The Catalan independence question remains one of the key issues on the agenda for Spain’s new Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, as he completes his first month in office. Sebastian Balfour writes that Sánchez is likely to carry out a holding operation in the hope that support for his Socialists will grow ahead of the next general election, while the Catalan coalition government is bound by some of its parliamentary partners to continue pursuing independence.
It is perhaps an appropriate moment to reflect on the crisis in Spain and Catalonia, as new governments establish themselves in Madrid and Barcelona claiming to seek new ways of solving the Catalan dilemma.
It has been a momentous period since the ‘illegal’ October referendum, the unilateral declaration of independence and the imposition of direct rule from Madrid. Much of the debate has focused on the Catalan issue and has solidified into almost tribal identities, provoking rifts among friends, families and work colleagues. Yet causes and potential solutions are more complex and cross-cutting than can be gathered from the rhetoric on both sides. And the crisis is not merely about the relationship between two antagonistic national projects. It is part of a much broader process triggered by socio-economic crisis, austerity, and globalisation whose ramifications extend to Europe as a whole.
To begin with, the crisis has exposed and exacerbated structural faults in the functioning of the Spanish state. The most immediate problem is the architecture of the state. The territorial system of regional autonomy arising from the democratic settlement of 1978 was meant to balance diversity with solidarity. It was one in which some were more equal than others, and it soon gave rise to competition and comparative grievance. It was also seen as an affront to many Catalans and Basques because it diluted historical precedent as well as their sense of identity and cultural separateness.
Yet successive Spanish governments, in particular the Partido Popular government of 2011-18, sought to level off the distinctive powers enjoyed by the four ‘historic’ regions in order to carry out a discreet policy of re-centralisation. Since then, the sense of alienation among Catalan and Basque nationalists towards the Spanish state has deepened to the extent that several million Basque and Catalan citizens no longer feel part of Spain. Attempts by their respective autonomous governments to renegotiate a new status, as an associated nation or a nation within a multinational state, have been quashed by the legal apparatus of the Spanish state.
The actions of the judiciary have exposed another dysfunctional feature of the Spanish state, the increasing politicisation of the legal system. Since 2013, the Council of Europe has repeatedly drawn attention to the lack of impartiality of the justice system in Spain. In fact many of Spain’s various judicial bodies are made up of judges chosen by political parties. The conservative bias was particularly clear in the ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal in 2010 that many articles of Catalonia’s new democratically approved Statute of Autonomy were unconstitutional. Moreover, some of the criminal charges levelled at Catalan ex-ministers since October, such as sedition and rebellion, have no match in most legal systems elsewhere in Europe, hence the difficulty Spain has experienced in seeking to extradite Catalan politicians in exile.
The problem was intensified in the Catalan case by a sense of economic injustice. With only 16% of the Spanish population, Catalonia provides 21% of the national tax revenue. The region receives only 66% of the average of state funding across Spain and it has obtained a mere 8% of state investment in infrastructure. A popular view is that Catalonia is paying much more than its fair share towards the rest of Spain and that national policy under both Socialist and Conservative governments discriminated against the region.
An even more important cause of the rise of a powerful independence movement was the economic recession of 2008. The return to power of the conservatives in 2011 coincided with the emergence of the popular protest movement, the 15th of May movement, against the effects of the recession and the policies of austerity. Alongside these nationwide indignados, the Catalanist popular movement emerged, the Assemblea Nacional Catalana, calling for independence as the solution to both the crisis and the accumulated grievances of Catalans. While the 15 May movement appealed to class, the Assemblea appealed to identity, diverting socio-economic grievances into the politics of nationalism. Both movements built on the strong associational life in Catalonia where there were at least 48,000 associations of one kind or another in a region of 7.5 million people.
The Assemblea was particularly successful. With a small army of volunteers skilled in social media, it managed to capture the imagination of many Catalans. In any case identity is easier to mobilise than class, even more so if it is accompanied by a powerful historical narrative of victimisation. Behind this growth lay long-term structural factors such as the changing class structure in an economy that was fast de-industrialising so that the old industrial belt around the big cities like Barcelona was turning to service industries, many involving overseas immigrants. The process was therefore weakening the dual identities which these communities had once represented.
