Geoffrey Fox

Reflections & Inquiries

The pain in Spain: Catalonia and the rest


Catalonia is not about to secede from Spain as a result of the October 1 referendum, nor probably ever, as the secessionist leaders surely know. But they have become so locked into their own rhetoric that they cannot retreat for fear of losing the support of the forces they have mobilized — which are not great in numbers, but their fury knows no bounds.

The proposal to form an independent nation, separate from Spain, does not have even a simple majority of support in Catalonia, according to polls, and such a consequential move should require much more than a simple majority to assure social peace. It would also require a negotiated agreement with the country it is leaving, unless they intend to provoke a civil war.

Secession is a vague and impractical aim, with no agreement among its adherents as to how it would be managed. Whatever Catalonians’ grievances against the central government, setting up their own independent state is the clumsiest imaginable way to resolve them. The economic consequences for both sides would be enormous, though the secessionist leaders have consistently lied about the likely effects for Catalonia. For example, they have maintained that the new independent republic could remain in the European Union and thus in the common market, despite very clear admonitions by EU leaders that that would be impossible — the new republic would have to apply for membership, and a single veto by a member state, for example Spain, would prevent it. The new country would be outside the European Union and thus have to negotiate trade relations, etc., with other members, including its major trading partner, the rest of Spain.

Secessionist leaders have also claimed that “Spain robs us,” by taking more in taxes than it returns to Catalonia, a dubious and complex claim failing to take into account the non-monetary  benefits of being part of Spain (for example, coast guard protection, national police and armed forces, interregional transportation and other infrastructure). Calculation is complicated, but it is probably true by most measures that Catalonia, Spain’s most prosperous region, contributes more to the general treasury than it receives; California could make a similar claim against the United States, or against Arkansas. So what? Is that unjust?

Anyway, what has become increasingly clear with the great corruption scandals in Catalonia is that the biggest robbers of the Catalans have been the leaders and officials of the big-business party Convèrgencia that governed Catalonia 1980-2003, with Jordi Pujol as president, and again after 2006 under Pujol’s heir, Artur Mas. Beginning in 2012, Pujol and his family were discovered to have secret foreign accounts (in Andorra) for stashing vast sums stolen from the public, while other officials running the Palau (theater and cultural center in Barcelona) and other institutions also enjoyed the famous “3%” rake-off charge for public commissions. That party has been so embarrassed by these revelations that it changed its name to Partit Demòcrata Català or “PDeCat” for short, but under the same leadership and with the same habits.

PDeCat is a recent convert to the independence cause; as we have seen, their people were making out quite well under the old arrangement, but the economic crisis that began in 2008 affected their pockets and their leaders calculated that by talking up independence, they could get a bigger share of national revenues from Madrid and find more subtle ways to collect their 3% .

To make this new vocation more plausible, in 2015 they struck an alliance with the party that had always been their polar opposite ideologically, the supposedly revolutionary and pro-worker Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, ERC. ERC’s followers wanted independence for entirely different reasons: they were fed up with the austerity policies of the conservative government in Madrid and wanted more investment in public services (of little interest to PDeCat) and job creation. The only thing the two parties agreed on was the campaign for a referendum on independence, calling their coalition Junts pel Sí  (“Together for Yes”), abbreviated to JxSí  for posters and banners.

This odd alliance did win the most parliamentary seats in 2015, with 39.54% of the popular vote, not enough for an absolute majority. To form a government, they needed the 10 seats of the much more radical (and very tiny) anticapitalist CUP, which had won only 8.2% of the popular vote. Thus the secessionists achieved a narrow majority in the Catalan parliament, though with less than 50% of the popular vote, in an unstable alliance on the single issue of independence. The government they formed (under Carles Puigdemont of PDeCat), goaded by the CUP,  whose Catalan nationalism borders on xenophobia, especially anti-Spanish, has used its tenuous authority to override all dissent by the opposition and defy Spanish court orders and constitution to proclaim a “binding” referendum on independence on October 1. Considering themselves independent already (again at the insistence of the tiny CUP, without whose support the government would fall), the govern not only has declared itself  no longer subject to Spanish laws, but has disregarded Catalonia’s own constitutional procedures and even drafted a constitution  — without consulting the electorate — for their imagined new republic.

Catalonia’s relations to Madrid and the rest of Spain have always been a mix of attraction and repulsion, but with a balance that, for most of the centuries since 1714, benefited the elites on both sides. Catalonia’s distinct language and traditions (like those of the Basque Country and Galicia) enriched Spain’s culture, diversifying it more than the Castilian élites preferred, but they tolerated them as the price for peace. Through Spain, Catalonia’s bourgeoisie had access to the American colonies and opportunities to amass great wealth (especially in Cuba), which gave it power throughout the country. By the early 20th century, class war within Catalonia (especially in Barcelona, 1902-1919, where the bosses employed gangsters to exterminate labor leaders and the trade unionists shot back) was much more of an issue than differences among regions. The bourgeoisie almost always preferred to speak, even at home, “Spanish” (castellano), the language of the metropolis, leaving Catalan for the peasants and the growing urban working class,  so that catalan became especially strongly identified as the language of rebellion.

But then came the civil war and the ensuing Franco dictatorship (1939-1975), which let the monster of intolerance out of its cage. The languages of Galicia, the Basques, and Catalonia were suppressed, along with other expressions of regional peculiarities. The consequences after the death of Franco included the eruption of strong separatist movements in those three regions, where language became the signifier of anti-Castillian or Spanish identity. The Basque country’s ETA was by far the most violent of these, but there have also been terrorist attacks by nationalists in Galicia and Catalonia (Resistência Galega, targeting banks and multinationals, remains active, and the extreme leftist Tierra Lliure in Catalonia committed over 200 attacks between 1978 and its dissolution in 1991).

Whether Catalonia should separate itself from the rest of Spain is a question that could be debated rationally and resolved peaceably. But that  is not what is happening. The govern (government) of Catalonia has declared itself a free agent, not subject to the laws of Spain, has already drafted a new constitution (without consulting the other parties in the Catalonian parliament or the voters), and is set to hold a referendum on October 1 in Catalonia to vote yes or no on independence. The central government in Madrid has declared that referendum illegal and is doing (almost) everything possible to prevent it from occurring, but without addressing the issues.

There are many Catalans who would like to be consulted on their preferences for future relations with the rest of the country, but not this way. Whatever happens on October 1 will not be a referendum with guarantees of who can vote or where, and whatever the results — bound to be pro-independence, because opponents are unlikely to vote — it won’t be considered binding either by Spain or by most Catalans.

With minimal political skill and imagination, the central government could have prevented this independence monster from growing so rapidly and furiously. It should have been simple enough to exploit the bitter and deep divisions among the three allied parties. But skill and imagination have been just what the governing Partido Popular under Mariano Rajoy has been conspicuously lacking.

The best we can hope for is that (1) the political forces represented in Madrid recognize that the current relations between Catalonia and the rest are unsustainable (without massive, Franco-style repression) and must be renegotiated, with respect for language and other differences, and (2) a majority of Catalans demonstrate their famous seny, or pragmatic good sense, and work with the others for rational and legal solutions.

The obvious and most sensible next step will be new elections, with all the guarantees offered by Spanish law, to see who really, today, represents public opinion in Catalonia. And hopefully, to come up with new leaders prepared to debate these issues rationally. And in time, overcome the animosity among Catalans and between them and other Spaniards that has been so stirred up by this campaign.

Independence flags at the "Diada", Catalonian national day, Sep. 11, 2017