Can Europe Make It?

Spain and Catalonia: an Iberian dilemma

PM Mariano Rajoy has refused even to acknowledge the possibility of a Catalan referendum on independence. Does he realise that his options to save the integrity of the Spanish state are dwindling?

Fernando Betancor
10 April 2014
A Catalan independence march. Wikimedia commons/Ian McClellan. Public domain.

A Catalan independence march. Wikimedia commons/Ian McClellan. Public domain.

Three representatives of the Catalan regional government travelled to Madrid yesterday to formally request that the central government grant the Generalitat the necessary authority to hold a referendum on independence. This was a key issue in the 2012 regional election when voters returned a 65% majority of pro-referendum parties to the Parliament.

The Spanish Constitution does not prohibit such a referendum – though secession is unconstitutional – but regional governments must have the approval of the national legislature for any general plebiscite to take place. That authorization was never forthcoming.

The Catalan representatives went nonetheless, fully aware that they were playing out the necessary acts to the unfolding drama. Jordi Turull, Marta Rovira, and Joan Herrera – each representing one of the main pro-referendum parties in the regional parliament – had no chance of convincing anyone in the Spanish legislature that they should follow the examples of Scotland, Quebec, Puerto Rico and other peaceful, democratic referendums.

Mr. Herrera of the Green Party (ICV) argued that a referendum was the best way for a serious discussion of the Constitutional modus vivendi, which is today broken in Catalan eyes. The national government’s reply was no less disheartening for being expected. Mr. Rajoy categorically refused to delegate the necessary powers to Catalonia saying it would go against the sovereignty of the Spanish people. He stated that he could not imagine Spain without Catalonia or Catalonia out of Spain and out of Europe; underlining the implicit threat of a Spanish veto should an independent Catalonia require readmission into the Eurozone.

Mr. Rajoy maintained a tone of cordiality throughout his discourse and dangled a carrot before the visibly dissatisfied Catalans: the possibility of constitutional reform. The other key national parties agreed with the Prime Minister. The Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) leader, Alfredo Rubalcaba, said he was a “socialist, not a nationalist” and totally opposed Catalan independence, though he admitted that there was a grave problem and called for a new agreement for all Spaniards through constitutional reform.

In a backhanded jibe at Mr. Rajoy’s People’s Party (PP), he castigated the “forces of immobility” who refused to recognize the problem and open a dialogue. Rosa Díez, of the Progress and Democracy Union (UPyD), went far further and less cordially. She insisted that there was nothing to talk about with those who disobeyed laws and “failed to respect the rules of the game.” She wondered how it was that Artur Mas, President of the Catalan government, had travelled all over the world promoting his region’s independence, but wasn’t able to board the high-speed train between Barcelona and Madrid to defend his party’s position. She called Mr. Mas a “francoist” – which is highly ironic – and compared the CiU with Marine Le Pen’s extreme right National Front.

The Catalans’ final comment before the “debate” closed was to confirm that the popular consultation would go forward irrespective of the national parliament’s negative. “The people of Catalonia have started on a path from which there is no turning back.”

Mr. Rajoy perhaps believes that he has resolved his little problem with the Catalans. Without legal authority to hold a referendum, the separatists would seem to have few options. The Parlament could unilaterally declare independence, but without a popular mandate or legal authority, they would be excoriated in Europe and subject to arrest for sedition and secession in Spain. They could hold an unofficial referendum in the Venetian style, but the results would be open to doubt and they would be back where they started. Or they could hold a regional election, which does not require the approval of the national legislature, on the sole question of independence: a de facto referendum which would be more relevant from a voting transparency point of view, though still not a legal plebiscite.

To this legal obstructionism, Mr. Rajoy adds the inducement of possible constitutional reform. In this offer – which in my personal opinion lacks even an iota of sincerity – Mr. Rajoy is applying the ancient Roman maxim of divide et impera: divide and rule. Mr. Rajoy wants to drive a wedge between Catalan moderates and the hard-core separatists by the promise of unspecified fiscal incentives at some unknown future date, while hoping that economic recovery and political disagreements break-up the pro-independence coalition.

It has worked in other countries and in Spain at other times, so his hopes are not completely unfounded. The Partido Popular is constantly bringing up the accommodation of Catalan elites and industrialists with Franco after the fall of Barcelona during the Civil War; they are confident that these elements will always sacrifice the masses for their own private interests. This is a major gamble on the part of Mr. Rajoy. It is not 1940 and the Catalans do not face the choice of collaboration or liquidation by a fascist regime.

The Catalan elites may not be allowed to back down: they know they face the prospects of political suicide if they do. Mr. Rajoy is on the horns of a dilemma, though he might not know it. If the government is insincere in its offer to negotiate with the Generalitat for greater autonomy, it will quickly become apparent, and this will only drive moderates further into the camp of the hard-line secessionists. By cutting off all legal avenues of democratic expression for the Catalans without proffering a sincere deal, the government will only succeed in bringing about what is it trying to avoid.

Yet if the government is truly willing to offer advantageous terms to the Catalans, Mr. Rajoy’s problems do not end.

1) The Partido Popular is already facing a revolt from the right, with numerous loyalists resigning to form a new party called Vox España. A deal brokered with the Generalitat would only provoke additional defections from the PP and weaken them before the 2015 general elections.

2) The other autonomous communities who do not benefit from a deal with Catalonia would feel outraged that the “problem child” is once again spoiled and pampered for her misbehavior. A political revolt to gain similar concessions from the national government would be launched, perhaps even in Madrid, which would see its net transfers rise significantly to cover the decrease in Catalan contributions.

3) If the government gives in to these regions, the already parlous budgetary condition of the Spanish state would deteriorate significantly. It would signal a loss of control of the regional budgets, which is already tenuous enough; and it would create a fiscal hole that no amount of financial prestidigitation could cover. This would bring strong reproof from Brussels and Frankfurt, especially if Madrid continued to miss deficit reduction targets, which is likely even without a further transfer of tax authority to the regions.

All of this argues against the sincerity of Mr. Rajoy’s offer and the effectiveness of his strategy. It seems more likely that he is employing his traditional tactics of delays, obstruction and playing for time. It has worked for him often enough in the past: after two electoral losses to José Luís Rodrígues Zapatero, the financial crisis struck and Mr. Rajoy became Prime Minister.

He outlasted both his Socialist and internal opponents. Mariano Rajoy may be congenitally incapable of decisive action at this stage in his political career. Yet now he faces a situation where time may not be on his side. Mr. Mas has promised to go ahead with the consultation regardless of the legislature's reproof; Mr. Mas has no choice without having his government collapse; and it may well be that Mr. Mas is now convinced that the best chances for himself and his party lie in being the man who secures independence for his country. Regardless, the clock is ticking down to November 2014, when the Catalans plan to hold their consultation. The economy will not improve by then; the government is unlikely to produce real concessions by then either.

Perhaps Mr. Rajoy is praying for a Spanish victory in this summer's World Cup. That appears to be the only circumstance that could save the integrity of the Spanish state.

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

Related articles


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