The balance of political power in Catalonia lay with the nationalist centre-right, which had dominated Catalan government in the new democracy for all but seven years. Independence had never been an explicit part of its agenda. But by 2012, driven perhaps by the fear of losing electoral support to these new movements and frustrated by the Constitutional Tribunal’s reversal of key aspects of the new Statute for Catalan autonomy, the nationalist centre-right jumped on the bandwagon of the separatist cause.
By 2015 a separatist coalition had been formed bringing together a wide spectrum of political parties, from the anti-capitalist nationalist left to the nationalist centre-right, whose only common cause was independence. Hence no programme for an independent Catalonia has ever been fully articulated. Another of its contradictions was that some of the conservative nationalist elites associated with the coalition had been guilty of corruption and of policies of austerity and privatisation, key issues in the separatist platform. Although the pro-independence parties fell just short of a majority of votes in the regional elections of 2015, they won a majority of seats and formed the new government.
What followed was a cat and mouse game between the Catalan and Spanish governments leading to the attempted referendum on independence on 1 October 2017, ruled out as illegal by the Constitutional Tribunal and repressed with some violence by the police. The Catalan government followed this with a unilateral declaration of independence on 27 October which led to the intervention by the Spanish state and the remanding in custody without bail of many of its ministers and the self-imposed exile of others. The response of the government, police and judiciary revealed a residue of authoritarian reflexes among Spanish conservative elites, in particular in their application of a repressive constitutionalism in preference to conciliation and dialogue.
In the hope of having made its point that independence was impossible, the Spanish government held new elections in Catalonia on 21 December. The results revealed flaws in both the government’s calculations and the Catalan independence movement’s claim to represent all Catalans. The separatists won by only two seats. In terms of percentages, the ‘remainers’ scored the most votes, almost 51%, while the separatists won 47.5%. As in most electoral systems, the allocation of seats is not based simply on percentages. In Spain, the rural and small town votes count more, sometimes twice, than metropolitan votes. Catalan nationalism is very strong in the small municipalities and weaker in the metropolitan areas where dual identity is strong. This is predictable given that migrants from other parts of Spain have tended to settle in the cities where more work is available.
But this is not enough of an explanation. There are many born and bred in Catalonia with a strong Catalan identity who are against independence for political reasons, in particular the belief that the problem is not unity or independence but socio-economic and political. This is a plural and multi-layered society and it would be doing an injustice to refer to a collective Catalan voice. Yet the polarisation that has taken place in Spain over the last two years is such that these nuances or differences are lost in public discourse.
What has been happening in Spain is part of a process in Europe and elsewhere triggered by globalisation, economic crisis and austerity. Globalisation began a process in which many states no longer mediated decisively between national and international economies and were less in control of policy-making. Political and trade blocs like the EU provided a new broad framework of trade and governance in which old nation-states lost some authority. Also falling barriers to trade reduced the cost of being a small state and boosted interest in separatism. Thus the re-emergence or strengthening of sub-state nationalism in Europe in response to firstly, a weakening of state-based national identities, secondly the recession of 2007-8 which led to collective insecurity and the need for new boundaries of national identity, and finally to greater opportunities for the emergence of new nations within economic blocs such as the EU.
But this has been countered by the recent development of anti-globalisation ethnic nationalisms in Europe and beyond, a far cry from the civic, inclusive, nationalism of Catalonia. Moreover, the trust placed by the Catalan nationalists in the EU and its plan for multilevel governance through the Europe of the Regions was misplaced. Far from supporting Catalanist demands, the EU and several European states responded to events in Spain by declaring they were an internal matter, revealing their concern about the threat of sub-state nationalisms in Europe. As the ex-President of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, recently said, the Europe of the Regions ‘is a failure’
There is another international parallel, the channelling of socio-economic and political grievances into the politics of identity and nation. This is a feature of populist nationalism everywhere. By appealing across social classes to national identity, it mobilises people against an ‘Other’, identified as the source of a range of problems. In the Catalan case, this Other was defined at first as simply Madrid or the Spanish state. This enabled an amorphous, even contradictory range of aspirations to be projected on to notions of independence, summed up in a slogan used frequently in the discourse, freedom, a much used or abused term everywhere. Then some of the rhetoric slipped into something darker, the Castilians or the Spanish as the Other, just as right-wing discourse in Spain descended into diatribes against the Catalans as an ethnicity.
