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Deadlock for Catalonia and Spain

Fortuna, the crisis, gave Artur Mas, Catalonia’s Premier, the Machiavellian occasione for a jump forward towards full (?) national sovereignty. This is not the message that we need to hear in these turbulent times.

I will start by picking up Joan Subirat’s suggestion in his article from last September 21. “If independence (for Catalonia) is the answer, what is the question?” To me the question seems clear: Does it make sense for a nation without a state to remain within the legal framework of a state - Spain - which is being perceived as increasingly hostile to its demands of self-government and “causes grief” to its inhabitants with an unfair economic settlement?

Here it is important to bear in mind that the semantics of independence no longer correspond to the classical ones that we may find in ordinary international law. Under the conditions of limited sovereignty given within the EU and the euro area, independence shouldn’t be considered as a tragic move. No borders would be erected; no dramatic imposition of another nationality on those who would prefer to keep the Spanish one; even the Spanish language could remain as official and alive and kicking in Catalonia as it is now. It would amount to a mere constitutional and administrative ‘uncoupling’. This independent Catalonia could also keep contributing, within a fairer agreement, to poorer Spanish regions instead of channeling its monetary support to countries such a Rumania or Bulgaria if it happened to be a net European payer. It should be considered that a large part of Catalonia’s population has its origin in other parts of Spain, such as Andalusia. So, why make such a fuss about independence?

But you can also turn the question around and say: if that was to be the outcome, why independence, and not a qualitative change within Spain’s territorial arrangement, a new federal pact, a middle ground between real independence and the present situation? This would be consistent with the fact that two thirds of Catalans still consider themselves according to the polls as both Catalan and Spanish in one measure or another. And, in any case, it will certainly lead to greater consensus in Spain and Europe. It would also insure us against the risks of uncertainty that we always face when confronted with emotionally loaded conflicts, as is always the case with the clash of national sentiments. Or, at least, weaken their impact. In general, we know how these conflicts start, but not how they are definitively put to rest.

On the other hand – and on this Pere Vilanova’s article was quite enlightening- the burdensome conditions for changing the European treatises in order to make room for another European state resulting from the secession of a member state makes the result of this process quite unpredictable. It would never succeed with a Spanish veto, and hardly anyone in Catalonia would be willing to exchange Europe for total sovereignty. Without full Spanish compliance, both internally and on the European front, it could end in mayhem.  The answer, independence, is thus turned into a question: why independence and not something else?  

The Catalan answer would though be, and I would agree with them on this, that they have already tried it out, but were never really heard. A majority of Spaniards would never accept what needs to be done in order to implement a smooth accommodation of Catalan’s self-understanding within the Spanish state. As is well-known, part of Catalonia’s present frustration is due to the rejection of a small but significant portion of its new Statute of Autonomy by the Spanish Constitutional Court.  This statute had already been severely expurgated of its most salient self-governing features by the Spanish parliament.  After that, the sentiment among a large part of the Catalan population was something like the title of that song by The Who: we won’t be fooled again!  

In any case, there is one thing that cannot be denied. The levels of self-government already being implemented in Catalonia throughout the last decades were effectively directed towards the creation of a nation-building process. The use of the Catalan language in both the public sphere and ordinary life became dominant, and a new generation has been slowly socialized within national sentiments that to a certain extent ignore its link to overall Spain. The ‘uncoupling’ of the country that I referred to before was already almost a social fact, although without its constitutional equivalent. It could be said, that ‘sociological Catalonia’ no longer corresponds with ‘official Catalonia’.

It has been a matter of time until that underlying contradiction was made explicit. And the catalyst for it was, of course, the economic crisis. The sense of grievance regarding the investment policies in infrastructures of the central state, Madrid, plus the burden of Catalonia’s contribution to the rest of Spain in the midst of savage austerity measures did the job. This was also fuelled by the deployment of an effective rhetoric of Spanish ‘plundering’ of Catalonia’s resources, and, contrary to what is happening in the rest of Spain, where these somber times are felt as the shattering of all illusions, independence gives its people a hope, a collective project, a light beyond the tunnel, both to their unrealized national aspirations and to the regaining of prosperity. Fortuna, the crisis, gave Artur Mas, Catalonia’s Premier, the Machiavellian occasione for a jump forward towards full (?) national sovereignty.

The fact is that a hitherto minority option, independence, has turned into hegemonic public discourse in that country since it was backed by the huge popular demonstration on September 11. Former federalist promoters have either joined that option or have moved to a disquieting silence, and at this very moment it is difficult to know what a majority of Catalans do really want. In part, because Mas himself is playing with ambiguities regarding the concept of independence. He prefers to utter the words ‘sovereignty’ or ‘achieving our own state’ – recall that a federal state is also composed of ‘states’. Thus, the necessary clarity for drawing the lines that separate the different options of self-government is being blurred. As usual, this contributes to creating ambivalences that avoid having to define for now the real objective, thereby eluding harsh divisions within Catalonia and vis-à-vis Spain. It seems clear, though, that his tactics consist in presenting the picture of a friendly, homogeneous and democratic Catalonia to Europe and the world in its search for political recognition. This is thought to be the necessary condition for avoiding harsh Spanish interference and, when the time comes, for pressing Spain to a ‘fair deal’, although the question remains as to what exactly the deal is about.

Nevertheless, it takes two for a divorce, and there are no velvet secessions. Spain is not the Sweden of 1905 that let Norway go, nor a semi-artificial nation such as post-soviet Czechoslovakia.  Just as Catalonia is neither Norway nor the two other states that split. And no matter how the conflict is resolved, it might affect other European countries as well. There is, though, one thing for sure; it will take time and a lot of political subtlety and leadership on all parts if it is to end well. And besides, it comes at the worst time possible, within a critical moment in European integration and under the worst economic, social and institutional crisis that Spain has experienced since its transition to democracy. As so often happens in history, what to some Catalans seems to be a chance - occasione - is a nightmare to Spain and, I should think, to Europe as well. At least at this specific juncture.

Artur Mas’s words in Madrid on September 12 comparing the present indifference and coldness between northern Euroland countries and the southern ones to the one between Catalonia and Spain contain a concealed message. “There’s no sense in persisting in a marriage without love. Let’s be conscious of our discrepancies and divisions and abandon the hope for a greater union”. Just what populists all over Europe are willing to hear. Indeed, not the message that we need in these turbulent times. Will Spain herald the breakdown of the post-national settlement that some of us were expecting for Europe’s future?

About the author

Fernando Vallespin is Political Science Professor at the Universidad Autonoma in Madrid. He is currently Academic Director at the Ortega y Gasset Foundation, author of several books and more than a hundred academic articles and book chapters. His main area of interest is political and democratic theory. He is a staff columnist at the Spanish newspaper El Pais.


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