Sep 28 2017

An Explanation of the Current Political Situation in Catalonia

By Javier Padilla and Luis Cornago Bonal

By Medol (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In a recent post in The Guardian, the President of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont accused the Spanish government of provoking the Catalan crisis by undermining “European values, civil rights, freedom of speech, freedom of information and freedom of assembly”. There exists a misleading narrative which situates the Spanish government as an authoritarian government that would not allow the Catalan people to express their free will via a referendum. This idea has been partially accepted by some international political commentators and academics, and suggest that the Spanish government is following up the line of other non-entirely democratic governments such as Orban or Erdogan. In like manner Gabriel Rufián, Spokesman for the pro-independence Party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, has said that the Franquism will die on 1st of October, after the referendum is held.

However, we argue that the actual situation is substantially different. The nationalistic parliamentary majority of the Catalan Parliament, which represents just 47% of the Catalan voters also holds an uncommon mix of ideologies that goes from anti-establishment far-left parties to centre-right liberal parties, and is trying to force an illegal referendum on the unilateral independence of Catalonia. Even though this referendum is sold internationally as a mere democratic exercise, it is an attempt to create a State which would leave at least half of the Catalan people as foreigners in their own country. As the writer Daniel Gascón has pointed out in the magazine Letras Libres “Secessionism fights against an imaginary enemy: an authoritarian, undemocratic Spain. This imaginary Spain is a country where Catalonia does not have a high level of autonomy, a Spain that is not an advanced democracy, comparable to the countries around it.” Having said that, there are also good reasons to think that the central government could have better managed the political demands of the nationalist movement.

In 2015, the Catalan regional election was billed as a plebiscite on independence from Spain. The pro-independence (the nationalist coalition Junts pel Sí and the far-left Popular Unity Candidacy) obtained 47.8 per cent of the votes. However, due to the anti-urban bias of the electoral system (a system that over represents rural and small towns where pro-independence parties are electorally more successful), secessionists’ parties won an absolute majority of seats in the Catalan parliament with a clear promise of calling for a referendum. Subsequently, in order to fulfil the independentist dream, the Catalan Government has passed two laws which violate the Spanish Constitution and Catalan laws.

As Borja Lasheras, head of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, has written “the two pieces of legislation were rushed through in a late-night session against the warnings of the legal attorneys of the Catalan Parliament and ignoring the request of opposition MPs for an opinion of the Council of Statutory Guarantees, to which they are entitled under Catalan law”. Moreover, this political process represents a “a clear violation of the rules set forth by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which requires, amongst other conditions, an equal opportunity process, a neutral administration, and legislation of at least statutory rank passed at least one year in advance of a referendum.”

Furthermore, the Catalan government has marginalized the opposition of the Catalan Parliament, and have not clarified what is an acceptable level of participation in the referendum. In fact, as the parties who do not support the independence have asked their voters not to participate in the referendum –because that would legitimize the referendum– the turnout is expected to be relatively low. Some leaders of the secessionist parties have declared that if there is a majority of Yes voters the independence will be unilaterally declared regardless of turnout. Similarly, some Catalan authorities have stated that they would declare unilaterally the independence of Catalonia even if the referendum is not held.

Catalan authorities speak of the Catalan people as a homogeneous and quasi-mythical entity. However, the reality is that the Catalan society is very diverse just like their preferences. According to a recent survey from the Catalan Government’s Survey Institute (CEO), only 41.1 percent of the Catalans prefer independence to other possible scenarios. And even though there is a wide majority of Catalans who stand for a legal referendum, only 35 per cent of the Catalans agree with the recent laws approved by the Catalan regional parliament. Likewise, only 34 percent see secession as a realistic solution in the short term. On the other hand, Catalonia is also divided across language lines or due to the origin of its population. For instance, as the professor of the University of Zaragoza Pau Mari-Klose has pointed out, the correlation between being a native Catalan speaker and support of independence is strong. In relation to the language, while more than a half of Catalan citizens use Spanish more commonly in daily life, almost four out of ten Catalans have Catalan as their main language.

However, nationalist parties not only campaigned across identity lines but also with more economic and instrumental arguments, such as claims against inter-regional solidarity. For instance, they have repeatedly complained about the fiscal disadvantages of giving money transfers to the poorer parts of Spain (the separatist leitmotif that “Spain robs us” is still being heard). Likewise, the Catalonia government portrays an independent Catalonia that will produce much better political and economic outcomes. In fact, some analysts have pointed out that the situation in Catalonia cannot be understood without paying attention to the political crisis in Spain and the institutional distrust towards the Central government. Therefore, politicians in the pro-independence side usually state that a Catalonia outside of Spain will have stronger institutions, a richer and less corrupt country and allow the provision of better-functioning public services. This framework could even make independence attractive to those voters who never voted for pro-independence parties but are unhappy with the way the Central government is dealing with the territorial issue in Catalonia. In order to counteract these arguments, the central government could do more to emphasize and explain the high economic and political costs for Catalonia of leaving Spain. In like manner Spain’s central government must explain what its political plans for Catalonia are beyond the application of the law.