With a new more conciliatory government in place in Madrid and with the restoration of the autonomous government in Barcelona, the prospects for the future relations between Spain and Catalonia are still unclear. The fracture between half of Catalonia and the rest of Spain now seems irreparable. In the absence of a majority in the Congress, the new Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, is likely to carry out a holding operation in the hope that support for the Socialists will grow in time for the new general elections due in 2020. In any case, he has made it clear all along that he is only interested in negotiating the terms of Catalonia’s autonomy. In contrast, the Catalan coalition government is bound by some of its parliamentary partners to continue pursuing independence. Fissures are appearing between pragmatists and unilateralists. Expect much recourse to the politics of gesture on all sides. At least in the short and medium term, separatism remains a mirage.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
Sanchez can’t give the independistas what they want so he will be the enemy soon, called a Spanish nationalist, have his name smeared as a new Rajoy whatever he does. That is how this debate works – you are with us or you are against us (both sides act like that).
Everyone who follows this conflict knows that the only democratic acceptable solution is to release the political prisoners, who represent over 2M voters, and to organise an agreed self-determination referendum under international observation.
But if an independentlg referendum was 50.5% for Catalonia to stay part of Spain, would that solve the problem? Would a continuing pro Indeoendence majority in the Catalonia Parliament just “buckle down” as administrators?
Reform of seat allocation in the Catolonia Parliament to give Barcelona more seats might give a precarious stability for a while…but the nationalist genie is out of its box in many places in Europe.. I had hoped for a united Europe similar to Switzerland but we are clearly going back backwards..
The answer is YES They would accept such result. Moreover, it could be negotiated that not only the majority in the Parliament but also the majority of votes must be provided to declare independence. The Catalan politicians have always sought to negotiate a referendum, but the former Spanish Government has always ignored it.The new MP Sánchez has already indicated that self-determination is not in his agenda.
The nationalist genie might be out of its box in Europe, but the Catalan movement has little to do with it. This is cross-party, from conservative to far left, and its main goal is an open an inclusive society, as showed in the biggest European pro-asyle demonstration held in Barcelona.in Feb 2017.
On one hand, we have separatists that demand a referendum and are willing to accept whatever comes out of it. On the other hand, we have Spanish nationalists that wont even accept this referendum to happen, and are ready to use the violence to support their will. Whatever it takes to secure the unity of Spain, be it democratic or not.
This is not Yes vs NO, this is democracy vs fascism.
Rubbish. The unity of Spain is not a concern for most of us involved – we don’t give a hoot.
This is indeed rather about democracy versus fascism – but exactly the other way round. It’s about the lies and propaganda of the 40 year long cat-nat regime (about the history of Spain, Francoism, the civil war, and about the huge economic and financial advantages that the wealthy regions have extracted from the state over the years at the expense of other impoverished regions). It is about entrenched cat nat racism and xenophobia against spanish speakers in cataluña, about the ongoing and illegal violations of the linguistic and economic rights of a majority by the local authorities, about the privileges of a bourgeois class and the illegal and corrupt political regime set up mainly to continue the exploitation of a spanish-speaking working class – including the use and exploitation of catalan children for political purposes -, about the unfair and wasteful local tax regime, about the arrogance of a cat-nat political caste that believes it is above the law of ordinary (spanish) citizens, about its constant attempts to denigrate one of the most liberal constitutional orders and judicial systems in Europe, etc, etc, etc. Nationalistic totalitarianism versus constitutional democracy indeed.
