Catalonia in crisis

Written by Henry Goodwin on . Posted in Current events, Current features, Events, Features

The eyes of Europe, and indeed the world, were fixed firmly on Barcelona on the evening of 10 October as Carles Puigdemont, the president of Catalonia, took to the podium in the Catalan parliament.

Inside, an hour-long delay to Puigdemont’s hugely anticipated speech created swirling rumours that EU officials – perhaps even Commission President Jean-Claude Junker –  might have dialed in to attempt to broker a last minute deal. Outside, thousands of onlookers watched on anxiously. Would Puigdemont declare Catalonia’s independence from Spain?

Supporters of independence wave the Estelada at a pre-referendum rally.

More than a week later, the answer to that question remains unclear. While Puigdemont announced that the referendum, held amid contentious and chaotic scenes across Catalonia on 1 October, gave the Catalan government the right to form a sovereign state, he continued stating that ‘we propose the suspension of the effects of the declaration of independence for a few weeks, to open a period of dialogue.’

Puigdemont’s speech has left journalists, analysts, and even politicians, scratching their heads. The following day, it emerged that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government had reached out to Barcelona to ascertain whether or not Catalonia had officially cast itself adrift from the country.

It appears that they have not – yet – although the situation remains unclear. Speaking at an EUI roundtable on the crisis hours before Puigdemont’s speech, Professor Carlos Closa argued that is difficult to spot any ‘margin for agreement’ between Catalonia and the central government. For now, Spain’s deepest constitutional crisis since the death of Franco over forty years ago shows little sign of abating.

A conflict long in the making

In the days since Puigdemont’s speech, Closa tells EUI Times, the Spanish government’s stance has softened slightly. ‘I think Madrid has moved slightly away from the extreme position it had in the past, which was to keep the status quo. They are moving towards the idea of reforming the constitution,’ and appear open to discussing funding and fiscal matters with the Catalan government, a key issue for separatists.

Nonetheless the Catalan government’s perspective has not changed, argues Closa, part-time professor at the School of Transnational Governance. ‘The only relationship [the Catalan government] wants to negotiate is independence.’

EUI members attend a roundtable on the Catalan referendum crisis at the Schuman Centre on 10 October.

Nor has Rajoy’s stance shifted so drastically as to ease tensions. The prime minister has repeatedly indicated that he is willing to trigger Article 155 of the Spanish constitution – the government’s so-called ‘nuclear option’ – which would suspend Catalonia’s regional autonomy and allow Madrid to seize control of its governance. On 19 October, the Spanish government announced that it will enact Article 155, and impose direct rule on Catalonia, after Puigdemont ignored Rajoy’s latest ultimatum to abandon his independence aspirations.

How did we get here? While it was by no means inevitable that Catalonia’s quest for independence should bubble up in such a way, the current crisis has been long in the making.

Political actors, Closa argues, have played a pivotal role. In particular, he points to elections in 2010, when the centre-right Catalan nationalist Convergència i Unió (CiU) party emerged at the head of a coalition, supported by Rajoy’s Partido Popular (PP). The implementation of austerity measures at a national level was a turning-point for Catalan nationalism, Closa suggests. It led to the emergence of strong social movements in Catalonia which eventually proved integral in mobilising support for separatism.

Many Catalonians feel that Rajoy’s government does not represent them. Catalonia, after all, has its own distinct culture, language and history, which some feel is being diminished by the region’s ties with the central government. According to Debating Europe – an online discussion platform – Catalans contribute $17 billion in taxes to Madrid each year. A central argument for independence is that many feel that they are not receiving a fair return on that investment.

Furthermore, the national government’s outright refusal to countenance independence at any cost reportedly fueled resentment among Catalans. Following the violent scenes witnessed on the day of the referendum, some Catalans believe Madrid should have been willing to consider the possibility of external mediation between the parties, an idea which Rajoy flatly rejected. ‘No mediation is possible between the democratic law and disobedience,’ the prime minister retorted, invoking the Spanish constitution.

The violence on 1 October arguably had a major impact on increasing support for the secessionist cause. ‘The separatist movement was in real need of a strong reaction from the state,’ Closa said. ‘They needed to mobilise civil society and their supporters, and they needed better international exposure.’ While Closa believes that Madrid must investigate the police’s actions and, if necessary, assign some political responsibility, he adds that the violence rejuvenated the separatist movement at a time when it might have been stuttering.

‘In that sense,’ he adds, ‘what Puigdemont has done with the suspended declaration is very bad’ for the independence movement. While declining to officially cast Catalonia adrift from Spain has ‘played OK’ in the international community, it is ‘very damaging internally’. Consequently, supporters of independence ‘may feel frustrated’ that the president appears to be dragging his heels.

