Can Europe Make It?

Catalan anxieties

The upcoming regional elections in Catalonia will be divisive. Convinced of the need to get the upper hand, secessionists are ready to take a few shortcuts. Español

Joan Costa Alegret
10 September 2015

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 15.35.55.png

Members of Junts per Si assemble under Barcelona's triumphal arch August 2015. SBA73/flickr. All rights reserved.

Over the last thirty years across both the European continent and the United Kingdom the diffusion of power has been the driver of unprecedented political decentralisation. This process of redistribution of competencies has brought about many positive consequences. 

The Treaty of Lisbon recognised this fact and expanded to the regional and local levels the principle of subsidiarity, which refers to the method whereby policy action is taken by the level of governance most suitable and able to do so.

Subsidiarity brought overall cohesion, at least at a legal and administrative level, to the European Union and yet, from the 2008 economic crisis onwards, many European governments have been bound (and in some cases keen) to apply recentralisation policies. This has been done, in part, to be able to cope with very strict fiscal deficit control instructed by the communitarian authorities in Brussels.

Whilst the process of devolution in Europe has brought about many benefits, it has also had some unintended consequences, among which is the renewed predicament of a number of secessionist movements that now feel powerful enough to make their case. 

Particularly strong are those (usually from affluent regions) that have evolved from a combination of nationalist ideology, patriotic sentiment and economic liberalism. Their narrative is anchored in a reinterpretation of a people’s rights, including the right of internal self-determination that goes beyond both state constitutions and international law.

The paradox in some advanced European democracies today is that secessionists are taking advantage of the increasing redundancy of the Nation State. This redundancy, triggered, amongst other things, by the transfer of sovereignty to supranational bodies, by a NATO-led defence umbrella and by an increasing economic and institutional integration has led secessionists to want to build precisely what is otherwise in decay: a Nation State of their own. 

While declaring to embrace the principles of the European Union, they claim that the broader political structure in which they currently find themselves embedded is too dysfunctional, too costly and too aggressive, thus making it a threat to the people’s identity rights and economic interests.

By building an external enemy as the cause of their internal problems, secessionists overlap in many aspects with the Eurosceptic narrative, now very much on the rise across the European Union. At the same time, they tend to forget that the European project was built precisely to overcome acute nationalism, which destroyed the continent twice during the 20th century.

And yet, in a 21st century that tends, at least in Europe, to lean towards posnationalism in many aspects, the case of Catalan nationalism is a paradigm. It is a paradigm of the many contradictions and shortcuts of a narrative that, overtly or not, has its roots in the 18th century Nation State construct and the romantic ethnocentric ideas of the late 19th century and depicts an epical and millenary nation as a source of “historical” rights.

A country from scratch

On the eve of the upcoming early Catalan regional elections of 27 September, Catalanists have been able to assemble a bizarre coalition. Under a joint list of right wing nationalists and opportunistic national-republicans, peppered with some local celebrities and leaders of secessionist grassroots associations, this mish-mash group have united in the pursuit of power. 

Local extractive elites, along with their numerous clients, have come to the conclusion that secession is good business. Many more have come to the same conclusion. Over the last few years, they have managed to channel the unprecedented mobilisation of a substantial part of a society shaken by crisis, uncertainty and unrest. They have brought people out into the streets in their hundreds of thousands; everybody aligned and festively disciplined under one flag, one t-shirt and one slogan.

Yet, lost in the illusion to grasp what they see as a unique historic opportunity to build their own republic, they seem to overlook fundamental republican values such as equality and fraternity with the other peoples of Spain, with whom they have shared a common fortune for centuries. By doing so, they seemingly alienate their fellow citizens who do not embrace the cause.

Some analysts see political fair play being hampered in the name of the prospects of a brand new Catalan State that is to be set up swiftly, should the nationalists prevail. “We will build a new country from scratch”, they promise.

