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The nuclear options of Catalonia

The huge demonstration in Barcelona on September 11 – the national day of Catalonia –  under the banner of “Catalonia, a State of Europe”, has changed the stakes. Independence would be bad for Catalonia, but it would be even worse for Spain.

Catalonia has opened the way for “independence” from Spain, though without a clear idea of what it really means. It could lead to declaring an independent state, or to some kind of statehood within a federal or confederal Spain. Or for the time being just constructing, as its nationalist president Artur Mas has said, “state-like structures”. This, in nuclear arms terms, would be the so-called “Japanese option” of being able to build the bomb in a short span of time but not actually building it, and even less using it. The tide has risen to a point where there are several options, except to leave things as they are. The statu quo is not an option.

The huge demonstration on September 11, the national day of Catalonia, in Barcelona, under the banner of “Catalonia, a State of Europe”, has changed the stakes. It was a clear signal for independence from of a large portion of the Catalonians. Maybe it was even too late for the real nuclear option: give me a better fiscal deal or I’ll go nuclear, i.e. independent.

How did Spain and Catalonia reach this point?

There is no need to go back to 1714 when the Kingdom of Aragon, to which Catalonia belonged, lost the war of Spanish Succession. The fact is that, with the development of two statutes of its own in the Spanish Constitution of 1978, Catalonia enjoys today the highest level of self-government it has ever had.

So, what happened?

I would say four issues have tipped the balance of public opinion over the last  few years. But there is a previous one: some Catalan nationalists saw after 1991 the independence of the Baltic countries as an example for Catalonia. They are now in the EU, with their languages, and populations sometimes smaller than the seven million Catalans.

First. The Catalan Parliament voted in a new statute in 2005, without much enthusiasm by its citizens. It was watered down in the Spanish Parliament  so as to make it compatible with the Spanish Constitution. The Catalan parliament approved it again, and submitted it to a referendum in June 2006 and it came into force. But the Popular Party, today in Government in Spain, went to the Constitutional Court and asked for some important aspects of this statute to be declared unconstitutional. It took four agonizing years for the Court to decide. And when it did - considering some provisions unconstitutional - it provoked a crisis of trust - and legitimacy (which is different from legality) - within Spain on the part of a large section of the political elite and the Catalan population. A massive demonstration in Barcelona in July 2010 under the heading, “We are a nation, we decide”, reflected how public opinion had tipped. If independence up until then was an option supported by a more or less large minority, it not only jumped from about 21% to 51% last June, but in the process became normalized, even banal in conversations.

Second. The economic and financial crisis in Spain has taken its toll. This ha enabled the Catalan government of Artur Mas to foreground the bad local management of the economy by asking for a change in the way Catalans contribute with their taxes to Spain as a whole. If Catalonia, he argues, one of the richest regions of Spain, was not forced to give so much to other regions, it could weather the crisis with far fewer budgets cuts. According to data from the Generalitat (the Government), Catalonia comes third in terms of the taxes collected on its soil, but only eighth in public spending (per capita). The other region with a strong nationalist trend in Spain is the Basque Country that (with Navarre) with the beginning of democracy received a very special deal that actually raises it above the intra-Spain solidarity system. This was partly due to historical precedent, but also because there was a violent terrorist gang called ETA. Mas, who in the short term is asking from the central government a limited bail-out out of Catalonia, is pushing for a system similar to the Basque region. But this dispensation cannot be generalized and does not fit into the Constitution as presently framed. Moreover the constitutional reform that would be necessary requires the type of agreement and parliamentary majority that is, today, non-existent. To strengthen his hand, and even to go for early elections in such a position of strength, he pushed for the demonstration of last September 11, organized by a movement that took on its own momentum, carrying the Catalan government forward on a gigantic surge of pro-independence.

Third - the case of Endesa. Endesa, the main electricity producer in Spain, when it was fully privatized in 2008-2009, remained under the control of the PP even with a socialist government. Gas Natural, a major company controlled by Catalan capital, indicated an interest in taking control of the company. The German E.ON too. Thinking and saying, “Better German than Catalan”, the PP prevented what was, in the end, a Spanish option. Finally, it went to the Italian Enel. But this has made many people in business in Catalonia wary of whether Madrid is playing fair with Catalonia.

