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Independence at the eleventh hour: the rise and rise of the Catalan independence movement

On 9 November, Catalans will vote in an "unofficial" referendum for independence. Just how did it come to this?

Nationalist leader Artur Mas addresses his supporters. Demotix/Matthias Oesterle. All rights reserved.

Ahead of November 9, when an independence referendum, disguised as an opinion poll and yet again as a “participatory process”, stubbornly objected to as unconstitutional by the Spanish government, is supposed to take place in Catalonia, it is highly uncertain how events are finally going to unfold. Most probably, people will be able to cast an opinion in a carton box in a protest performance held by partisan volunteers in the name of the fundamental right of freedom of expression. It is only a previous step, the Catalan president stated, on the way to future “plebiscitary” elections that will become the “real” vote on independence. In a mature democratic society, where political negotiation, predictability and the rule of law is the glue of social trust, this is an extraordinary situation. How did we come that far?

Referendums, as the Spanish saying goes, “are loaded by the devil”. But in case of referendums on independence, that load might prove too heavy. The recent referendum in Scotland –an exercise of open and vibrant debate– has proved to be, at the end, awfully disruptive: asking people to decide on the irreversible future of their nation is as heartening as it is frightful. There is a fundamental flaw in this kind of ballots on one question as, if you get a Yes vote, the decision is irreversible, the game is over and no more referendums are to be called but, if you get a No vote, you might still call for as many referendums as you wish down the line until you get the Yes vote you pursue. Blistering emotions are more powerful than cold blood and, whatever the outcome, a polarized society is left behind with wounds and sorrows that only time can heal. How is it, then, that wealthy, civilized, post-industrial European nations can end up in such a zero-sum game?

One Constitution and several nation buildings

Two of the fathers of the 1978 Constitution were Catalans, and they made sure the fundamental law included the recognition of the three historical nations embedded in Spain: Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia. These three nations had managed to negotiate a certain degree of devolution during the Second Republic (1931-1936), and had approved “Statutes of Autonomy”. Yet, having existed as a single state for about 500 years, and coming out of a dreadful civil war and long fascist dictatorship where national unity was considered sacred, the politicians drafting the Constitution could only endorse the fact that Spain was a single nation, its sovereignty lying on a single, indivisible demos. That Spanish nation, though – in coherence with an ancient tradition of regional/national self-government institutions – came to be defined as constituted by different “nationalities” and regions. The key word here was “nationalities”, a euphemism for “nations” only agreed to overcome the more accurate, but highly sensitive, concept of “nation”. Alternatively, Spain could have been defined as a “nation of nations” or even as a “plurinational state”, but in 1978, in a fragile transition process from a uniformitarian autocracy to democracy, those definitions could not bring enough consensus to the negotiation table. Therefore, the Constitution established a quasi-federal system that would bring together the different constituencies under the common denomination of Autonomous Communities. This was not fully satisfactory for the Catalan and Basque nationalists, but they accepted the deal: they saw in the new architecture an opportunity to recover long lost self-governing institutions from where to rebuild their repressed nations. Besides, in a smart move, the Basque Country and Navarre managed to re-establish a very favourable deal by restoring their fiscal and financial exemptions (fueros) –which had survived from medieval times– introducing an asymmetry that would prove unsettling for the whole system in the long run.

From 1980 onwards, Basque and Catalan nationalist conservative parties managed to comfortably win one regional election after the other, devoting themselves effectively to accomplish their core political project: nation building. Being essentially conservative/liberal parties, they played a moderate and centrist role at the national political arena. Whenever one of the two main national parties did not manage to win an absolute majority in the Spanish congress, nationalists were ready to provide stability and prove their commitment to the governability of the state, always in exchange of tangible benefits to bring back to their home constituencies.

At that stage, nation building included national education and linguistic policies, for which a national radio and television were fundamental instruments. They set up a national history museum, a national theatre, a national art museum. They exercised the right to restore their own historical police forces, to honour their national heroes, to rebuild their national myths. A robust identity, a prosperous language and a vibrant culture were a genuine, fertile ground from where the nation could happily blossom at will. Decentralization was working, other autonomous communities were doing well, and the “state of the autonomies” was considered to be a success story across Europe. So far, so good.