Mauricio is a clear example of Spanish democracy, respect and politeness.
Bravo, Mauricio, bravo!
Yes, there is plenty of evidence, if you would like to look for it. The case against the illegal discrimination of Spanish speaking children in Cataluña (whose parents can not school their children in their own language against the provisions of the law, which Catalan authorities have ignored for over 40 years) is now doing the rounds in the European parliament and we may expect some resolutions soon. You have much documentation here: https://www.aebcatalunya.org/es/
This article by and large ignores the fact that the conflict is and has always really been between two parts of the Catalan population, not Cataluña and Spain or even one half of Cataluña and Spain. For instance, it says absolutely nothing about the ways in which the Spanish speaking population is discriminated against linguistically and in the educational sectors through practices that can only be deemed xenophobic or even racist. In so doing, it essentially assumes all the cat-nat rethoric including frankly incredible claims about presumed dysfunctionalities of the Spanish justice system (one of the best in the world), and the financing of Cataluña (one of the traditionally most privileged regions in Spain, particularly in terms of infrastructure and energy sources).
Really disappointing from the LSE.
Amazing…! Any proof of what you say? For instance about the linguistic discrimination, racism, xenophobia, or about the Spanish justice system being ‘one of the best in the world’? Or about the problem not being between Catalonia and Spain? Why not voting in a civilised referendum as democratic people do?
Yes, there is plenty of evidence, if you would like to look for it. The case against the illegal discrimination of Spanish speaking children in Cataluña (whose parents can not school their children in their own language against the provisions of the law, which Catalan authorities have ignored for over 40 years) is now doing the rounds in the European parliament and we may expect some resolutions soon. You have much documentation here: https://www.aebcatalunya.org/es
There are plenty of “proofs”.
The catalán police web pages is only written in catalán and english.
All the communications of the Barcelona City Council (and other institutions like the Ombdusman resolutions and local government departments) are made exclusively in the catalán language.
Also, Catalan is the only teaching language in primary and secondary education in a society, that accordingly with the Catalan Institute of Statics, has only 32% of catalán mother tongue speakers.
Just two links so you know
Hi Joaquin, there’s no need to lie. You have a cognitive problem not caused by the language.
Furthermore, catalan is the natural language of catalonia. If catalans choose no to loose our language is our choice, like it or not.
Miguel, the correction is right and appreciated.
But the central point still remains: that catalán is used exclusively by many of the catalan institutions and as the single language in education, and that the majority of catalans doesn’t have it as their mother tongue.
Or to put it in another way, that Spanish is not given by the catalán institutions, permanently governed by nationalist forces, the same status as catalán and that education in spanish, the mother tongue of the majority of catalans, is denied in Catalonia.
According to the linguistic profile and history of the territory, Catalan is as much the natural language of Catalonia as is the Spanish language.
A vernacular language deserves respect, protection and promotion but not “preference” or even less exclusivity over another language that keeps us united.
That is, unless this is use to promote a particular agenda of separatism and exclusion and divide the catalán society in two irreconcilable worldviews and projects.
There is always two sides to a story in any proper cognitive process.
I absolutely agree with your article, Sebastian. Very good and balanced!
I applaud the blog of Prof. Balfour and agree with many aspects, including that the Catalan issue should be viewed from a European perspective. Here I would to add some further comments to this interesting article, in particular where I feel the focus is too pessimistic or where there are inconsistencies. In addition, I dare to suggest a reasonable and democratic solution to the “Catalan crisis”.
Prof. Balfour appears to see the glass half-empty by stating that “much of the debate has focused on the Catalan issue and has solidified into almost tribal identities, provoking rifts among friends, families and work colleagues”. In contrast, I prefer to see the glass half-full, formulating an alternative view: Catalonia, in fact, should be applauded for fostering peaceful, political debate throughout society on a controversial issue; an issue that cannot and should not be ignored. Why should anyone perceive the debate of cultural identity, as well as social and political aspirations, by negatively by describing it as a “rift” rather than as a “lively discussion”, “creative brainstorming” or “exploration of novel ideas”? Why should questioning the status quo, such as the validity of the monarchy, be described by Prof. Balfour so negatively? And, in any case, are there no “rifts” between different ideologies in all healthy democracies, for example between “brexiteers” and “remainers” in the UK or “pro-refugees” vs “anti-immigration” in Germany? The key issue in finding a solution to the Catalan crisis lies in channeling such a debate fairly, objectively and constructively.
