Spain is living through the most serious constitutional crisis since the failed coup in 1981 against the restored democracy, following the death of the dictator Franco. Unlike that crisis, however, the one in Catalonia has no easy solution.
These are sad times: all the stereotypes that Spaniards are incapable of living together, epitomised by its Civil War between 1936 and 1939, are being reinforced.
It is not easy to be dispassionate in the very heated debate over independence for Catalonia. A colleague in Madrid suggested that before talking about it I should take a deep breath and stick my head in a bucket of ice.
The same can be said for Brexit. Indeed, the push for an independent Catalonia, following the illegal referendum on the issue last month and the Catalan parliament’s unilateral declaration of independence, is Spain’s own peculiar form of Brexit.
I say this because an independent Catalonia, should it ever happen, which is most unlikely, would mean the territory leaving the EU and having to re-join, as it only belongs to the EU by virtue of being part of Spain. And it would only need one EU country to veto Catalonia’s EU membership for its membership to fail, and Spain obviously would be the first to do so.
Catalonia, like Spain’s 16 other regions, has enjoyed a degree of autonomy since 1978. Together with the Basque Country and Galicia, it has a profound sense of national and cultural identity. In 1934, two years before the Civil War, Lluis Companys, the president of Catalonia, declared an independent state within the Spanish Republic but it was very shortlived. He was shot in 1940 after Franco won the Civil War and suppressed Catalan nationalism.
There is no doubt that last month’s referendum on independence for Catalonia was illegal. It has been as divisive as the UK referendum on Brexit. Just as Brexit has divided families in the UK, so too has the Catalan referendum.
Was Madrid’s heavy-handed response to the referendum justified? Some 2.3 million people voted (43% of the electorate), 90% of them in favour of independence, although these figures have not been independently identified.
Human Rights Watch has condemned the excessive use of force by the police. We were all shocked by the images of riot police beating old ladies over the head with batons in order to stop them voting. The police violence was a major propaganda coup for the secessionists.
The Catalan referendum violated Spanish law, UN resolutions on the right to self-determination, the recommendations of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, an agency of reference on constitutional matters and referendums, and even Catalonia’s own regional charter, the Estatut. The Catalan parliament’s lawyers questioned the validity of the fast-track procedure for approving the bill for the referendum. The pro-independence parties won 72 of the 135 seats (47.8% of the votes) in the Catalan parliament in the region’s 2015 election.
Spain’s 1978 Constitution affirms the ‘indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation.’ A referendum needs the approval of the parliament in Madrid and of the government.
The independence declaration led the central government in Madrid, run by the conservative Popular Party, to call a snap election in Catalonia on December 21 and to impose direct rule on Catalonia on the region. Both these measures are supported by the Socialist party and the centrist Ciudadanos, but not by the far left Podemos.
The Catalan government and parliament were dissolved, the region’s ministries and local police force have been taken over by officials from Madrid and some of the separatist leaders imprisoned pending trial for rebellion.
Direct rule has been adopted in Northern Ireland. President Eisenhower invoked the same principle in 1957 to fight racial segregation in Little Rock, Ark., and President Kennedy took a similar approach in Alabama in 1963.
What happened in Catalonia was a collision between self-determination and Spanish state sovereignty, between the supremacy of Spanish law and laws passed by the Catalan parliament.
Perhaps nothing captures how far off the rails we have reached in Catalonia than the divergent treatment given to two people before the referendum, Arnaldo Otegi, a condemned former member of the Basque terrorist group ETA, who continues to press for an independent Basque Country, and Joan Manuel Serrat, the Catalan singer-songwriter, an iconic figure censored by the Franco regime. While Otegi was guest of honour at the Catalan national day, Serrat was labelled a traitor and fascist for questioning the referendum.
How did we get here? Very simplistically, the turning point came in 2010 when the Constitutional Court in Madrid ruled there was no legal basis to recognise Catalonia as a nation and that the Catalan language should not take precedence over Castilian Spanish, among other things. This followed a challenge by the Popular Party, then in the opposition, to the new Catalan autonomy statute that was approved in 2006 in a referendum in the region and ratified in the Congress and Senate in Madrid.