State building and a clash with the Constitution

By the late 90s, once the fundamentals of the nation were properly put together, the ruling elites started to experience an increasing power anxiety for not being able to complete their national project. Catalonia lacked the full financial capacity the Basques already enjoyed and only knew that ruling a fully fledged nation turned out to be a clearly under-funded business. And yet, to become an entirely operative nation it is inevitable to fund a proto-state, as a necessary previous step for becoming a fully independent state down the line. As soon as that goal became vocal, a red line was drawn by a central state that started to fight back for survival. It suddenly realized that it might have gone too far in its “devo-max” policies, and that the risk of disintegration was real. The state, thus, froze any further devolution and, at some point, started to recentralize.

Nationalists always develop a natural sense of property over the nation they have successfully built. A sense that was particularly strong in Catalonia as its charismatic leader, Mr. Jordi Pujol, a former banker whose cultural nationalism was inspired by nineteenth century philosophers like Herder and Renan, managed to win 6 regional elections in a row (1980-2003). Those 23 years of same-man rule inevitably created what can be described as a regime, providing leadership, stability and growth but lacking the transparency, accountability, renovation and fresh air a democracy requires if it is to healthily thrive. Rising as the unchallenged father of the modern Catalan nation, he nominated his successor to be his youngest protégé, Mr. Artur Mas, a fairly disciplined, educated, albeit angulated professional politician, who had been his minister of economy (1997-2001) before becoming his deputy prime minister (2001-2003). Mr. Mas was supposed to perform as a buffer before Mr. Pujol’s son, Oriol, a rising star in the ruling party currently retired from the political front-line after being accused of corruption, was ready to complete the dynastic succession. The operation was meticulously planned and yet, Mr. Mas performed badly at the polling stations in 2003. Despite his victory in number of seats (46 nationalist seats to 42 socialist seats in a parliament of 135) he did not win in number of votes and unexpectedly lost the government to a centre-left coalition. Devastated, conservative nationalists felt literally robbed by what they dubbed “a coalition of losers”. “It feels like if burglars had broken into the house”, declared the former first lady, Mrs. Marta Ferrusola, very tellingly.

Yet the 23 years old conservative nationalist political hegemony had managed to turn into ideological hegemony. The opposition was persuaded that the only way of winning the Catalan elections was to fight the battle in the nationalist field and dispute the exclusivity of nationalism to the conservative liberals. Thus, new centre-left coalition government was only possible thanks to a pro-independence party who came third, with 21 seats. The coalition government agreement (Pacte del Tinell) considered to be central to the agenda the negotiation of a new Statute of Autonomy. Although the original idea of the newly elected president, a former charismatic albeit eccentric major of Barcelona, Mr. Pasqual Maragall, was to strike a final federal deal with the Spanish government that will draw to a close the tireless exercise of endless bargaining for ever more devolution and money, such a deal proved to be chimerical. Asymmetric federalism was the name of the creature, but nationalists on both sides did not want to see any federal-like solution for Spain at all.

Obviously, a new Statute was a main concern only to politicians in parliament, and not to people in the street (in 2004, a tiny 3.8% of the Catalans considered the reform of the Statute to be a priority). The conservative nationalists, now uncomfortably sitting in the opposition benches, would by no means allow the centre-left coalition to lead such a negotiation. They would invest all their political capital to appear as the true leaders of the process, even if that meant to drag the Statute reform into a direction that was fated to clash with the Spanish Constitution.

Yet, in September 2005 the Consell Consultiu –a Catalan government institution that ensured the compliance of legal regulations with the Statute and the Constitution– considered 10% of the articles of the new Statute to be unconstitutional (Opinion 269). Ignoring the Consell’s judgement, the government and the parliament decided to go ahead. President Maragall, in a lucid premonition, declared: “We are going to put together a Statute of maximums, and the drama will be set”. He did not have the power to contain hegemonic nationalism and, trapped in the political battlefield, started to become a nationalist himself. Most probably, his presidential term was already doomed to fail because of the many contradictions within the coalition and his own party, but the original mistake of devoting all his energy to a new, improbable Statute, proved to be fatal.

