I am watching the Catalonian crisis unfolding 40 minutes down the road. Here are four observations, as the independence of Catalonia is set to be declared on Tuesday.
1. The central Spanish state has sparked the current crisis. Before 2010, only 15% of Catalans supported independence; now, around 40% do. This growth in Catalan nationalism is a direct response to aggressive strikes from the Spanish central state, particularly the Partido Popular (PP). It started in 2006, when the Catalan authorities drafted a new statute of autonomy: this was passed by the Catalonian parliament, public referendum in Catalonia, and finally by the Spanish parliament. Yet the PP side-stepped democratic bodies and launched a case in the Constitutional Court in an attempt to get the statute struck down. Four years later, they succeeded: the Constitutional Court struck out 14 articles and provided the interpretation for 27. In response, angry crowds marched in Barcelona, chanting ‘We are a nation, we decide’.
The pattern has been repeated time and again, as the right-wing PP, now in government, has increasingly used courts and military police to draw a line on the Catalan question. It used the Constitutional Court to declare the 1 October referendum unconstitutional and illegal. In the run-up to the referendum, it launched military police (Guardia Civil) raids on Catalonian government offices, confiscating documents and generally treating elected representatives as subject minions.
Yet these shows of force are hollow: there is nothing behind them. The authority of the Spanish state becomes reduced to the legal injunction and the use of force: it is reduced to armed units of Guardia Civil, shutting down polling stations or raiding offices. Now the Spanish government is prosecuting the head of the Catalan police for sedition, citing his failure to assist Guardia Civil raids. Sedition!: such a medieval, kingly crime. When a state prosecutes for sedition then you know that all appeals to democratic authority have gone.
Indeed, the Guardia Civil complain that they have been ‘abandoned’, sent in and ordered to close down an election, without a plan or backup. As the national military police, they represent the last line of executive authority, but they are increasingly bearing the whole burden of the central state’s representation in Catalonia. They are the messengers and agents for a distant and not-present Madrid (The Spanish interior minister reinforced this impression when he tweeted lamely: ‘The agents of Guardia Civil aren’t alone in Catalonia. They have all our respect, affection and support’ ).
The Guardia Civil were so much without backup that they were successfully evicted by crowds from the hotels in which they were staying. The crowds shouted ‘out with occupiers’, and indeed this is how the central Spanish state has conducted itself – as an occupying army, only working through its proxies rather than bearing its own face. The popularity of Catalonian independence is primarily a result of these shows of arms-length aggression.
2. The Catalan president has no mandate to declare independence. The Spanish ambassador to France described the plan to declare independence as a ‘coup d’etat’, with a section of the Catalonian political elite seizing the instruments of state. He is not entirely wrong. There is no majority of Catalans in favour of independence – a poll before the referendum put it at 41% for independence, and 49% against. Most say there are only around 25% of hardcore independistas.
The move for independence has often looked less like a popular uprising, and more like an exercise in rubber stamping. The Catalan government reformed parliamentary regulations so that the laws relating to the referendum, and the ‘transition’, could be passed in a single sitting, with no amendments, based on an absolute majority (rather than the 2/3 majority required for previous constitutional changes).
One of the laws ruled that the results of the referendum would stand regardless of the level of participation – reducing the need to get a democratic mandate. In the end, only around 42% voted, meaning that the government is declaring independence on the basis of a referendum in which more than half the population did not vote, and which occurred under the shadow of ballot boxes being confiscated and armed police shutting down polling stations. This is not a plebiscite that would be recognised in the shakiest African state.
Logically, it was the half of the population opposed to independence that did not vote, either from fear or because they thought the poll illegal. Therefore, the Catalan political elite is in some ways doing the same as the Madrid government: weilding instruments of state in shows of bravado, while side-stepping popular mandate.
3. Catalan nationalism has lost its rational basis. Historically, Catalan nationalism represented the claims of a dynamic industrial region, against the life-sapping body of a parasitic and inefficient Madrid-based bureaucracy. ‘We in Catalonia must sweat and toil so that ten thousand drones in the Madrid Government offices may live’, the Catalans would say (1). Writing in the 1940s, Gerald Brenan commented that ‘Spain has one of the most centralized governments in Europe’ and that ‘every country postman, village schoolmaster and customs official has owed his appointment to the minister in Madrid’ (2).