The court’s ruling inflamed nationalists who until then were not pushing very hard for independence. Before then, it was unusual for more than 20% of Catalans to support independence. Support for secession reached a peak of 49% in 2013.
This situation was aggravated by Spain’s long and harsh recession and corruption in political parties as they fed the grievance that Catalonia was paying a disproportionate amount to the Spanish coffers and not receiving enough in return.
Other factors are the falsifying of history taught in schools in Catalonia. In the words of the distinguished historian John Elliott, a Regius Professor Emeritus at Oxford University, “With their devolved powers, generations have been exposed to a falsified version of history, a manipulation with nationalist tendencies.”
TV3, the Catalan TV channel, has blatantly pushed the cause of independence and given hardly any voice to those against it.
Not only was the referendum illegal, but it came after a series of claims made by separatists that are demonstrably false. For instance, it is not true – and European treaties reflect this and endless assertions by the European Commission – that an independent Catalonia would automatically stay in the EU and the euro zone. Nor it is true that voting is an exercise in democracy in all cases (dictatorships also organise referendums, as happened during the Franco regime). Nor are comparisons with Scotland viable. Scotland’s referendum was an agreed process and Catalonia’s unilateralist.
More than 2,200 Catalonia-based companies and two banks, including some big names such as CaixaBank, Spain’s third largest bank, and the cava producer Codorníu have voted with their feet and moved their legal headquarters, and in some cases tax domicile, out of the region because of the uncertainty. Even the lottery business in the town of Sort, which has an uncanny record for producing winning tickets (not for nothing does Sort mean luck in Catalan), has moved its domicile and changed its name to La Suerte.
Catalonia plays a key role in the Spanish economy. The region’s population of 7.5 million (16% of the total) generates around one-fifth of Spain’s GDP, one quarter of total exports and received 18 million of the 75.3 million tourists last year. Its economy is larger than Portugal’s.
Not only companies have fled, but also the deposed president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemon. He refuses to appear before a court in Madrid, which has issued a European arrest warrant for him, on charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds, claiming he will not get a fair trial.
He has sought refuge in Belgium where, like a defence lawyer, his strategy is to cast ‘reasonable doubt’ on the quality of Spain’s democracy and, in particular, on the independence of the judiciary, and internationalise the conflict.
The European Commission has made it very clear that it will not get involved in an internal Spanish issue, not the least because it might open up a Pandora’s Box of demands for independence from other parts of the EU.
Spain is a pluralist democracy. It is ranked high in all the recognised barometers, such as the democracy index of the Economist Intelligence Unit, which places it 17th out of 176 countries, ahead of the US and Italy, for example, and not far behind France and Germany.
Ridiculous slogans saying “Franco ha vuelto” have appeared on Catalan walls, making it sound as if the dictatorship never ended. The accusations by those in favour of independence that the imprisoned leaders are political prisoners is rubbish and is an insult to opponents of Franco who were jailed and tortured. They are politicos presos, not presos politicos.
What next? A recent poll shows that the Catalans supporting a solution of Spanish constitutional reform and more self-government is around 70%. Clearly the problem can no longer be left to the courts. Some kind of political compromise will be required to encourage the significant proportion of the Catalan population in favour of independence to be comfortable within the Spanish state.
But the two sides are at the moment so entrenched that a dialogue is a non-starter; furthermore, there are divisions in the ranks of the secessionists.
The central government hopes the unionist parties, representing the so-called silent majority against independence, which was slow to become vociferous, will reverse the current situation and win more seats in the regional parliament next month than the parties in favour of independence won in 2015.
What happens if they don’t and the pro-independence claim a renewed mandate for independence? A lot is riding on next month’s election.
(*) William Chislett writes on Spain for the Madrid-based Elcano Royal Institute and has spoken at all five of Gibraltar’s literary festivals. This article is based on the talk Mr Chislett presented on Saturday as part of the 2017 Gibraltar Gibunco Literary Festival.