The push for Catalan independence has triggered one of Spain’s biggest crises in decades. Amid accusations of sedition and rebellion, the Catalan independence movement’s leaders have fled. How did it come to this? Is there a way forward?
In 2010, independence supporters in Catalonia made up less than 12 per cent of the region’s population. Today, support for an independent Catalonia is between 35-45 per cent. The question is obvious: what has happened in this relatively wealthy area of Spain, known globally because of its capital Barcelona? How is it possible that in less than seven years, a significant proportion of its inhabitants have decided that they want to leave Spain and create a new country?
The above question and the polling figures refute the ‘oppression’ explanation: that Catalans live under the Castilian rule against their will. If the Catalans have been ‘oppressed’ for the last 40 years, how is it possible that the independence movement has only increased recently? Kids raised in Catalonia study in Catalan. There are several newspapers and television channels in Catalan. All democracy indicators point towards Spain being a standard Western democracy. It is hard to understand the ‘oppression’.
A good way to shed some light on today’s situation is to go over recent events. In 2005, the progressive Catalan government initiated a process to enact a new constitution (Estatut), approved by 74 per cent of Catalans. The Conservative Party (PP) was in opposition in the Spanish parliament and challenged 128 of the 223 articles in the Constitutional Court. The court said that 14 of the 128 articles were partially or completely unconstitutional. The behaviour of the PP, however, was not consequential as the PP did not do the same when other territories of the country copied verbatim articles from the Catalan constitution.
In November 2010, Catalonia’s conservative coalition (the CiU), led by Artur Mas, obtained an absolute majority that ousted the progressives. Mas promised two things: a new economic agreement with the central government and the first stage of a “national transition”, the move towards an independent Catalonia.
Given the dire economic situation, Mas’ Catalan government implemented the toughest social cuts in Spain’s democratic history, especially in education, health and aid to the disabled. At this point, Mas and his party were seriously plummeting in the polls.
In 2011, at the national level, the PP under Mariano Rajoy’s direction won government with an absolute majority. On ascending to power the PP government applied tough labour market reform, increased VAT and imposed a wholesale retrenchment of the public sector. Unemployment in Spain also reached its peak at 25 per cent. At this point there was also an increase in support for independence in Catalonia, as Catalans began to think that their economic situation would improve in an independent Catalonia.
With the global financial crisis at its peak, the 2012 budget in Catalonia was passed with the PP’s abstention from the vote. Mas’ numbers in the polls were still low. Under Mas, one of CiU’s demands was to set up a new economic agreement with the central government but no agreement was forthcoming. This explicitly opened the door to the national transition Mas had put forward and caused another increase in the support base for independence. After a massive demonstration on 11 September 2012, Mas called for a snap election. Mas’ party lost 12 seats, while the independence party, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) gained 11. Following the election, ERC supported the returned CiU government in a move to speed up the independence process.
A third Catalan election in five years took place on 27 September 2015. The catalyst for the election was a vote that some called a ‘referendum’, in November 2014. All parties recognised that the vote did not have any legal guarantees. Unsurprisingly, the results were in favour of independence. When the real and legal 2015 elections arrived, CiU—no longer in a coalition—jointly with ERC and some other minor groups, formed Junts pel Si (JxS).
The results of the election brought victory to the newly formed JxS, which ultimately forced Artur Mas out of the Catalan presidency due to corruption scandals surrounding him and his party. With this change, Carles Puigdemont became the president of Catalonia.
Following a campaign pledge, the Catalan parliament approved the call for a referendum on 6 September this year, with only the 72 independence MPs in favour. This is a problem because the Catalan constitution requires a majority of two thirds in order to trigger reform. As a consequence, those who allegedly were defending the new Catalan state were effectively breaking Catalan law. Furthermore, they also ignored international law, as the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission explicitly stated that a referendum should be recognised in the constitution. In short, the call for a referendum did not have legal support.
The Spanish Constitutional Court ruled against it and the Catalan government ignored it. Furthermore, Rajoy’s national government promised—quite naively—that there was not going to be a vote. Obviously, there was a ‘referendum’ without any legal standing, but this time it resulted in an abhorrent situation and graphic images of the protests.
What is going on right now? First, Catalan society is evenly divided and both sides have shown their mobilisation capacity as the October demonstrations show. Second, last week the independence MPs declared Catalonian independence while the central government applied article 155, dismissed Puigdemont’s government and called for fresh elections in December. But everyone should be aware that a similar result is likely.
Third, before the October events, Barcelona was the headquarters for seven of the 35 most important companies in Spain. At the time of writing, there remains only one. Fourth, the international mediation argument can be ruled out: for the central government it would imply accepting the independence position as legal, which it is not; and if the EU accepts a discussion on the issue, what would stop a German state or a French department from doing the same and asking the EU to negotiate? (This is President Macron’s argument).
Nobody knows the future, and the scenario remains quite uncertain. Regardless, any future analysis should consider the legal and political dimensions. Legally, the central government has the most favourable arguments given the recent behaviour by the Catalan government. However, the law by itself is not enough, as the problem still remains. At some point there should be a vote, as the grievances of different groups must be addressed.
Both sides of the issue should calm down. First, independence supporters should recognise that Spain is a standard European democracy. Second, the central government should acknowledge that not all Catalans in support of independence are ‘putschists’. Although those two points seem obvious and easy to agree upon, given the polarisation and virulence of the discourse that may not be an easy task. When voting, it should be with full guarantees and ideally after an informed debate. The former is a non-negotiable requirement. The latter is an aim worth aspiring for, as both sides would like to avoid a Brexit.
Finally, since November 2013, corruption is the second main problem after unemployment in Spain. In Catalonia, things are no different. The PP is currently on trial for money laundering, tax fraud, defrauding bribery and influence peddling. The former CiU is also on trial for commissions received for awarding public works.
What if rallying around the flag benefits both sides? Had such debates been absent, the cases for both governments would have been significantly less sustainable. Keep in mind that while we talk (and write) about these topics, we are leaving aside other issues that should hold our attention, such as the under-performance of Catalan students (according to PISA rankings) or the current state of the Spanish superannuation system.
Ferran Martinez i Coma is a research fellow at Centre for Governance and Public Policy & Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University. He has published extensively on Spanish politics. He is founder of and a regular contributor to Piedras de Papel, one of the main politics blogs in Spanish.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.