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Contrary to widespread assumptions abroad, sometimes tinged with a romantic framing, clichés and some myths by both Spain and Catalonia, a genuine wish for more home rule and even independence is definitely not the sole root factor in this spiralling crisis.
Indeed, there is a political challenge regarding territorial cohesion and the anchoring of Catalonia in the modern Spanish state. Since the restoration of democracy in the 1970s and the 1978 Constitution, Catalonia is an essentially self-ruled region with powers far above the European average in other similarly independent-minded regions.
The last attempt at reinvigorating these constitutional arrangements took place in the past decade, when the Catalan Parliament (with a then leftist coalition of Socialists and pro-independence Republicans) passed a draft new Statute of Autonomy. This was approved with amendments at the Spanish Parliament and endorsed in a 2006 referendum.
It is factually wrong to simply frame this crisis as a stubborn Madrid refusing to concede more home rule to Catalonia
The conservative Popular Party of current Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy filed a constitutional appeal against this Statute. It was partly upheld in 2010 by the Spanish Constitutional Court, which struck down some provisions, which it deemed not in accordance with the Spanish Constitution.
However, the Catalonian political class rejected the ruling, which has contributed to an increase in pro-independence sentiments. It is probably haunting Rajoy’s government today and it clearly hurts its standing in Catalonia.
But it is factually wrong to simply frame this crisis as a stubborn Madrid refusing to concede more home rule to Catalonia. On balance, the past decades cast quite a positive light on devolution and flexibility – actually leading to disenchantment in other regions, which feel second class in the political and budgetary priorities of different governments in Madrid.
Beyond self-government, in the current political developments in Catalonia there is an often overlooked but profoundly populistic component, not dissimilar to other movements rocking Europe and the West these days.
It must also be placed against the backdrop of the shattering of Spain’s political party system through the confluence of the economic and institutional crisis. The then moderate Catalan nationalist leaders, upon pressure from austerity measures and their ensuing political and social tensions, and beset by corruption scandals like their Madrid peers, scapegoated ‘Spain’.
Independence from Spain, largely at any cost, has become in the eyes of many the panacea for the region’s ills, largely, just like Brexit, without any sound consideration of consequences, pros and cons, and costs
In a stunning take-over of Catalan institutions, secessionist hardliners, hitherto a fringe movement, moved from street politics to drive institutional politics now, as is the case of Carme Forcadell, the Catalan Parliament Speaker.
This amalgamation of forces include centre right nationalists, republicans and extreme left anti-EU and anti-NATO groups, such as CUP, a party whose youth wings have been visible burning EU, French and Spanish flags.
Independence from Spain, largely at any cost, has become in the eyes of many the panacea for the region’s ills, largely, just like Brexit, without any sound consideration of consequences, pros and cons, and costs.
Often, rational debate has been silenced and dissenting voices sidelined, as identity politics have taken hold. This sometimes includes disturbing assertions by high-level politicians of Catalans’ ethnic roots or, as Forcadell herself has hinted, that non-nationalists are not Catalans.
A fundamental element in this crisis is also the assertion of plebiscite majoritarianism over pluralistic democracy based on rule of law and equal rights.
There was no ‘No’ campaign (as opposition parties refused to endorse the referendum), no census, no Electoral Board and no independent monitors, such as the OSCE or the Council of Europe
The way the secession laws were passed on 6 September in the Catalan Parliament was undemocratic. The pro-independence bloc, which enjoys a wafer-thin majority, rode roughshod over Catalonia’s parliamentary rules, its own Statute of Autonomy and the rights of opposition MPs. It did so during a late-night session and against the Parliament’s own legal advice. The opposition bloc left the session in protest and did not vote.
This is what triggered the current crisis while making even more difficult the prospect of any solution. The referendum, banned by Spain’s Constitutional Court, was never going to be a proper democratic vote, with two sides making their arguments on equal basis.
There was no ‘No’ campaign (as opposition parties refused to endorse the referendum), no census, no Electoral Board and no independent monitors, such as the OSCE or the Council of Europe.
The goal was political: conflating a ‘right to decide’ with a purported ‘right of independence’ – that is, not differentiating between the many Catalans who want a different status, and those who demand outright independence.
This was therefore no referendum but a plebiscite: a popular mobilisation of mostly the pro-independence electorate to condone an already agreed upon decision. Were this vote to be accepted, it would effectively deprive the rights of at least half of Catalonia. Many in Madrid (and in Catalonia too) see this as akin to a coup d’état – albeit without tanks and with crowds.
The images of police violence have badly tarnished Spain’s global reputation and largely boosted the secessionists’ case in a context of an information war, conflating cases of abuse with inflated figures, Photoshopped pictures of previous riots, etc. It is less than clear that violence was widespread.
This new turn has further fanned the sentimental politics now dominating Catalonia and incensed many – not just secessionists – making the moderates’ case more difficult.
The secessionists leaders are to blame for irresponsibly leading people in front of riot police in a very volatile situation, but they undoubtedly scored a huge political goal, helping many to overlook their contempt for the rule of law
That the vote itself grossly fell short of any standards (with alleged instances of double voting, group voting, stuffed boxes, etc.), that the ‘Yes’ vote represents the preference of at best 40% of Catalans and that the Catalan Government announced victory – even while counting was ongoing – and a subsequent move towards unilateral independence, has become largely irrelevant.
The secessionists leaders are to blame for irresponsibly leading people in front of riot police in a very volatile situation, but they undoubtedly scored a huge political goal, helping many to overlook their contempt for the rule of law.
Rajoy is in a bind. It cannot accept some of the demands of the Catalan Government – including the withdrawal of Spanish police forces from Catalonia – and accept the effective dismissal of any residual state authority there, let alone accepting independence.
At the same time, it must tread with huge caution, not to escalate further, especially after the violence on Sunday.
Ideally, a constitutional reform with a specific reference to Catalonia as a nation, allowing maximum home rule to Catalonia (including more tax powers), could be a way forward in the mid-term. This would require constitutional elections and a nation-wide referendum, perhaps followed by another one in Catalonia.
Yet the fact remains that any solution to this crisis is, sadly, becoming more remote, due to the very tense and polarised political context.
Should the Catalan Government declare independence unilaterally, this would take the crisis to an even more worrying level. For a start, it would probably result in less self-government in Catalonia, as Madrid would then invoke a constitutional provision which, upon consent from the Senate, is aimed to oblige a region to abide by its constitutional obligations.
Yet the fact remains that any solution to this crisis is, sadly, becoming more remote, due to the very tense and polarised political context
Any such measures will inevitably escalate tensions in Catalonia, where this will be perceived as an attack on their self-government, perhaps leading to pockets of resistance and insurrection, along the patterns we are witnessing these days, with mobs harassing Spanish policemen and non-nationalists.
Political dialogue and statesmanship are no doubt needed, and authorities in Madrid have a precious opportunity to come up with a vision for Catalonia. But, in truth, it is unclear that the current Catalan leaders would entertain any step back, nor that the forces supporting them would allow them to.
Banner image: Independence supporters in Barcelona protest agaist police actions during the referendum. Courtesy of PA Images
Francisco de Borja Lasheras heads the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations and is a noted commentator on Spanish and European affairs.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.