More than two years were consumed in a rollercoaster-type endless negotiation, which included a final backstabbing by the opposition leader –Mr. Mas himself– who met prime minister Zapatero behind doors to agree the Statute’s final draft. The text went through some further undercutting amendments in the Spanish Congress, and ended up in a referendum where, with an unprecedentedly below 50% turnout, only 35% of the Catalan total electorate voted in favour. That was a poor performance for a titanic effort that left everybody exhausted and only one winner: a clash of nationalisms, a constitutional conflict.

A cycle of protests

The new Statute was contested from the very beginning by the Spanish opposition conservative party that considered it to be unconstitutional. Albeit in the text it was relegated to the preamble, and thus it was not going to have any legal effects, defining Catalonia as a nation was considered a thorny point. Like it or not, the 1978 Constitution, according to its Preliminary title (article 2), was “based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards”. For constitutionalists, recognising a Catalan nation as such would certainly mean to recognise Catalonia as a political subject, and thus to form a separate demos, consequently fragmenting the existing Spanish demos and opening the door to potential disintegration. It is clearly a political problem, not a mere legal one, but the indissolubility principle –particularly cherished by the army– remained a red line that could only be crossed through a - again improbable - constitutional reform.

After a contemptuously long deliberation, that took almost 4 years, the Spanish Constitutional Court, responding to an objection from the opposition Popular Party –which had been militantly opposing the Statute from its very inception (including infamously stirring Spanish nationalism by raising 400,000 firms against it on the streets across the country) –, finally ruled out, by a short majority vote of six to four, 14 of the 223 articles long Statute, and interpreted 27 more, mainly regarding financial and legal competencies. That late decision was obviously a significant political error. In an unprecedented move, the Catalan press published a joint editorial under the title: “Dignity!” The Catalan president, backed by a myriad of civil society organisations, called for a large protest rally under the banner “We are a nation. We decide”. A Statute, by no means a peoples’ priority in 2004, was already mobilising hundreds of thousands in 2010.

A blurred political concept was then set in motion: the “right to decide”. During that demonstration, spontaneous chants of “i–inde-indepen-ci-á” –up to then an exclusive jingle of the pro-independence party– turned out to become main-stream, and ignited an impressive 4-year cycle of massive rallies in the streets of Catalonia. How was it that such a drastic option had become main-stream?

On the way to confrontation

Catalan nationalists concluded that the Constitutional Court decision had finished off the 1978 constitutional pact. The transition, they said, was over. Consequently, they felt legitimized to openly contest the Spanish Constitution. After their two-terms long wander in the wilderness, conservative nationalists regained power in the 2010 elections, winning a comfortable majority of 62 seats. It was their best score since 1992. The subsequent nationalist and pro-independence parties’ victory in the local elections in 2011 took over most of the town councils across the country including, for the first time since democracy restoration, that of the up to then leftist and cosmopolitan capital city of Barcelona.

Reality, nevertheless, is a stubborn creature. The harsh international financial crisis was hitting hard and, after the crumbling of the socialist party, in November 2011 the conservatives won the Spanish general elections with a landslide absolute majority (185 seats out of 350). By then, the cash flow from the central government to the autonomous communities was drying-out: the strict deficit control policies instructed by the Troika being compulsory and unavoidable. With a huge inherited public deficit and a costly administration to run (as it includes public health and education), the financial situation of the Catalan government, despite Mr. Mas efficiently championing the politics of austerity, became desperate. In protest for an aggressive dismantling of the welfare state and a skyrocketing unemployment, people were massively taking to the streets with anger. Fuelled by the May 2011 protests, when thousands of indignados had occupied the squares of many towns across the country, the central square in Barcelona was blooming. When the autonomous police used force to clear the square from protesters reluctant to decamp, the Catalan government popularity reached historical lows.

For the first time since post-war times, the Spanish middle classes were dramatically losing both access to public services and purchasing power. With the domestic situation becoming explosive, channelling the anger against the central government and blaming Madrid for the situation was politically advantageous. For nationalism, the construction of the enemy is always very instrumental. Right in the middle of the worst financial and economic crisis ever, taking to Madrid to get the same financial deal enjoyed by the Basque country was a tricky move. In private, everybody agreed it was asking for the impossible, but that it would make a good sell back home.

