Can Europe Make It?

Catalonia’s sovereignist process: the moment of truth

The breach of the social contract is devastating. And it’s not exclusive to Catalonia and its sovereignist process—it goes much further.

Pere Vilanova
18 September 2014

Diada. Wikipedia. Public domain.

There is no doubt that, once again, the march held during “La Diada”, on 11 September this year, was an international success. Up to 300 international journalists (from the BBC, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, TV5, and even Russia TV) attended the march. Half a million demonstrators, by some estimates (the Spanish government’s); almost two million, according to Barcelona’s Municipal Police. If we take an average estimate, 1 million people took to the streets, covering 12 km along the two most important, longest and widest avenues in Barcelona. There were many people there, it was very calm, and there were no incidents (none whatsoever—there’s merit in that), so it was a great success. But it was a success for the people, for their hopes. It remains to be seen how, again this year, this popular success is handled by a political class that, overall, doesn’t seem to be rising to the occasion—less and less so since the first major demonstration in 2012. 

Politicians on all sides repeat the same arguments—they all invoke a willingness to engage in dialogue that is directly proportional to the inflexibility of the respective positions. And in the end, what? According to experts from the Advisory Committee for the National Transition (Consell Assessor per a la Transició Nacional), a body that the Catalan government established back in the day to present the various internal and international legal avenues that were supposed to cover the sovereignist process, there were several legal routes to the consultation. In the end, they are all reduced to one: there may be a consultation (referendum) as long as there is a pact, a legal agreement negotiated with the State, and we already know that won’t happen because the Spanish government, the Popular Party, the PSOE, and almost every other Spanish party, are against it.

There will be no pact. What’s left, then, is the famous plebiscite that, as the Catalan president told French newspaper Le Figaro a few months ago, is the most likely scenario. Calling this election is the exclusive competence of the president of the Generalitat, and therefore it’s legal. But it’s merely a regional parliamentary election, which some parties will consider a plebiscite (and will say so in their programmes), while others will not. What will change with this election is the Catalan Parliament’s party system, but not the underlying issue, because it’s not viable to illegally and unilaterally proclaim independence (and in fact, according to the latest polls, only 24% of Catalans would support such a radical move).

At the same time, the issue of a supposed “international legality” is raised from time to time. President Mas invokes this in a mysterious tone, while the Advisory Committee for the National Transition cites various reasons—utterly inconsistent with the EU Treaty—why the government can’t guarantee any international support, because in terms of international legality, this is a Spanish internal issue. The European Union has been categorical about this, with no exceptions. Brussels has repeatedly stated that, if it secedes from Spain, Catalonia will remain outside the Union to all intents and purposes. And it’s worth recalling, by the way, that however European they may feel, Catalans are European right holders insofar as they are citizens of a member State: Spain. They may not like it, but this is how it is: Catalans are European citizens because they are…Spanish citizens.

We already experienced this cycle in September 2012: a mass demonstration during La Diada (let’s be clear: it was a roaring success, and it made the headlines on CNN and the BBC). Then early elections in November 2012 and the fall of candidate Mas and his ultra personalised electoral campaign when he suddenly lost 12 seats. And then the new Diada in 2013, the success of the human chain and again the mantra “there will be a consultation on 9 November, 2014” without any indication of how this would happen. 

This year there were European elections (by the way, sovereignist parties announced they would present a single sovereignist candidate—where is he?), in spring 2015 there will be municipal elections, and in autumn general elections to the Spanish Parliament; there may also be a plebiscite in Catalonia. Too many elections for the average citizen not to experience “combat fatigue”, since, election after election, nothing happens in the end. Or rather, something does happen: a growing social frustration.

All this encourages ferocious competition among the parties, not mergers, single programmes or sovereignist movements led by a leader accepted only by his own party (with serious internal tensions). And all this—to the shame of the Catalan Parliament, which doesn’t have a Catalan electoral law (the only one of the 17 autonomous communities that doesn’t), or its own electoral board to organise the consultation—without a census, because in 34 years they’ve had no time to exercise this exclusive competence.

Soon an absurd Consultation Law will be passed to fill this gap, which will barely see the light before it’s appealed and the Constitutional Court suspends it as a precautionary measure. That is, there isn’t, and there won’t be, any legal framework for the consultation/referendum that is supposed to take place on November 9. Who is responsible for this? Catalan political parties.

That doesn’t mean that the other side—what is colloquially known as “Madrid”—is any better. Its stasis, and the spectacle that are Congress and the Spanish political class (with very few exceptions) are the flip side of the coin—a poor replay of the most traditional nationalism/stasis, which is two centuries old. Spain was built from the centre, from Madrid, “in Spanish”. That’s why many Catalans who are not particularly politicised have gradually become more radical, because they’ve been made to feel as if they were “flawed Spaniards”, as if they had some kind of congenital defect. For a start, having their own language, and speaking it in private and in public. And by the way, all Catalans are bilingual; most other Spaniards are not. 

