Can Europe Make It?

Catalonia mon amour

In which the author goes in pursuit of sanity, and is forced to take a stand.

Umut Ozkirimli
26 November 2019, 2.31pm
Thousands of pro-independence activists of Catalonia occupy Barcelona airport, October 14, 2019.
Miquel Llop/PA. All rights reserved.

“Beware of a hot autumn”, said Onno Seroo, Director of the International Relations Degree Programme at Blanquerna – Ramon Lull University, in the first faculty meeting of 2019-2020. He was referring to the likelihood of “strikes and protests” following the Spanish Supreme Court decision on the jailed leaders of the Catalan independentist movement.

And hot it was! As soon as the news of the final verdict which sentenced nine Catalan politicians and activists to between 9 and 13 years of prison on charges of sedition and misuse of public funds hit the headlines, hundreds of thousands of protesters poured onto the sun-drenched streets of Barcelona, waving the estelada, the lone star flag of Catalan independence, and shouting “Llibertat presos polítics!” (Free political prisoners). It didn’t take long for peaceful protests to degenerate into violent clashes with the police, leaving behind hundreds of people and some 300 police officers injured, including four people who lost their eyes from the impact of rubber bullets, more than 1000 trash containers torched, and a deeply fractured society.

How did a country, often held up as a success story of multiculturalism, fall prey to such metastatic nationalism on both sides?

Barcelona, October 2019.
Barcelona, October 2019.
Sergi Vilanova Claudin. All rights reserved.

This was a far cry from my Barcelona, the city that I fell in love with back in the early 2000s. Surely, something had changed. Something that had transformed this laid-back, convivial city into a hotbed of frustration, anger and mutual loathing. But what was it? How did a city, in fact a country, often held up as a success story of multiculturalism, fall prey to such metastatic nationalism on both sides?

A clear picture

The answer wasn’t too difficult to find. First, there was the “great recession” of 2008-2014 which led to record high rates of unemployment, in particular among young people (Spain’s unemployment rate was twice the eurozone average in 2012, with a staggering 57.9% of youth unemployment in 2014). Then, there were the politicians eager to tap into the “pool of rage” created by the unprecedented economic crisis to further their own agendas. Chief among these was Artur Mas, former President of the Government of Catalonia (2010-2015) and the former leader of the centre-right Convergència i Unió (Convergence and Union), who succumbed to intraparty pressures in 2012 and decided to break with the traditional – middle-of-the-road – approach of his predecessor Jordi Pujol to carry the banner of independentism, till then brandished by Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (The Republican Left of Catalonia) and other groups; and Mariano Rajoy, the notorious Prime Minister of Spain between 2011-2018 whose centre-right Partido Popular (Popular Party) initiated the process which ended with the amendment of the 2006 Estatut on Catalonia’s autonomy by the Spanish Supreme Court in 2010, after it was approved by both the Catalan and Spanish parliaments, and by the Catalan people in a referendum – thereby partially crushing Catalonia’s hopes for more self-rule.

The picture was clear enough, and backed by statistical evidence. Support for independent statehood which never exceeded 20% until 2010 started to increase in 2012, peaking at 48.5% in 2014. Pro-independence sentiment had already been on the rise before the amendment of the Estatut in 2010, but this then became an important weapon to be wielded in the fight against Madrid. Hence, the numbers peaked precisely prior to and after the previous popular consultation back in November 2014. The percentage of those who identify themselves as “only Catalan” and support secession have dwindled since then, but it has never fallen to pre-2010 levels.

Following your heart

Yet facts can help only so much when it comes to understanding the current crisis in Catalonia where reality is bifurcated, with few, if any, points of contact between the opposing secessionist and unionist visions. In this bifurcated world, one’s “independence referendum” is another’s “illegal consultation” just as one’s “political prisoner” is another’s “imprisoned politician”. But truth is not the only casualty of this battle of realities. Another important casualty is rule of law, the sine qua non of any democracy. After voicing his concerns on la sentencia, or the final ruling of the Spanish Supreme Court on independentist leaders, Xavier Arbós, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Barcelona told me, “The Spanish government acted as if the only thing that exists is the law whereas the Catalan government acted as if the law didn’t exist.”

