Can Europe Make It?

After the Catalan vote, Spain needs to buy time

Spain, and Catalonia within it, is now exhausted from an unprecedented and exceedingly destructive economic crisis which has triggered a vast social crisis that has ended up in a serious political crisis.

Francesc Badia i Dalmases
15 November 2014
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Flickr/SBA73. Some rights reserved.

An unparalleled participatory process, organized by the Catalan Government through militant volunteers, mobilized 2.3 million people across Catalonia on Sunday, November 9. In an election-style press conference that same evening, Catalonia’s regional president stated: “Today, the Catalan people have looked themselves in the mirror, and they liked what they have seen.”

Narcissistic or not, it was a massive, civic demonstration of political will and determination, and the emotional part of it demonstrates how much this is also a matter of feelings, pride and dignity, but also love, and hate. Standing up for what they called their national “right to decide”, countless Catalans deeply felt an extraordinary patriotic emotion. Numerous people sported proudly their Catalan flags and yellow t-shirts recycled from previous mobilizations, happily standing in long lines across the country, and some hugged each other in tears when they cast their ballots. For an act of defiance of the Spanish state, it was an amazingly calm process, led by highly engaged and disciplined people. By all standards.

But, are those plentiful Catalans capable of turning that big mobilization success into a political victory, and get to vote in a fully-fledged legal referendum for independence? Addressing the international community in an article published by the Guardian on November 12, the Catalan president wrote: “A huge majority of Catalans, whether in favour of independence or not, just wanted to express their wishes at the ballot box”. Albeit that “huge majority of Catalans” meant scarcely the 37 percent of the census, of whom 80.7 percent voted in favour of independence (i.e. 1.87 million out of the 6.22 million entitled to vote). The Catalan president believes they have “earned the right to a proper legally binding referendum”.

 “Following the Catalans’ overwhelming backing for independence”, the Catalan president’s article goes, “Spain needs to listen”. If that 37% means a “huge majority”, or if that “backing for independence” (i.e. one out of three) is “overwhelming” or not, is debatable, and the reader can judge for themselves. But what is less debatable is the second part of the sentence, as it is self-evident that, with such a mobilization happening in a core part of its territory, the Spanish government “needs to listen”.

What the Catalan government has been asking for is an official Scottish-style referendum, but that is precisely what has been repeatedly rebuffed by the Spanish government. What for the Catalan president, Mr. Mas, are only “legal excuses”, for the Spanish president, Mr. Rajoy, are pillar articles of the Constitution.

Obviously, now the Spanish president is feeling the heat as he has been asked by Mr. Mas to engage in a negotiation that will entitle that referendum to happen... or face the consequences, meaning by that Mr. Mas will eventually call for early regional elections and start the process of declaring independence.  Under an enormous amount of stress, Mr. Rajoy stood firmly in his position: if Catalans want to change the Constitution in order to allow Spanish regions to unilaterally decide whether they want to stay in Spain or otherwise, they should bring the proposal to the congress, promote a debate and, if they win the necessary backing of two thirds of the chamber, carry on and have a vote.

Nevertheless, he added, he himself and his political party, currently enjoying an absolute majority, would firmly oppose that. As the previously existing stalemate is holding tight, some will think it was a futile exercise, and a waste of time.

Yet, as a result of this whole process, the situation has reached a high level of emotional tension, one that it is almost acquiring an ontological dimension. As the Spanish philosopher George Santayana would have put it, we are directly heading to “the realm of essence”: There is an old nation-state (Spain) that has inside it another nation (Catalonia), where allegedly a “huge majority” now asks for its own state. And that is “overwhelming”. Under such a strain, letting that new nation-state be born is something that the old nation-state does not even consider, as it will mean allowing for its own destruction.

Objectively, peeling off Catalonia from Spain by force will be, at least initially, an economic, social and political disaster for both sides, but especially for the latter. Yet asking somebody - even a nation-state - to commit suicide is probably hopeless. Alternatively, you might encourage a fatal disease to grow and let doctors claim it has died of old age. This is of course a caricature, but it shows the insane level of irrationality the conflict has reached in a relatively short period of time. Spain, and Catalonia within it, is now exhausted from an unprecedented and exceedingly destructive economic crisis which has triggered a vast social crisis that has ended up in such a political crisis, that it is threatening its own survival.

There are a lot of parallels with what has been happening in Europe since 2008-2009. Impoverished middle classes have sensed they have lost their sovereignty and, as a reaction, have embraced the stream of nationalism that runs across the continent, including the British Isles.

We have witnessed a steady deterioration of the quality of our democracies, Hungary being the most conspicuous and worrying case. Now, everybody agrees that, if we find a way of fixing the economy, we will hopefully be able to deal with its negative social impacts, and therefore end up in a better position to stop the corrosion of our political system. But this will inevitably take time, a time that some do not want to concede.

“The hour has come and our whole hearts are in this”, concludes Mr. Mas, calling on the international community to urge Mr. Rajoy to allow a referendum, something he is obviously unable to concede at this point. Ideally, they should both sit down, talk and buy time, at least until the upcoming Spanish election cycle in 2015 (local elections in May and general elections in November) is over. The new correlation of forces will have then to decide how to deal with the deadlock.  But are they really ready to buy that precious time? It doesn’t look like it, as everybody knows that love and hate, as thirst or hunger, are deeply rooted in a sense of urgency. 

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