Closa: What next for Catalonia in 2018?

Written by Carlos Closa on . Posted in Current opinions, Opinions

The hotly-anticipated Catalan regional elections on December 21st 2017 produced an inconclusive result. The anti-independence Ciudadanos party won the election with 37 seats and 25.4% of votes. The pro-independence Junts per Catalunya (JxC) came second (34 and 21.6%), closely followed by the also pro-independence ERC (32 and 21.4%). If the seats of Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP) – the left-wing separatist party – are counted, pro-independence parties retained a parliamentary majority, taking 70 out of 135 available seat –  two less than in the previous election. Nonetheless, there was no majority in vote share for independence, with the separatists taking only 47.5% of the vote – an even smaller proportion than in the 2015 elections.

These results foreshadow a complicated political future. Pro-independence forces may be able to recreate their governmental majority, although their differing priorities create significant difficulties for them. The CUP remains committed to the unilateral path to independence and the implementation of the Catalan Republic, which was proclaimed (but suspended) in mid-October. ERC, troubled by the prosecution of its jailed leader Oriol Junqueras, has pledged to follow a bilateral negotiation with central authorities, a strategy which contradicts the CUP. JxC’s strategy is more vague, revolving almost entirely around  the reinstatement of the previous president (and government) of the Generalitat, Carles Puigdemont, now infamously exiled in Belgium to escape the Spanish courts.

Whilst both CUP and ERC acquiesce to this, ERC has conditioned its support of Puigdemont on his eventual return to Catalonia, something that seems unlikely given the outstanding judicial prosecution against him. Furthermore, the consolidation of the pro-independence majority depends, crucially, on eight elected members of parliament who were members of the previous government (including Junqueras and Puigdemont), who now find themselves either in jail or in exile.

Supporters of Catalan independence hold a rally before the controversial referendum on October 1st.

A government must be formed in Catalonia before any meaningful negotiation can move forward. At the national level Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s ruling Partido Popular (PP), Ciudadanos and the social-democratic Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) have agreed to initiate discussions on constitutional reform, even though their respective ambitions diverge substantially. Whilst PSOE supports a federal model for Spain, Ciudadanos and PP are more committed to maintaining the status quo. What does not seem to be on the table for any Spanish political party is any negotiation of an official independence referendum for Catalonia, on the model used in Scotland in 2014.

For the moment, both camps (pro-independentists in Catalonia and Spanish constitutionalists) seem to be divided between two extremes: maintaining the status quo or pursuing full-throated Catalan independence. Simultaneously, Madrid may agree to negotiate some of the demands put forward by Puigdemont’s previous Catalan government, such as a new financial system for Catalonia. This may prove difficult, not only because of the deep-rooted differences between the central and regional governments. Other regions across Spain have become increasingly vocal in their criticism of what they regard as favourable treatment of Catalonia by Madrid in order to appease the area’s noisy nationalism.

The Catalan conflict, therefore, will not be resolved in the short term, nor is there an easy fix in sight. Indeed, it will likely remain a source of political tension in Spain and the EU for the next years. Contrary to those that think that a referendum would be a definitive panacea, the real problem is the lack of previous and ulterior agreements between Madrid and Barcelona.

On the one hand, the main actors disagree vociferously on whether independence can happen or not, regardless of how it is pursued or whether a majority supports it. On the other hand, the same actors also disagree on the consequences of independence. For instance supporters of independence have argued that they will retain Spanish citizenship or EU membership, without even bothering to consider whether Spain or the EU agree with these opinions.

The only way to resolve the conflict will be to find points of agreement and compromise which move both the pro-unity and pro-independence camps away from their current extreme positions. This requires vision, generosity and leadership. Sadly, at the moment, none of these qualities seem to be in high supply on either side.

Carlos Closa is Part Time professor at the School of Transnational Governance. He recently edited the volume Secession from a Member State and Withdrawal from the European Union. Troubled Membership (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

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