On the issue of fairness, to illustrate that Catalonia is a plural and multi-layered society, Prof Balfour correctly stated that “there are many born and bred in Catalonia with a strong Catalan identity who are against independence for political reasons, in particular the belief that the problem is not unity or independence but socio-economic and political.” However, Prof Balfour, bafflingly fails to point out that, for exactly the same reasons, many who were not born and bred in Catalonia and who do not have a strong Catalan identity, are also pro-independence. Thus, it would also appear fairer to write also that many non-catalan speakers, for example, are supporters of an independent Catalan Republic.
On the issue of objectiveness, an obvious criticism of Prof Balfour’s article is the misuse and over-simplification of some figures, which is very unfortunate considering his call for analyzing the full complexity of a “plural and multi-layered society”. As a reminder, supporters of independence are not only currently a parliamentary majority in Catalonia, but there are more people who voted parties clearly in favour of independence than clearly against. This pro-independence majority occurred not once, but in three elections in a row. Therefore, the author is wrong when stating that “in recent elections, remainers scored the most votes, almost 51%, while the separatists won 47.5%”; the author reaches this unfortunate conclusion by bundling the voters of “Catalunya en Comú” as “remainers”. For example, Prof. Balfour ignores the fact that Elisenda Alamany, the current spokesperson of “Catalunya en Comú”, has stated repeatedly that she is pro-independence and would vote “yes” to independence in a negotiated referendum. Indeed, Catalonia is a plural and multi-layered society and the simplistic and unfortunate misuse of electoral results in this article almost certainly under-represents the real support for independence in Catalonia.
So, turning to the issue of being constructive, what may be a reasonable solution to this historical and cultural conflict? In my opinion, as already alluded to above, healthy debate should be promoted and applauded, NOT avoided and accused of “causing rifts”. Trying to avoid conflict and stating that debate “causes rifts” is a destructive statement that echoes, unhelpfully, certain populist and Spanish nationalist parties interested in maintaining the status quo. On the contrary: new political solutions should be sought constructively, precisely to reach a consensus and to give a “collective Catalan voice” for what is indeed “a plural and multi-layered society”. Pragmatically, as the UN Special Commissioner on Human Rights Alfred de Zayas has stated “There must always be opportunity to change a political system, and referendum is the most democratic method we know”.
In my opinion, the core of the matter lies is the issue of sovereignity: will Catalans ever be allowed to use their collective voice by exercising their right to choose their own political future? Assuming the answer is “yes”, that Catalans should be entitled to decide their own political future by referendum, then it is important that the implications should be properly debated and clarified. In this context, Prof. Balfour also correctly points out that “no programme for an independent Catalonia has ever been fully articulated”. Perhaps it is high-time to articulate such a programme, freely, openly and without prejudices or unwarranted, illegitimate interference?
In fact, the Catalan declaration of independence, which has been vilified by many, was preceded by “laws of transition”, which were (controversially) passed by the Catalan Parliament before the referendum of 1-October. Perhaps it should be more widely known and understood that the laws of transition already suggested a path towards articulating a debate on the political future of Catalonia. Moreover, the laws of transition offered several implicit mechanisms and check-points to ensure that a democratic consensus is reached: 1) a period of promotion of open debate on the issue of independence, with social participation; 2) elections of a constitutive parliament and 3) a referendum to accept or decline a new political framework proposed by the constitutive parliament. It should be evident that such a process was designed to promote not only paused discussions across the ideological spectrum in Catalonia, but also consensus-seeking -involving popular participation as well as representative parliamentary debate-. Such a process was designed to culminate in a meditated, informed and well-defined final democratic popular decision by referendum.