This has been going on for too long. In mid-January 2013, first thing in the morning, it was announced on Catalan public radio that the Catalan Parliament had received five resolutions or proposals regarding the right to decide, almost one for each party. As far as unitary spirit goes, it’s not bad. Every year since 2012, on the day after La Diada, the parties (all of them) continue to play the most classic and predictable political game, in which their top priority is to differentiate themselves from other parties, compete for a supposedly disputed electorate, and display a lofty rhetoric about lofty abstract principles, while still accusing each other of almost every flaw and ill intention. Since then, the contradictions and tensions between every party—and within parties, between their leaders and cadres, or between the apparatus and its people—have worsened, and in this regard the results of the surveys are overwhelming. And these tensions and divisions increase exponentially among the separatists, compared with the other side. Every day, and on every occasion, citizens know what each politician is going to say, even if the sound is turned off on the TV.

In other words, the problem is not that someone—from civil society, or intellectuals and opinion-makers—needs to discover some novel idea to make this democratic deterioration—or one of its worst forms: corruption—disappear. The problem is much more serious: ultimately, the social contract has been broken, that is, the set of mechanisms by means of which a democratic society delegates in a series of people (namely, the political class) the delicate task of managing the common interest.

And here another problem emerges. There will be those who say that, ultimately, society itself has failed, that in a democracy we have the leaders we elect, etc. True, but the responsibility for mending the disaster is asymmetrical. Citizens can’t fix the behaviour of the political class, at least not in the short term. Because the object of such a reform are those responsible for carrying it out: political parties. In this context, their kleptocracy (they control everything, they take everything) doesn’t refer to the economic ambitions of such and such individual, however sad a daily spectacle that may be.

Kleptocracy here refers to the absolute control that they wish to continue holding over every public institution, from the General Council of the Judiciary and the Constitutional Court to the governing boards of public media. Thus, it’s not about ideas, but about behaviours. The breach of the social contract is devastating. And it’s not exclusive to Catalonia and its sovereignist process—it goes much further. But of course, going back to the by now classic analogy, what for many was going to be an unstoppable and magnificent soufflé seems to be going the way of a thick fondue. It’s not that it’s bad, but it’s heavy to digest.

In sum, this whole ongoing political process is affected by various structural stress factors that are getting worse each year. The first of these stress factors is, of course, the crisis. In 2012, the rescue deal requested according to norms established outside Catalonia (and Spain)—in Brussels—was formalised. This rescue deal could be interpreted from various different political perspectives, but it was obviously necessary in the face of economic emergencies that could not be put off. Therefore, those who say that the structural solution to the crisis would be for Catalonia to unilaterally proclaim its independence this coming 9th of November, simply live in another galaxy.

The second stress factor is that at no other time since 1977 have the general context and the nature of what we call European Union been so favourable to economic or political unilateralism. Does anybody believe that what Brussels, Durao Barroso, Van Rompuy, Draghi, Schultz, Junker and Merkel need now is a troublesome secession in one of its key states? And a new expansion, after the questionable results of the expansion to 28 members?

The third structural stress factor is long-standing. It has been growing for years, but the crisis and its Catalan and Spanish versions have turned it into the main problem: the failure of our systems of political representation. That is, our systems of representation of social interests, which by definition are many and very diverse. Traditionally, in a representative democracy the parties, unions, associations and pressure groups were responsible for this task. The crisis has revealed an unprecedented structural imbalance, which has three symptoms (though not necessarily solutions): the rampant disrepute of party politics and its kleptomaniac appropriation of all kinds of institutions and bodies; the conglomerate of 15-M + Indignados, which has still not been able to successfully progress from protest to proposal (despite the new phenomenon of the Podemos party/movement, which did very well in the European elections); and an underlying misunderstanding about civil society, widely invoked by everyone, though in the end nobody knows who it refers to.

This raises a problem that will be decisive to the outcome of the independence process: how to measure representation. Is it legitimate for citizens unhappy with the current situation to ask: “Ok, but how many people do you, the 15 M (Indignados) movement, represent?” The European election of 2014 began to answer this question in a significant, even spectacular, and measurable way: Podemos. It’s a lot, it’s new, it’s sociologically and politically fascinating, but it is what it is. For the time being, it’s all there is, and we’ll have to wait for future electoral processes to able to move from emotional responses to a clear verdict. 

But at the end of the day, one thing we can know for sure is that the current Catalan Parliament was voted by almost 3.5 million citizens, while this or that NGO, however many members it may have, represents only that number of members, even while it may also have considerable, growing, or dwindling social influence. But it remains to be proven that just because one defines oneself as “civil society”, one has as much, or more, legitimacy than the government and the parliament, elected by citizens.

Ultimately, whether we like it or not, political, legislative, and budgetary decisions are made by the appropriate institutions. Citizens may demonstrate (or not, and it’s equally legitimate), but the political class has a long way to go before it’s exonerated for its primary responsibility in the structural imbalance we are experiencing.

The test of the successive Diadas (2012/2013/2014) is not unambiguous; the underlying problem (the relationship between Catalonia and Spain) is anything but binary, it can’t be understood or solved in black and white terms. Catalan society is far more complex, pluralistic and fragmented than either side asserts or claims. And above all, success in terms of civic participation in one, two or three Diadas is no guarantee that society and the political class will reconcile. Some clever sovereignists, point out, rightly, that if these conclusions are true, it’s going to be a long road.

Translated by Silvia Varela

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