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Catalonia-Spain: Deadlock

September 11: the world - and Spain - is taken by surprise with the images of over a million people marching down through the streets of Barcelona, peacefully, in a very calm and cheerful mood, with no incidents whatsoever – in itself marking quite a distinctive exception to the trend in these years – but claiming nothing less than In-de-pen-den-cia, Independence.

In Catalonia, September 11 is a special day, la “Diada”, the National Day - although it commemorates a defeat 300 years ago, in 1714 - the defeat of the Catalan troops during the War of the Spanish Succession when the Catalan troops that supported the Habsburg dynasty were defeated by the troops of Bourbon Philip V  after 14 months of siege.

The holiday was officially reinstated at the end of our democratic transition in 1980 by the regional government, the “Generalitat”, having been forbidden by Franco’s regime for decades. After three decades of a reasonably democratic regime, the Diada was becoming quite a routine celebration: it was a day off; there used to be some classical institutional celebrations (the Parliament, the Government), and in the margins, a few demonstrations with some hundreds, or a few thousand people on the streets.

But in recent years, due to an increase of political tensions and, since 2008, above all, economic and social tensions, the situation has changed. There are tensions in some other European Union (EU) countries around similar issues, like Belgium and the UK. But with this one, this time - Catalonia vs. Spain - something bigger may be afoot.

So, what can we say, this time? This year the Diada was definitely under a “triple stress” framework, much more than the traditional commemoration of a 300-year old defeat, more than the long-lasting traditional misunderstandings between Madrid and Catalonia.

The first stress factor this year has to do of course with The Crisis. September 2012 is a month in which the bailout hanging over Spain may come true. The economic situation of Spain is not the subject of this brief commentary. But Spain, with its 25% unemployment rising to 50% for young people under 30, is in a miserable situation, and the responsibilities will be evenly divided between all actors involved. It is true, on the one hand, that what we call here  “the fiscal balance” is extremely unfair to Catalonia, which provides - say the experts – around 20% of the GNP of Spain while unfairly receiving markedly less in return for services, infrastructures, etc. per inhabitant. This is a longstanding grievance, but this time, with the Crisis and its brutal impact upon people, this grievance is perceived as a Red Line that has been crossed. On the other hand, the debt and the deficit incurred by the Catalan government, which jumped between 1998 and 2012 from 7.000 million Euros to 42.000 million euros, cannot only be added to the blame list directed at Madrid. There has been substantial spending on the part of Catalan institutions as well.

The second stress factor is a hostile international environment (and in particular the European context, worsening every day). Catalan nationalism - and this is a qualitative difference with some of the other European irredentisms - is totally pro-European, unconditionally pro-EU, so that its discourse is habitually summed up by the slogan, “less Spain but more EU”, dreaming of an unspecified day on which the EU would welcome regions and other non-state entities like Catalonia with open arms.

This has never been true, but now is so less than ever. Can anyone in his or her right mind think that, given the crisis, the EU situation, the eurozone problems, Mr. Draghi, Mr. Barroso, Ms. Merkel, etc are eager to welcome this kind of new mess? Obviously not, and we should remind ourselves here that the EU is an International Organisation under the rule of International Public Law on the one hand, and the legal dimensions of the EU Treaty on the other.

Should Catalonia become independent (peacefully, let’s hope), it would be a new state, not one of the 27 member states of the current EU. Therefore this new state should first apply to become a new EU member state. Bad luck, this means a modification of the current EU treaty (Lisbon Treaty), which requires the formal approval of the 27 States. Unanimously, no majority rule here.

Do you imagine Spain saying yes, if secession is not procured under a bilateral, mutually agreed negotiation? Do you imagine the EU opening the door to, say, a similar move on the part of Flanders, with the ensuing row over what would remain of Belgium? And Brussels being the capital of what ? So. Catalonia could find itself in a similar position to Macedonia, according to some experts - although it is true that it is a special case, for this is the first time that a new state would emerge out of an EU member state. This makes the case even more difficult, indeed, beginning to look like an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) inside the EU at exactly the most critical and fragile moment of its own history.

The third stress factor is not easy to explain, and it is to be added to the first and second Stress Factors.  This one is not recent, although the Crisis has exacerbated its appearance form. This one has to do with the shipwreck of our system of political and institutional representation. Our democracies (not only the Catalan one, or the Spanish one) are dealing with it as they can; the “Indignados” movement is/was another expression of these tensions. 

But the Indignados, last year, professed that they had nothing to do with Independence or Self-determination, they were anti-all-that-stuff. I saw this in Barcelona and Madrid. You (openDemocracy) saw it too first hand. Did the Indignados demonstrate the other day? Some people did: but as a movement no. What do the polls say? A very recent (and professionally) good one, published by El Periodico on Sept 11, pointed out some contradictions, although the general trend is not to be disputed: never in decades has the expression of a vote in favour of Independence been this big and clear. Having said that, with an estimation of 73% of a turnout, 49.5% would vote Yes in a Referendum asking Yes/No for the Independence of Catalonia.  But when asked if the Referendum should be taken tomorrow (meaning tomorrow literally), the Yes goes down to 40%, but only 24% are sure to vote No. The big surprise is that, when asked what model of relationship people would prefer between Catalonia and Spain, only 34.5% say Independence, 26% vote for a Federal State, and 27% (sic) prefer a Regional Autonomous community within Spain!

People, as a social, collective body, are furious, and the Crisis has turned the rampant (and traditional) discontent into anger. Then “they” arrive: political elites, self proclaimed leaders. It looks ridiculous, even hilarious, if the situation were less dramatic. With the exception of the Partido Popular (in Catalonia) and Ciutadans (another pro-Spain small party) all other parties are in open competition to occupy the forefront at demonstrations, pretending not only to understand but also to “take in charge” the mandate of the people. But in the last referendum to approve the new Statute of Catalonia, in 2006, the supposed wave of enthusiasm became a turnout of… 49%, 22% less than in the previous and ensueing general elections (to elect the Spanish Parliament) in Catalan constituencies.

The fact is that the split between people and political elites is deeper than ever, in Catalonia and elsewhere. The evidence is that in the next 48 hours after the demonstration, political parties - with few and honourable exceptions - deployed in a very crude way their ambitions, their greed, and their total loss of contact with the situation. 

The key issue here is not: are the Catalan people “that much” in favour of independence?  For this collective feeling that “with Madrid it is impossible” is definitely growing, is here to stay, and to say the least it is happening at not exactly the best moment to have a rational discussion about it. Should a new agreement of a “Fiscal Pact” be drawn up (which is unlikely under the present Spanish Government and under a Crisis like this one), it may arrive too late. The other casualty, a deadly collateral damage, is the structural crisis of what we call here “El estado de la Autonomias”, the State of the Regional Autonomous Communities: not federal enough, not rationally centralized/decentralized enough.  We see now (in 2012) that this is the biggest failure of our Transition. Franco’s Machiavellian revenge…

About the author

Pere Vilanova is a professor of political science and government at the University of Barcelona. He comments regularly on international politics in media organisations.


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