The current president of the Catalan government, Mr Artur Mas, and his fellow candidates of the joint list, conceive the forthcoming elections as a substitute for a self-determination referendum, the one the current Spanish constitution (likewise any other constitution in Europe) simply does not allow. We are going to count parliamentary seats, not votes, they declare. This, they repeat at every occasion, they are compelled to do because the Spanish government has denied their “right” to a referendum.

This is being considered an illegal shortcut, if not a “putsch”, by many observers. A favourable vote of only 43 or 44 percent (depending on voter turnout) could deliver an absolute majority of seats. Here, critics argue, replacing direct democracy -unavoidable in any case for a decision of this caliber- by representative democracy hardly looks democratic at all. 

On top of this, the existing Statute of Autonomy (just renewed in 2007) establishes that any fundamental reform of the Catalan self-government needs a two thirds majority in parliament. Yet, for Mas and his partners, an absolute majority of only one seat should be good enough to go ahead with secession. That’s the closest to gerrymandering you can get.


Apart from the internal power struggle and the complexity of Spanish politics, which is undergoing an intense reshuffling as a consequence of the deepest crisis since the end of the civil war, there are wider elements that can explain the current Catalan anxieties. These are shared with many European citizens. 

To put it in Europe’s post-war historian Tony Judt’s words (2010): “We have entered an age of fear. Insecurity is once again an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies. Insecurity born of terrorism, of course; but also, and more insidiously, fear of the uncontrollable speed of change, fear for the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of our daily life. And, perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control, to forces beyond their reach”.

How these anxieties play out in the different European countries has some local nuances, but they share the recognisable pattern of acute nationalism, and a defensive reaction to contain fear by building walls. Hungary might be an extreme case, but the current territorial and institutional tension in Spain is no exception.

Pragmatic nationalism has been hegemonic in the Catalan institutions for most, if not all, of the years since the recovery of democracy in Spain. Yet, after more than three decades in power, and a dedicated if piecemeal project of nation building through education, media and cultural policies, this hegemony has taken over self-governing institutions.

The partisan use of such institutions is quite remarkable. The fact that President Mas has been holding the negotiation meetings to build his personal candidacy in his official offices at the Generalitat (the Catalan government’s headquarters) speaks for itself. The biased use of bloated and well funded public media to foster the secessionist agenda is another telling example of the ugly side of a project which, according to official propaganda, is “on the right side of history”.  

As the narrative goes, the fact that the upcoming election campaign starts on September 11, Catalonia’s national day, is just a coincidence. The organisation of a mega-march on that day under the slogan “Free way to the Catalan Republic”, fully backed by both the Catalan government and the public media, has nothing to do with the elections, but is the normal celebration of a national festivity.

The fact that Election Day coincides with a long weekend in Barcelona and in some significantly populated parts of its metropolitan area, where a non-nationalist urban vote might be considerable, is only an unfortunate coincidence. 

At the end of the day, the more abstention in Barcelona’s circumscription, where a seat usually can cost nearly double the votes (48,000 aprox.) than in the other three Catalan circumscriptions (+/- 30.000 in Girona and Tarragona, 20,000 in Lleida), the better it is for the pro-nationalist vote, typically overwhelming in smaller towns and rural areas. Over the decades-long hegemony of nationalists in government and parliament, the legislative body has not been able to pass a fairer electoral law. Bad luck, if you know what I mean.

And, most importantly, they argue that holding the Catalan early election (the third in five years) just under three months before the Spanish general elections, is not pushing things too far, too quickly. 

The nationalists argue that, even in a context of an incipient macro-economic recovery and the possibility of some light at the end of the tunnel, where the current conservative majority is likely to vanish in favour of a potential progressive coalition, ready to open a negotiation to draft a more federal constitution, they cannot wait. It is high time to seize the momentum. To tear apart the five hundred year-old Spanish State and to finally enjoy…unilateral independence: the perfect answer.

“If we have learned nothing else from the 20th century, we should at least have grasped that the more perfect the answer, the more terrifying the consequences”. Again, the words of Tony Judt reflecting on Europe's fate can be illuminating.  

If you enjoyed this article then please consider liking Can Europe Make it? on Facebook and following us on Twitter @oD_Europe

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData