Many foreign observers have misread the impasse between Catalan secessionists and the Spanish government.
MADRID – Many foreign observers have misread the impasse between Catalan secessionists and the Spanish government. The general view from abroad seems to be that the Catalan independence movement is democratic and peaceful and that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy could resolve the issue simply by calling for a referendum, or by granting greater fiscal autonomy to Catalonia.
If only it were that simple.
Among the biggest misconceptions is the belief that secessionist leaders are democratic; they are anything but. Not only did they violate Spain’s constitution in launching their bid for independence; they also ignored the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, the region’s highest law, when they rammed a secession law through the Catalan parliament in September 2017.
Lack of consensus
To amend the statute, two-thirds of parliament must agree. This threshold exists in most constitutions in continental Europe. After centuries of political instability, Europeans have learned that a simple majority is insufficient to change the rules of the game. Broad consensus is essential; the requirement of a supermajority ensures that it exists.
Catalonia’s separatist leaders forged no such a consensus, and they didn’t care. With their slim parliamentary majority, they initiated a “binding” referendum, proclaiming that 51 percent of the vote would be sufficient to establish the Catalan Republic. And this republic would be formed regardless of what the majority of Catalans, or Spaniards for that matter, wanted.
Determining the movement’s commitment to peace is trickier. It is true that leaders have always advocated restraint. It could even be argued that the only violence during the standoff last year was at the hands of the Spanish national police, who forcibly stopped people from voting in the illegal referendum.
But I believe that this view is too charitable because it overlooks the institutional “violence” that the region’s secessionists have orchestrated. The Procés Constituent—the Catalan independence movement that was launched in 2013—claims that its only tactics are mass demonstrations and civil disobedience. But, in reality, it also threatens the Spanish state through parallel institutions. With the creation of state-like bodies, including a tax authority, the future “Catalan Republic” is already challenging the Spanish government’s authority.
The effects of this institutional violence are varied and costly. More than 3,000 companies have relocated their headquarters from Catalonia, uncertain how regional politics might affect their operations. They fear they could lose access to the single market or be taxed by the new “illegal” republic. Citizens are equally confused. For example, between the referendum, on October 1, and the unilateral declaration of independence on October 27, many Spaniards didn’t even know which side Catalonia’s 16,000 police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, was on.
As the Spanish writer, Javier Cercas has described it, the country has been witnessing a postmodern coup d’état. Separatist leaders remain in preventive detention awaiting trial not because of their ideas, which are legitimate, but because of their seditious actions. Of course, secessionists are right to say that the judiciary will not solve the Catalan question. But the secessionists themselves have burned all the bridges, and it will take time to rebuild them.
Politically, the Spanish government is not in a position to offer concessions; the level of disloyalty has simply been too severe to ignore. No Spanish governing party has ever had a democratic mandate to negotiate a binding independence referendum for Catalonia, and that fact is unlikely to change now.
Two million Catalan nationalists—who continue to have a majority in the Catalan parliament after capturing 47 percent of the popular vote in last month’s election—cannot hold the rest of the country hostage. This is why Ciudadanos, the Citizens party, which strongly opposes Catalan independence, has the most support of any party in Catalonia. It has done particularly well in the Barcelona metropolitan area, which is more cosmopolitan and wants to remain in Spain.
For Catalan separatists, this means they now face what the political scientist Hans Morgenthau termed the “A-B-C paradox” of nationalism. If Catalonia wants to leave Spain, why shouldn’t Barcelona have the right to leave Catalonia? And why wouldn’t today’s “oppressed” Catalans become tomorrow’s oppressors to prevent that from happening?
Given that the status quo is unstable, and independence impossible, many believe that the only solution is more fiscal autonomy for Catalonia. But this, too, is unlikely in the near term. Spain is a decentralized country already, and the government cannot give more autonomy to Catalonia without the consent of the other autonomous regions, which are unlikely to provide it, given that Catalonia is already privileged. So, while the unilateral route was always impossible, the bilateral solution proposed by Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s former prime minister and the leader of the independence movement, now appears to be dead as well.
One way out
That leaves just one way out: to reform the Spanish constitution and make it truly federal. This would require Catalan nationalists to drop their independence bid and re-engage with Spain’s government and state institutions. They would have to emerge from their Catalan bubble and build alliances with other political forces that want a federal system.
Outsiders may misunderstand the complexities, but perhaps even Spaniards are underestimating the odds of resolving the crisis. In the post-Brexit European Union, Catalans might be pushing against an open door, even in the Spanish capital. After all, if Spain’s elites really want a more federal Europe, they cannot say no to a more federal Spain.
The author is a senior analyst in an international political economy at Elcano Royal Institute.