Barcelona 2019
Sergi Vilanova Claudin. All rights reserved.

“The Spanish government acted as if the only thing that exists is the law whereas the Catalan government acted as if the law didn’t exist.”

“How would you reach out to the young people demonstrating in the streets?”, I asked him, hoping he would come up with a magic formula I could use in my own classes. “I would downplay the importance of legitimacy”, said Professor Arbós, acknowledging that, at the end of the day, the problem was a crisis of legitimacy. For him, much more is at stake than independent statehood. “Today’s protests are a continuation of the anti-austerity indignados movement. “The protesters belong to a generation which has no recollection of the Franco dictatorship or the transition to democracy”, he said. “They grew up listening to Catalan media and their parents who always told them to follow their hearts, their intuitions and that’s what they are doing. In this context, independence becomes a readily available utopia. They are instrumental separatists.”

Beyond black and white

Xavier Arbós is one of the few who can see past his emotional baggage and offer a nuanced analysis of the unfolding crisis. For the majority, both within and outside of Spain, the reality is as black and white as in an old John Wayne movie, where the good guys (those who stand for the right of national self-determination or those who follow the rule of law) are trying to kill the bad guys (the fascist Spanish state or the separatist vandals). But in a situation as complicated as the current one, nuance is everything, something that is all-too-easily forgotten amidst the salacious reporting of street clashes between the protesters and the police, and this is the palette you need to colour the monochromatic picture.

This is the palette you need to colour the monochromatic picture.

First, independence means different things to different people. According to the latest barometer of the Catalan Centre for Opinion Studies, only 34.5% of the population believes that Catalonia should be an independent state – as opposed to 27% who would want Catalonia to remain as an autonomous community in Spain (status quo). But there are also those who believe that Catalonia should be a state within a federal Spain (24.5%), thereby bringing the total percentage of people who would like to see a change in the existing state of affairs to 59%.

Second, the protest movement is much more organized than before. It is indeed true the number of the people who take part in la Diada, the national day celebrations on 11 September, are down from 1.800.000 in 2014 to 600.000 in 2019. But the protests organized by the Defense Committees of the Republic (CDR) or Tsunami Democràtic through social media and various communication apps, notably Telegram, have been more successful in attracting media attention and disrupting everyday life than before, as the occupation of Barcelona’s international airport on 15 October, the first day of the demonstrations, has already shown.

Third, Catalan independentism is a middle/upper-middle class movement, like most successful nationalist movements in history. Survey data show that support for secession is highest among those who have a household net income of €2000-€3000 per month, followed by those who make more than €3000 per month (averages for Catalonia). This means that the effect of the economic crisis is more limited than it was before, and that the independentist movement is not a balloon that time’s pinprick will burst.

But fourth, independent statehood is not a likely outcome. Media attention doesn’t mean international support for secessionism as the independentists learned the hard way back in October 2017. And it isn’t realistic to expect that a European Union which has just vetoed the membership of Northern Macedonia and Albania would experience a sudden change of heart in 2020.

Where do you stand?

Would this multicoloured picture satisfy my independentist or unionist students and friends? I’m afraid not. “Stop the gibberish and tell us where you stand”, they would probably tell me. “What would you have done if you were in power?” Well, two things. I would first extend a pardon to independentist leaders when the law permits, as an act of good will – even if they refuse to accept it. I would then declare that I am ready to discuss a new statute for Catalonia with any politician who unreservedly condemns (and distances him/herself from) violence.

Barcelona 2019
Sergi Vilanova Claudin. All rights reserved.

I am ready to discuss a new statute for Catalonia with any politician who unreservedly condemns (and distances him/herself from) violence.

Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and we don’t know whether the victors of the snap elections on 10 November will fancy a pudding with their cortado anyway – in particular if there is a surge in support for far right Vox.

“Too much sanity may be madness”, said the great Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. And yet in the case of Catalonia, a modicum of sanity is probably what is needed most.


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