was portrayed in the international press as a circus], none of the other 27 capitals in the EU support the “Catalan cause”, neither does Washington and certainly not Beijing, so slowly many independentists are starting to doubt whether this was a good idea at all (dissertation is happening, accusations of treason are emerging). Faced with the application of article 155 and the choice of calling the DUI or new elections, the independentist coalition is falling apart. [ Splits in the broader movement are starting. It appears that the right wing PDeCAT will not run together with the more radical, left-wing republican party ERC in the elections that will take place on the 21st December. In many ways, although they have a number of martyrs in jail, it will be difficult for them to tell people again that independence is possible. The separatist leaders told their followers that if they crossed the desert there would be an oasis on the other side but after the journey they have discovered that there was no water on the other end.]

Soon enough the efforts in Spain will not be directed to stopping this collective suicide attempt but rather focus on how to heal the wounds, and glue together the Catalan society again. A task as Herculean as finishing the Sagrada Familia. Many believe that a legal, agreed referendum of secession would do the trick. This happened in Scotland and Quebec and it worked fine and this is why almost 80% of Catalans want to vote. As I said, for some time I was sympathetic to the idea, but not anymore. As Pau Marí-Klose and Ignacio Molina have argued, a referendum would not solve anything. Most Catalans want to vote because they believe they will win, it doesn’t matter on which side they stand. Given the fractures that exist right now in the Catalan society, a win or lose binary option would only divide the Catalans even more. We would have another Ulster in our hands. I believe the solution must be to reform the Spanish Constitution in a way that it can better embed Catalonia and the rest of regions within the Spanish state. The solution must be federal. The regions could have more self-management of their taxes, for instance, while the richer ones would still contribute the same amount to the common pot.

If the Catalans as a whole want to be part of the EU — and the majority do — they need to abide to the principle of solidarity and this means that they need to start within Spain. More autonomy in collecting taxes, though, should be compensated with more technical monitoring and supervision from the centre in key areas such as the cohesiveness of the internal market and the avoidance of discrimination and separatist propaganda in the education system, for example. Here a fine line needs to be drawn. Everyone, teachers included, should have the right to free expression. But if this becomes systematic indoctrination calling for independence and sedition based on hate speech, it should be disallowed.

I have never heard so many times in Spain the sentence: “the law is the law and needs to be respected” as in the past 12 months. I hope this is now applied in all spheres, from tax evasion, to traffic to environmental pollution.

True. Reforming the Constitution will not be easy. However, this is the only way forward. The PP and PSOE have already agreed to start a commission to do that. It would be important to include the new parties Ciudadanos and Podemos, but also the moderate nationalist parties from Catalonia and the Basque Country, if not the process lacks legitimacy. In Germany, every certain time the Länder and the Federal Government renegotiate the distribution of competences and the fiscal balances. They set up a commission and after a couple of years of negotiations a deal is struck. I hope my country can do the same. The 1978 Spanish Constitution was drafted following the German model, even article 155, is taken from there. Hopefully the new reform will also find inspiration in what is a relatively stable (although not perfect) German federalism. The first thing to do perhaps is to establish clearly the distribution of competences. This would stop the current temptation to pull away more competences from Madrid, and avoid the counter-move: attempts from Madrid to re-centralise them.

In many ways this crisis can have a silver lining, or even several. First of all, it should be a wake-up call for all Spaniards. Spain has come a long way in the past 40 years. It has set up the institutions to build a stable democracy but now has come the time to modernize these institutions. Corruption needs to be fought relentlessly and meritocracy and transparency (and the mechanisms of external evaluation at all levels of the administration) need to be improved. I have never heard so many times in Spain the sentence: “the law is the law and needs to be respected” as in the past 12 months. I hope this is now applied in all spheres, from tax evasion, to traffic to environmental pollution. Another potential positive outcome is that suddenly a lot of Spaniards have started to be proud of their flag. The Spanish flag hangs today from millions of balconies and windows all over Spain, including Catalonia. This has never happened before (except when Spain won the football world cup, of course). When it comes to politics, the Spanish flag was always associated to right wing, or even extreme-right wing, Francoist, movements. It is good that the Spanish left, and many not politically or ideologically driven citizens have started to embrace the flag. If Spain wants to become a modern, advanced democracy, its citizens need to develop a sense of ownership and belonging. So far this was in scarce supply.

Another positive outcome might be that the Spanish state, its governments and the elites in Madrid and the rest of Spain might be more inclined to be more present and engaging with Catalonia. As a foreign ambassador told me recently, how many times did the ministers and the secretaries of state of the Government of Rajoy (and Rajoy himself) visit Catalonia in the past five years? If the Spanish state wants to earn more allegiance from the Catalans, it must be more present there. And this does not only mean putting more money and infrastructures there. Sometimes symbolic gestures can do more than hard cash. Vice versa, the Catalan elites should also engage much more with Madrid and the rest of Spain. I am surprised to see so few Catalans in my professional circles in Madrid. I meet people from all corners of Spain but very few Catalans. I see way more Basques than Catalans, for instance. And I don´t think that the Catalans are marginalized. Sometimes the independentists claim that no Spanish prime minister was Catalan, but we had only five prime ministers in our young democracy and we have 17 regions, so the criticism is unfounded. Catalonia had powerful ministers like Narcis Serra and Josep Piqué. It goes back to what I said, if you want to be liked you need to persuade. And this needs to be done on both sides.

Finally, let me go back to my Swiss-Galician-Spanish-European roots. In the new arrangement, after this dramatic crisis, Barcelona will not have a state behind to compete with Madrid. But this should not be an obstacle for Barcelona to be a vibrant, cosmopolitan and prosperous place. Zürich and Basel are not the capitals of Switzerland and they are precisely that. With the right amount of autonomy Barcelona can thrive and so can Catalonia. Switzerland does not have a seat at the European Council either and it is doing more than fine in this globalised world. The Catalan independentists might say, well that’s what we want. We want to be like Switzerland. But the question is: at what price? With which support? With which legitimacy? After analysing how they have operated in the past few years, [how they have tried to organise parallel state institutions totally outside the legal framework and how they have tramped on the rights of the rest of Catalans and Spaniards (yes, indeed, how they have undertaken acts of sedition)], my answers to these questions are firm: at a very high price, with very little support and with even less legitimacy. Thus, do not call for a binding referendum on independence any time soon. Unfortunately, this idea is now burned, and it has been burned by you!

P.S These are my on-going thoughts on the Catalan question (a moving target). I might edit some of the parts or write a new part in the future. As mentioned, I have now updated the trilogy on the 22/11/2017. Amendments are in [brackets]



Miguel Otero Iglesias

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