And then, events unfolded. On September’s 2012 national Catalan day, a huge rally in the streets of Barcelona was almost unanimous in chanting in favour of independence. The giant demonstration was called by an impressively well-organised new civil society entity (the Catalan National Assembly, active since 2010), sided by a traditional nationalist cultural association, Omnium Cultural, and backed by the Catalan government and its broadcasting media. They had devoted themselves to polishing up the national magic lamp for a long time and now the genius of independence was unexpectedly out. Instead of trying to contain him, that same evening, Mr. Mas welcomed the leaders of the protest in the governmental palace and solemnly declared: “I have heard the voice of the people”. Letting the people on the street set the political agenda might turn to be his biggest mistake, as a perilous wind of populism started to blow.

A week and a half later, on September 20, president Mas was in Madrid asking for the unfeasible fiscal pact, aspiring to emulate the Basque’s fiscal exemption. A stubborn Spanish prime minister did not understand what was really going on, and Mr. Mas came back with a victory in the form of a blunt “no”. He was welcomed with general applause for his defiance and cheered by partisan crowds in front of the governmental palace. Five days later, he was calling for early elections. “The time has come for Catalans to exercise their right to self-determination” –he stated. “How could you not call for early elections after the million-man march we saw on National Day?”

2014: decisive elements aligned

In the late 2012’s electoral campaign Mr. Mas asked for a reinforced –if not an absolute– majority, to enable him to carry forward an ill-defined “right to decide” with, he said, full guarantees. But more people than expected were suspicious of that move and yet again, like in 2003, elections did not turn out the way the ruling party had planned. Instead of a reinforced majority, nationalist conservatives were down from 62 to 50 seats, losing 12 MPs along the way. With only 30.71 % of the vote, this was their worst share ever since the first post-Franco regional election, back in 1980. They were now at the mercy of the pro-independence party, which collected 11 of the 12 MP’s lost by Mr. Mas and was up from 10 to 21 seats. They now awkwardly agreed to back a weakened centre-right majority, troubled by increasingly conspicuous corruption cases, but only under one condition: the new government should call for an independence referendum in year 2014. All in all, nationalists retained their hegemony, but the accent on independence was overwhelming.

The pro-independence party leaders perfectly understood that this was a historical opportunity to push their agenda. However, they did not join the government in a coalition, as they thought they would better serve their cause from the opposition benches. They signed an agreement with the government and, as a result, they became both the leading opposition party and the main government ally. Bizarre, maybe, but no contradiction: the moment had come to accomplish the dream of independence. Four decisive favourable elements were to be perfectly aligned in 2014:

a) An absolute majority of the right-wing Popular Party in Madrid, the eternal enemy of Catalonian secessionists, incapable of conceding a single millimetre;

b) An economic crisis in full swing, with a bankrupted Catalan government having extreme financial difficulties, an unprecedented 20% + unemployment rate, and a large number of angry people ready to rally in protest, seeking for a light at the end of the tunnel;

c) A fully fledged governmental campaign to commemorate the 300 anniversary of the end of the Spanish crown succession war in 1714, when Catalan centuries-old self-governing institutions were abolished, was an ideal occasion to convey the historical grievance to the general public;

d) An independence referendum to take place in Scotland on 18 September. Should the Yes vote win, it would only pave the way for Catalan independence.

However, these factors –an absolute majority of an embattled conservative party bluntly opposing any further transfer of money or power; a population devastated by a seemingly endless economic crisis, frustrated by classic politics, genuinely mobilised and ready to fight for a hope; a muscular “end 300 years of colonisation” campaign; and a vote on independence in Scotland–, are all ephemeral. In year 2015 –with local and regional elections upcoming in May and general elections in November– the Spanish conservative absolute majorities most probably will vanish; a weak but steady economic recovery and the rise of a new radical party (Podemos) might start creating other hopes than independence; the 1714 commemorations’ propaganda will fade away, and the Scottish referendum will be long gone.

A full house bet

A pro-independence gale has been blowing throughout Catalonia, with particular intensity over the last 2 years. It has been embraced by a number of actors, from the nationalist conservative right to the greens and the far-left, from the majority of civil society organisations to most of the Catalan media, and the government has been throwing institutional weigh. It has build up a formidable wave. At its peak in 2014, a snap shot of it (a referendum) could change history forever.