I propose that Spain and Europe would also profit from a parallel process and mutual dialogue to articulate –as well as to coordinate- their own respective political projects. Hence, the Catalan crisis may actually end up providing a very valuable opportunity for fostering peaceful, political debate throughout Europe, showing that territorial and cultural conflicts can be resolved peacefully through dialogue, consensus and negotiation and not –as has been sadly almost invariably the case in the recent history of Europe- through war, repression and violence.
Europe, which like Catalonia is also a plural and multi-layered society, would do well in supporting Catalonia and in encouraging Catalans and Spanish to reach a peaceful, democratic and negotiated solution out of the present crisis, for the benefit of all.
By all my respect and admiration for Prof Balfour, I must applaude every word in this comment by Marc Creus.
An excellent summary of a difficult question. Just a few points:
1. Why the ‘illegal’ referendum? So-called illegal but not really? This begs a BIG question, why provoke at the start when this is not the main subject of the article.
2. The constitutional architecture of regional power was seen as an “affront ” (your words) to Basques and Catalans. I would add only by them, not anybody else, at the time. It was unrealistic for them to expect full restitution of exact Republican era Autonomy texts, and Catalunya could have displayed some solidarity with all the poorer regions of Spain who reckoned they would not benefit from autonomy. Instead it has long demanded more autonomy just because it had been recognised first (‘el hecho diferencial’).
3. You seem uncritical towards Catalonia’s sense of economic injustice, which can in fact be seen as a rejection of the very concept of progressive taxation. Those who are richer pay not only a larger quantity of tax at the same rate because they are richer, but a higher rate of tax in ever increasing percentages by tranch . The Spanish Constitution created a Fund For Inter-Territorial Compensation to help the poorer regions like Extremadura. Equally London pays more, but Scotland and Wales receive more support. From this perspective, “with 16% of the Spanish population, Catalonia provides 21% of the national tax revenue” is not discrimination. Catalonia receiving “only 66% of the average of state funding across Spain” may well be perfectly fair from a redistributive point of view because there is compensation going on.
One hears many more Catalan complaints of paying “too much” without any understanding of progressivity. A group of Catalan experts on this speaking at the LSE last year did not conclude that any injustice had been done to Catalonia. What is ‘fair’ anyway in this context? Spain adopted a compensatory paradigm when democracy was relaunched, which Catalans and/or Catalan politicians just don’t like – perhaps because they are out of sympathy with the rest of the country in the first place, like Padania in relation to the south of Italy, but without there even being a mafia to complain about.
4.The EU membership question. Those promoting independence keep pretty quiet about the likely effect of their actions, if successful: a) the EU would not approve Catalan secession because its loyalty must lie with member states and Spain would object; b) Secession without international approval would be an economic disaster. c) Even if this is survivable, re-joining the EU is a long process, perhaps creating a deep recession. If the Catalans were made more aware of this, would they ever vote to leave in a legal referendum?
5. Finally, should the EU problem not be a central part of the debate?
Excellent points about progressive taxation. But the claim of 60% investment rate is not true. Catalonia is one of the regions where the state has invested more over the years. Every provincial capital city has a high speed rail connection: that’s unparalleled elsewhere in Spain.
The Cat-nat propaganda and rhetoric on taxation is part of a concerted effort to rip up the Spanish state with total disregard for Spain’s poorer regions. An act of violent racist supremacism ongoing now for 40 years
The division this issue has created in Catalonia is incredible and a solution is nowhere in sight.
Well, there is no division, at least from one side; we’d like to let the people choose, be it yes or no, be it right or wrong. The other side says no, you cannot chose, ni hablar. And, if you try, we’ll beat you.If you dare, we’ll jail you.
Interesting self-refuting statement
The biggest issue here is infantilism. The entire secessionist strategy relies in international intervention which is just not going to happen.
One of the rare down to earth point of view I have read on this subject. Interesting article of Prof. Balfour.