Following a call from grassroots organization '#parlem?' (do we talk?), thousands of protesters wearing white demand dialogue in front of the Generalitat of Catalonia, Oct 7,2017. Matthias Oesterle/Press Association. All rights reserved. Having watched the waves of protest and speeches and chaos unfold over the past week, my mind has been cast back to a moment I of insight. In one of our university Spanish prose classes, I remember bouncing around possible translations of a specific word in an English text. We scrambled around for a solution, but produced nothing more than clunky phrases which sat like awkward imposters amid rows of perfectly uttered Castilian. I remember our lecturer explaining that in fact in Spanish there was no real equivalent : the word ‘to compromise’ has no translation.
When you consider the last 80 years of Spanish politics, this is revealing. After all, Civil War sparked by a coup d’état is probably the epitome of escalated tension. Francisco Franco’s 36-year fascist dictatorship prohibited compromise in its pursuit of protectionist economic policies and a deeply socially conservative agenda. More recently, in June of 2016 the country was forced to hold a second round of general elections after the major parties bickered for 135 days in talks supposed to establish a coalition government. Bluntly speaking, this is a political arena where principles are never sacrificed to satisfy practicalities.
This seems crucial to understanding the current situation in Catalonia. Ordinarily, of course, the desire of a state or community to become independent isn’t met with an open mind by any central government. The dissolution of a union isn’t exactly an appetising prospect, realistically-speaking. After all, the loss of Catalonia would be a huge blow for the Spanish economy: it is home to 19% of the country’s GDP, 20.7% of foreign investment and 25.6% of exports. Perhaps more importantly, the success of the independence movement would mean almost certain failure and ridicule for the leader and party running the nation at that time. Just remember the hysteria of Cameron and Osborne just days before the Scottish referendum in September 2014, when the possibility of an independent Scotland on their watch saw them galvanised into last minute campaigning. Rajoy would go down in the history books as the prime minister who lost Catalonia, just as Cameron is now the man who took the UK out of Europe.
However, the unrelenting stance on both sidesis ore than this: rooted in a ferocity of conviction which mean only mean fighting to the death. Anything less is capitulation and failure. Spain will almost certainly never change article 92 of the constitution which would allow for a referendum, and certainly not for the time being, when the pro-independence movement has gained so much momentum and support after the police brutality of October 1.
Equally unlikely are talks or negotiations: the PP have no interest in even entertaining any of the Catalan Government’s demands. They are simply going to repeat their standard rhetoric, namely that the referendum was illegal, as would be a declaration of independence.
So, what is to come?
Given the most recent anti-independence protests of the so-called ‘silent majority’, (fronted by anti-separatist politician and former President of the European Parliament Josep Borrell, and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mario Vargas-Llosa), and with the support of German and French governments, the rigid stance of the central government seems to be getting stronger. After all, the constitution essentially ensures that they hold all the cards. If Puidgemont announces independence, he will trigger a response of epic proportions. Article 155 will be used to reign in the powers of the autonomous government. More businesses will abandon a state plunging further and further into crisis. There will be more protests, more police and more violence.
De-escalation is off the table, because there is no table. This is, after all, nothing more than a stand-off, and the crisis can only end when one side concedes defeat. The Spanish government will use its constitutional arsenal and plain brute force to squash the hopes of an independent Catalonia. The likely outcome is that Puigdemont will eventually give up.
This would, I suppose, be a short term success for Madrid : the self-proclaimed defendants of the constitution would have fulfilled their role and the country would remain united. But pursuing a policy of pig-headed defiance can only lead to further problems. Anti-independence protestors perhaps summed it up best in their call for a restoration of reason: ‘¡Basta ya! ¡Recuperemos la sensatez!’ However, the question of ‘sensatez’, or sense, I think must also be applied to the central government.
Stamping out the legitimate desires of a sizeable group is not democratic, even if you dress up your actions as a noble necessity which protects the essence of the democracy you rule. Uncompromising behaviour will only ever polarise, and if Spain doesn’t consider modifying its constitution to cater for the plurality of voices of its different regions, it will only force pro-independence movements to use other, probably more extreme means to speak out. After all, if your democracy denies you the right of the ballot box, what else can you expect?
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