Yet this is no longer the case: the Catalan region is autonomous in all matters except for taxes, immigration, and defence; it runs its own health, education, transport, courts. The basis of Catalan nationalism now comes less from economic dynamism, and more from claims for the special status of Catalan culture: it can be narrow, parochial, and put-upon. In a debate on French radio, a Catalan activist told the editor of El Pais newspaper that he couldn’t understand or comment on Catalonia because he wasn’t from there.
The more open currents in Catalonia look beyond the issue of culture to the national situation – for example, the groups on the Catalan left , ‘Catalunya en Comú’, argue that social problems are questions of class, not culture, and therefore shared across Spanish society.
4. The real enemy, for the whole of Spain, is the EU. There are compelling ideas being expressed by the crowds in Catalonia – to be free, to rule themselves. There are compelling problems there too. There has been a phenomenal degradation in Spanish living standards since the economic crisis in 2008: general unemployment has reached 25%, youth unemployment has surpassed 50%. A large portion of people who left school 10 years ago have never worked: their frustration and disillusion has channelled into a spate of popular movements, including the call for Catalan independence.
But this situation is at least in part the result, not of the actions of Madrid, but the strictures of Brussels. One analysis by Spanish economists argued that Spain’s integration into the single European currency was as a ‘periphery’ country: it received unproductive investments in infrastructure and construction, while becoming a market for products manufactured in the ‘central’ countries such as Germany. EU integration, they argue, led to the collapse of smaller Spanish industries and accentuated the existing weaknesses and imbalances of the Spanish economy.
In 2008, the bubbles of external investment popped. All around Spain lie the skeletons of half-finished buildings, sometimes vast complexes even on the outskirts of Madrid, with hollow windows and roofless tops. External investment was withdrawn and the EU now appeared as the source of imposed budget cuts to health, education and public sector wages. This singular focus on budget cutting has imposed a depression experience, reducing incomes and quality of life, while doing nothing to solve the essential problem with productivity and domestic industry.
The question of political/economic decision-making has been largely removed from the Spanish government, and the Spanish people, meaning that their salaries and pensions are in effect decided in Brussels or Berlin rather than Madrid. Spain takes on the appearance of a subject state, with little room for political manoeuvre and little ability to respond to popular demands.
So this, then, is the key to the Catalonia question. As state sovereignty is undermined in substance by the EU, both the central state and Catalan authorities resort increasingly to gestures of muscle-showing, in a private battle of one-upmanship that is tearing a country apart.
UPDATE, THURSDAY 19 OCTOBER
Madrid has now moved to invoke Article 155 and impose direct rule over Catalonia. Yet the events of the past week have looked less like a battle for independence, than a game of poker between two men, employing blackmail, feights and double-bluffs in their contest for the machinery of state.
First the Catalan parliament declared independence, signing a declaration of independence in a solemn session that was relayed to crowds in Barcelona. But then the president immediately suspended the declaration and stated his willingness to talk to Madrid. Madrid asked for clarification on whether or not he had declared independence, setting the deadline of Monday. The Catalan premier wrote a long and convoluted letter, which did not say whether or not he had declared independence. Madrid gave him a new deadline, Thursday, saying that if he failed to revoke the declaration by Thursday then they would impose direct rule.
The Catalan premier wrote again, saying that if Madrid invoked article 155 then he would suspend his supension of the independence declaration, and move to declare independence.
Madrid, however, will not definitely invoke Article 155. The triggering is planned for Saturday, and according to El Pais Madrid has said that it could be avoided if the Catalan premier called early regional elections.
The Spanish public is oddly absent from this exchange of letters and communiques: neither side wants to provoke a crisis, to bring people out on to the streets. They are using the instruments and powers of state as bargaining chips, joker cards, as they face each other across the card table that is Spain. This is why there is such a sense of unreality: powers are being half-invoked, invoked and then revoked; they are playthings rather than the expression of popular will.
This game of double bluff may be more posture than punch, but that doesn’t mean it can’t lead to the unravelling of Spain – only in a way that is more random, unpredictable and uncertain than any independence struggle of old.
(1) The Spanish Labyrinth, Gerald Brenan, CUP 2001
(2) The Spanish Labyrinth, Gerald Brenan, CUP 2001, p19