Catalonia is objectively one of the richest regions in Spain. Since the beginning of Spanish democracy in the seventies, Catalonia has enjoyed an increasingly level of autonomy. And if compared with the regions of most EU countries today, it enjoys a notoriously high level of autonomy. According to the OECD, Spain is the seventh most federal country according to the scale of decentralized fiscal power and is the country of the OECD with the greatest level of decentralization between 1995 and 2004.  As it has been suggested by Sambanis and Milanovic, “richer regions are more likely to want more autonomy and conflict arises due to a disparity between desired and actual levels of sovereignty”. In other words, the richer regions of a country tend to be also those who demand greater sovereignty and Catalonia is just an example of this trend.

It has to be said that there is much to discuss within the constitutional-legal limits. Some of the traditional nationalistic Catalan claims are legitimate and new political ways of accommodating the discontent in Catalonia are clearly needed. But the Spanish Constitution court does not allow a referendum on secession at present. Claiming a right of self-determination according to international law is misleading. International law only recognizes self-determination when cases of foreign invasion, colonialism and discrimination of minorities are taking place. It is clear that Catalonia is not in any of those scenarios, although many independentist act as if one of those assumptions were true and Catalonia could be comparable with Kosovo.

Given the actual circumstances, the referendum in Catalonia is unlikely to take place on October 1st. Certainly, It will be a day of numerous protests and demonstrations. The levels of cooperation between the two governments will be probably scarce, and it is quite unlikely that the Catalan government returns to current legality. And on October 2nd the problem will remain unsolved and it will be time to start building bridges and negotiate, if hopefully it is not too late.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Euro Crisis in the Press blog nor of the London School of Economics.


Javier Padilla holds a dual bachelor in Law and Business from Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM) and is pursuing a master’s degree in philosophy and public policy at the London School of Economics.

Luis Cornago Bonal holds a dual bachelor in Political Science and Sociology from Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) and is pursuing a master’s degree in comparative politics at the London School of Economics. He has been the recipient of the “la Caixa” scholarship (2017) to carry out postgraduate studies in the United Kingdom.


Related articles on LSE Euro Crisis in the Press:

Does the Catalan Independence Movement Really ‘Love Democracy’?

Separatism does nothing for Catalan identity

A bitter victory for Catalan pro-independence nationalists

Is an independence referendum the appropriate political tool to address the Catalan problem?

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10 Responses to An Explanation of the Current Political Situation in Catalonia

  1. Elisenda Soler says:

    It is very simple Puyol, Mas Puigdemont and company have robbed catalans for so long that they are scared soon all will be discovered and they will end up in prison. So the want the independence to have the power and not to be judgen outside Cataluña were they can control the judges. They have been brainwashing a whole generation of people in schools and universities. Not to mention the problem with radical muslims they have allowed in because they think muslim can learn catalan and help with independence. Not independentist catalans are treatrened and marked as enemies. Our President Rajoy is acoward who doesnt protect people who dare to fight againts independentist violence . But this has been happening long time agi. How would you call a country were you are fined for using Spanish in your own shop , restaurant or any busines. . .. Similar in Canary island where corrupt nationalist use the race and identity to keep people busy while they steal the money.

  2. Andrea says:

    This article has some accurate facts but it fails to present a balanced and unbiased account of the situation. Impartiality is not expected in opinion articles in newspapers but it is from academic ones.
    I expected more from LSE scholars. Come on, you can do better than this!

  3. Pingback: The Catalan Independence Referendum- Some Quick Thoughts – Liberalism5

  4. jaime mas says:

    Catalonia is a remnant colony of the Spanish colonial empire. Our surnames are different – no Mas, Puig,Ferrer, Riera, Soler, Busquets, Deulofeu, Pujol… will ever be prime minister of Spain because of his Catalan surname. We have attempted our independence since the 15th century, from the outset of our being incorporated into Spain against our will; then we revolted in 1640, 1652, 1701… this isn’t something recent or a fad – when the Spanish army rolled into Catalonia in the 17th century under Olivares the order was to salt the Catalan farmland so that no crops would ever grow again – a historical reference to the Roman army in Carthage. We were forbidden from the New World from the get go, and the ban lifted only when the empire waned and Castile (Spanish Spain) thought Catalan money flowing into the empire was a necessity. You call us dogs so cut the chain. Estonia/Latvia/Lithuania/Slovakia/Bosnia/Moldova/Croatia/Slovenia/Kosovo/Montenegro/Macedonia/Georgia/Armenia… Venezuela/Colombia/Argentina/Chile/Mexico/Peru?Panama/Costa Rica/Cuba/Guatemala… now it’s our turn – and,BTW, Macron was speaking of the UK leaving the EU – comparing that to Catalonia leaving Spain is a false equivalent, and totally cynical and hypocritical.