EU can go your own way

At a European level policymakers have been reluctant to wade into the debate, calling it an internal Spanish matter. Critics of the EU approach say that Brussels must do more to stave off Catalan independence, which many think poses as significant an existential threat to Europe as Brexit. Speaking at this week’s EUCO meeting, Council President Donald Tusk reiterated that there is ‘no room’ for EU mediation in the crisis.

EUCO President Donald Tusk (L), pictured here with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in 2016, has ruled out EU mediation of the crisis.

Catalonia’s GDP last year was €224 billion – bigger than Portugal’s. It accounts for a fifth of Spain’s economy, and accounts for a quarter of its exports. Nonetheless, experts have warned that Catalan secession would cause immense economic dislocation, not just in Spain, but across the EU. Although there is no desire among separatists to leave the EU, in practical terms independence would mean Catalonia leaving the EU and the Eurozone, with the obligation to re-apply. ‘Catalexit’, some commentators think, could herald the return of the Eurozone crisis.

Already, banks and businesses are voting with their feet. Two Catalan banks have shifted their headquarters to Spain since the referendum to ensure continued access to funding from the European Central Bank and the Bank of Spain. Multiple major companies – including Freixenet, an industry-leading Cava producer – have threatened to follow suit.

‘There is not a lot of appetite’ for the crisis in the EU, Closa says. Firstly, an independent Catalonia ‘shows what can happen’ with other separatist movements across Europe – from the SNP in Scotland to the Flemish in Belgium. In Italy this week, Veneto and Lombardia are holding plebiscites on whether the regions should receive greater autonomy from Rome.  More significantly, Closa argues that secession ‘runs against the ethos of the European project,’ which aims to diminish nationalism and promote transnational solidarity.

High-stakes chess

It is ‘impossible to predict’ how the crisis will play out, Closa tells EUI Times. ‘It’s a kind of chess game. Every player is looking at their opponent’s movements. Nobody really knows what’s going on.’

Regardless of what the next move may be, many fear the damage has already been done. In the past few weeks, large rifts seem to have appeared in the social fabric of Spain – until recently one of the EU’s more stable member-states.

Professor Closa points to a spike in ‘micro-violence’ throughout Catalonia, like ‘the calling of names and ascribing of labels’ by some secessionists, as making it ‘very difficult to position yourself openly, because the social pressure around you is very strong.’

Roger Fernandez Urbano, a second-year SPS researcher who participated in last week’s roundtable, echoed this sentiment. In the majority of Catalan neighbourhoods today, he explained, it is socially acceptable to place the Estelada – a flag typically waved by supporters of independence – outside your home, to indicate your support for independence. On the other hand, it is rare to see someone who opposes independence place a Spanish or an EU flag outside their home, for fear of being labeled a ‘pro-Spanish fascist’ by the separatist camp. Fernandez Urbano recounts an incident wherein his father placed an EU flag outside his home (he feared a Spanish flag would come across as overly aggressive), only to be labeled a fascist by pro-independence neighbours.

Catalonia’s ‘silent majority’ shows their support for Spain and the EU at a march on 8 October.

Pro-union Catalans have been labeled a ‘silent majority’, with some arguing that louder voices in the separatist camp have drowned out those who favour close ties with Madrid. According to the Catalan government, 90% of those who participated in the referendum opted for independence. Yet turnout was little over 42%, with around two million of Catalonia’s 5.3 million eligible voters filing a ballot.

Since the vote, however, the ‘silent majority’ seems to have found its voice. Organisers claim that over 930,000 people participated in an anti-independence rally in Barcelona on 8 October, although police put the turnout at closer to 350,000. Nonetheless, the protests served as a reminder that Catalonia’s independence debate remains far more polarised than Puigdemont would have many believe.

Even if Madrid and Barcelona manage to paper over the cracks in the coming weeks, it appears unlikely that Spain will be able to return to the pre-referendum status quo. If Puigdemont backs down, some constitutional rejigging is likely. If he forges ahead with independence, the country will be entering uncharted waters.

‘The situation is terrifying,’ Guillem Vidal – a PhD researcher in the SPS department – told the audience at Villa Schifanoia last week. Not only are the potential economic consequences of Catalonian secession daunting, Vidal reasoned, but ‘the social costs’ have already been severe. The conflict has impacted on peoples’ everyday lives, in some cases even coming between families and friendships. ‘The social fracture that is being created throughout Spain,’ Vidal reflected, ‘will take a long time to heal.”

Some quotes for the above article were taken from the 10 October 2017 ‘Roundtable on the Catalan referendum crisis’, organised by Professor Rainer Bauböck with the Department of Political and Social Sciences and the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies.

EUI Times also interviewed Carlos Closa, part-time Professor at the EUI’s School of Transnational Governance.  A political scientist, he recently published the edited volume Secession from a member state and withdrawal from the European Union: troubled membership (Cambridge University Press, 2017).


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