The conflict’s most reasonable conclusion, which means opening a negotiation to reform the 1978 Constitution, laying the conditions to build a federal state, nations included, will soon become possible. Reluctantly but pragmatically, Spain (and Europe alike) would be treading the federal path –not through emotion, not through conviction, but out of sheer necessity. And that’s a scenario (a federal, republican Kingdom of Spain, a United States of Europe) nationalists on every side do not want to see. Having smartly created momentum for their cause, and knowing that this is the most probable outcome of the current stalemate, they are in a hurry. “Now is the time”, goes the pro-independence campaign. “We will never-ever allow secession”, goes the obstinate central government, paralysed by the fear of any concession that could be perceived as a failure to defend the sacred unity of the Spanish nation.

Catalan nationalism has come a long way. It has managed to put together a fairly vibrant nation, enjoying a level of political autonomous power unmatched in Europe’s modern history but, alas, has felt short of money. It has built an overwhelming political and ideological hegemony throughout an effervescent Catalan society, highly mobilised in giant and regimented protests, making news around the world. Yet, it has to go the extra mile. Trapped in a capability/expectations gap, embattled by corruption cases –not least by Mr. Pujol’s confession of a decades-long fiscal fraud– it has now to face, with a mixture of survival determination and political vertigo, its own destiny: it either culminates the nation building process by declaring unilaterally an independent nation-state, assuming the costs of a bitter conflict with Spain and probably Europe, or faces the frustration of its plentiful militant followers, who have faithfully and festively been pushing for the pro-independence referendum to happen, only to see a pantomime of it. A lot of them are flocking to the pro-independence party anyway.

To my view, on the long term, the accumulation of political errors can be fatal to a nation’s destiny. Maybe it was an original error agreeing on a semi-federal Constitution in 1978, allowing open-ended internal nation-building processes to thrive without putting in place appropriate mechanisms to finance and appease them at the same time. It was an error to pass an over-ambitious yet controversial Catalan Statute in 2006, seeking to constitute a separate demos for Catalonia. It was an error to build a partisan campaign against it, and present a full objection to the Constitutional Court. It was an error to rule out, 4 years later, 14 of its articles. It was an error to over-react by setting in motion mass protests in the name of a newly born “right to decide”, imagined as a proxy concept of a right to self-determination that would hardly apply to Catalonia under current international law. It was a crucial error from the Spanish prime minister not to concede a negotiation on a new financial status for Catalonia to appease the beast. It was yet another crucial error to call for early elections as a reaction to a rally on the street in 2012, no matter the astonishing number of protestors joining the march. It was an error to promise a referendum on independence for 2014, disguise it as an opinion poll, and call for it unilaterally, knowing for sure that a Spanish government with an absolute majority was going to firmly oppose it from day one.

It is an error to try to go ahead by all means, engaging thousands of pro-independence partisan volunteers to ensure people can cast their “opinion” in carton boxes on November 9, mocking a referendum lacking democratic guarantees by any standard, only to buy time. It is an error to call this a previous step for the “real” referendum to be carried out in the form of future “plebiscitary” elections that, should pro-independence partisans win a probable absolute majority in parliament, would eventually end up in a unilateral declaration of independence.

From a politics of majoritarianism perspective, it would mean nothing but patriotically complying with the democratic will of the Catalan people, and Madison’s warning against the tyranny of the majority would sound backward and obsolete. As certain polls on independence show a 50/50 split at best, this is an indecisive and highly divisive scenario. The truth is that political fragmentation seems to be the name of the game for the upcoming electoral cycle, adding soaring uncertainty to the current disarray.

But I might be mistaken, and, for hegemonic nationalists ruling the current regime, what I call consecutive errors might only be unavoidable bumps on the road to "freedom" for the Catalan nation. To my view, however, so many hazards in such a hurry raise the suspicion that something is going fundamentally wrong, as I find the populist flaws and manipulative aspects of the process to be self-evident. In any case, by embracing a unilateral independence agenda at the eleventh hour, the heirs of Mr. Pujol’s political project of the 80’s and 90’s might lose their grip on power. Or they might not. It is, after all, a full house bet. And the dice of nationalism are loaded.

About the author

Joan Costa Alegret is a Barcelona-born retired international civil servant and occasional writer, currently living in New Hampshire.


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