    • Michael says:

      If a lie is only printed often enough, it becomes a quasi-truth, and if such a truth is repeated often enough, it becomes an article of belief, a dogma, and men will die for it. Isa
      Bladge was utterly right. This is the strategy of secessionist parties and their supporters. However, truth is out there in the information era for those willing to discover it. Catalonia has never ever been an independent kingdom except in secessionist dreams. There was an small region, Barcelona County, even smaller than the current Catalonia region,part of the Aragon Kingdom. Catalonia did not exist when the New World was discovered, so that was not excluded from trading with New World. In fact, it was more about the Catholic Monarchs choosing Seville as the only trading harbour with the New World for security reasons, to prevent pirates attacks. For those interested on History, not on myths, I would suggest books by historians, such as Henry Kamen.

  5. Andy Ellis says:

    It is interesting that the authors neglect to mention the overwhelming support amongst Catalans for holding a vote. Why would that be I wonder? That “broad majority” doubtless includes many who favour the status quo or increased federalism, but it is undeniable that the Spanish government is disregarding their wishes.

    The authors also make the brave claim that self-determination doesn’t apply to Catalonia, because international law “only recognizes self-determination when cases of foreign invasion, colonialism and discrimination of minorities are taking place”. Really? That will be news to many authorities on international law. Recent actions by the Spanish government would indeed suggest that whilst direct comparisons with the Francoist past are over-egged, there is definitely a danger of the “Erdoganisation” of a Spanish polity which is prepared to (amongst other things) assert the primacy of its constitutional norms by jailing Catalan elected representatives, impose punitive fines, close down pro-referendum websites, take over the Catalan police and denude the rest of Spain of police officers so they can physically prevent polling places from opening.

    Whether the 1st October vote takes place remains to be seen. It appears likely however that a Spanish attempt to prevent it by the use of force will represent a catastrophic error of judgement on Madrid’s part, and will only increase support for independence. It may also backfire horribly for the reputation of Spain internationally, and particularly within the EU.

    I would recommend the authors and those who share their view on the situation look at the recent blogs by Alfred de Zayas, in particular the final paragraph of his piece “Kurdistan and Catalonia: Direct democracy by way of referendum is best guarantee of a correlation between the wishes of the people and the policies that affect them.” which notes:

    “Yet, it bears repeating that the right of self-determination is a human right, recognized by States as universal. It is not a right of States to selectively grant it or not – Article 1 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights cannot be applied à la carte. Right holders are the peoples – not States!”

    The Spanish state cannot expect co-operation, bridge building and negotiation whilst scurrying around arresting Catalan government officials, raiding printing companies to confiscate ballots and curtailing the rights of free expression. Those aren’t the actions expected of a western liberal democracy in the EU, they are the tactics of Erdogan, Putin, el-Sisi and Xi-Jinping. Spanish democrats need to pick a side; we’ll all be watching!

    • Joanna Kowalik says:

      I couldn’t agree more. It’s been a long time since I’ve read an article as biased as this one. Thank you for providing more balanced view, Mr Ellis

    • Jos cuban says:

      Dear Mr. Ellis,
      Please, come to Cataluña, learn our history, live with us and try to understand before posting bullshit.
      Most Catalonians do not support this non sense. Most are afraid to speak up due to the nacionalist pressure. Most do not agree with the sectarian extremism of these cray people using everything, including kids, to support their crazy, old fashion, totalitarian views.

      • Patrick says:

        Yeah, right JC.
        ¿Which Catalans and living in which bubble are these people afraid to speak up?
        I can assure you that most of these people you mention; they better keep it to themselves, because what it coming out precisely these days isn’t exactly very gracious – which very much explains it.

        And before disqualifying people with your verborrea, I kindly suggest you do take in your own advice.
        *Lamentable, Jos, i penos.

        • Ana says:

          There is A LOT of bullying going on since years ago, in Cataluña, against the vast majority who do NOT want independance: one brave young teenager hung a Spanish flag on his balcony, and the neighbours cut their electricity, others have lost their jobs. It is a real problem of violence, of silent war. It is SO WRONG.

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