Fourth. A feeling of the increasing ignorance of the rest of Spain of the real Catalonia and vice versa. It would take too long to unpack the causes, but not many Spaniards know Catalonia (let alone have at least a smattering of the Catalan language, and for that matter the Basque and the Galician). And in Catalonia a certain idea of “Castile” has spread that does not at all correspond to a Madrid that is rich and self-contained, or an Andalusia that for sure has its own political identity.

The worst moment

The challenge arises at the worst moment, in the midst of an economic crisis that after four years shows no sign of abating, and when the logical position should be to pull together to get out of it. But there is a worrying lack of political leadership in Spain, and even in Catalonia. Rajoy, the president of the Government, does not have that quality. And in the socialist opposition, Rubalcaba is going down even worse in the polls and with reluctance talks about moving towards a federal Spain, whatever that means, while the leader of the socialists in Catalonia is already in Austro-Hungarian mood. The political class is at a record low in a public opinion that has also lost confidence in the institutions of the country. There is no one to put backbone into Spain. The latest public intervention by King Juan Carlos asking people to leave aside their “chimeras” has eroded the crown’s capacity as a neutral broker.

Could there be any middle ground? Yes, of course. But in terms of public opinion there is an increasing divorce between Catalans and the rest of Spain (not counting the Basques). Due to some excesses and the economic crisis, there is a backlash against devolution in Spain as a whole, while in Catalonia and the Basque Country there is a growing desire for more self-government at least. So, the best option - to reform the Constitution as described – indeed seems the most reasonable and the only legal one, but very difficult.  All factors seem to run counter to the sensible management of the situation. The lack of an undertaking to explore new prospects of rapprochement between the President of the Government of Spain and of Catalonia in their meeting on Thursday September 20, is not a good sign. Mas could go for early elections in Catalonia that really would mark the beginning of the hard nuclear option.

A hundred years ago (when Catalonia did not have autonomous powers) the military would have decided. Fortunately, we are not back there any more, even if the situation could still become nasty.

Factors making for compromise

There are some factors which could contribute to a movement towards compromise. First, the dizziness that some Catalans feel when faced with the realities. Catalans are usually not prone to brinkmanship. Then, the economic world. In general, the Catalan business world is in favour of reducing the fiscal imbalance of Catalonia with Spain. Not so, necessarily, and especially among big money and big business, when it comes to independence. And nobody has yet made a serious calculation of the cost of independence both for Catalonia and the resulting Spain.

Mas himself is avoiding the word “independence”, the seeking of a state. But he is riding a horse that he has excited and maybe does not control any more.

And then there is Europe. The EU does not want this kind of crisis on top of what it is already dealing with. Catalans have always been very pro-European. But if there is no European solution to Spain’s problems, Catalonia might  temporarily opt out of the EU. Some analysts are already speculating as they  look into the situation of cases like Iceland or Norway.

As said at the beginning, statu quo is not an option. Maybe a constitutional reform would help to manage the situation, but for that an agreement between the two major parties, PP and PSOE, plus Catalans and Basques would be needed. But federalism is too meager a result for Catalan nationalists who want a special recognition for Catalonia, and a confederation too unstable. (The Swiss Confederation in spite of its name is, as its constitution says, a federation).

The aim cannot be to solve the “Catalan problem”. As the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset famously said, this is a problemthat can never be solved, only made bearable. But at least we should try to secure a new dispensation in which Catalonia and the rest of Spain feel mutually comfortable for another 35 years. Independence would be bad for Catalonia, but it would be even worse for Spain. The Basque Country could soon follow. And a “decatalinisation” of Spain would be a disaster for the country as a whole.

About the author
Andrés Ortega is presently senior fellow at the Elcano Institute in Spain and member of the European Council on Foreign Relations. He has been twice (1994-96 and 2008-2011) director of Policy Planning in the Prime Minister’s Office. His latest book is Recomponer la democracia (2014).

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