Magazine | October 30, 2017, Issue

The Impossible Dream

Demonstrators in favor of Catalonian independence gather in Barcelona, October 3, 2017. (Albert Llop/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Catalonian nationalism throws Spain into crisis

In 1932, four years before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the philosopher and essayist José Ortega y Gasset declared that the “Catalan problem” was impossible to solve. He is reported to have said: “It is a perpetual problem, which has always been, and will remain as long as Spain exists. . . . It is something that no one is responsible for; it [lies in] the very character of that people; it is its terrible destiny, which drags distress throughout its entire history.” In his view, the best that could be hoped for was that the Catalans, and their fellow Spaniards, would recognize the intractable nature of the problem and would consequently avoid rash or unrealistic measures that were bound to bring on disaster.

No such insight has informed the recent conduct of the Catalan government, whose quest for national independence by means of the referendum it staged on October 1, in defiance of the Madrid government and Spain’s highest court, threatens to tear Spain apart. Nor has it informed the actions of the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, who is mostly famous for his caution but who has been uncompromising in his rejection of Catalan demands. The two sides have not talked to one another for several years, and the rhetoric of both has been characterized by hyperbole and intemperance. The outcome has been a major constitutional crisis, with mass protests in the streets of Barcelona, Girona, and other Catalan cities, followed by the botched but violent attempts of the Guardia Civil to stop the vote, resulting in injuries to around 800 separatists and 40 policemen. This has led to wide international condemnation of police methods, a public-sector strike to protest police violence, and an ill-judged intervention by the king, as well as huge counter-demonstrations in many Spanish cities.

According to Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president, around 2.2 million Catalans, or 42 percent of those eligible to vote, took part in the referendum, of whom more than 90 percent voted to leave. Catalan officials claim that a further 770,000 were prevented from voting by police action.

In the days following the vote, Puigdemont repeatedly stated that the result justified a declaration of independence, which he expected to make when the final count of votes was completed some days later. Asked what would happen if the national government reacted by invoking Article 155 of the Spanish constitution in order to take direct control of the region prior to fresh regional elections, he replied: “This would be an error that changes everything.”

In both Barcelona and Madrid, unfounded rumors and conspiracy theories multiplied, with tweeters and bloggers giving wide currency to the claim that the drive for independence had been personally engineered by Vladimir Putin.

On Thursday, October 5, the Catalan Socialist party, which opposes the goal of independent statehood, successfully appealed to Spain’s Constitutional Court to suspend the session of the Catalan parliament scheduled to convene four days later, for fear that it would conclude with a unilateral declaration of independence. There were adequate grounds for this concern: Quite apart from the nationalist rhetoric of the Catalan leader and his colleagues, the Catalan law that had initiated the referendum requires that such a declaration be made within 48 hours of the certification of the vote.

As tensions mounted, spokesmen for the Catalan government immediately insisted that the session would go ahead. But following the decision of major Spanish companies, including one major bank, to move their headquarters from Barcelona to other Spanish cities, rushed legislation by the government in Madrid to ease the task of companies seeking to relocate their offices, and the withdrawal of hundreds of thousands of euros by panicking Catalan bank depositors, Puigdemont pulled back from the brink. In a special parliamentary session that took place on October 10, Puigdemont said that he wished to abide by the wishes of the voters but would seek a negotiated settlement with Madrid. He therefore asked the Catalan parliament to suspend the effect of the referendum so that talks could take place. Since the Spanish government has ruled out even the possibility of any such negotiations, the crisis may now be entering a new phase, but it is far from over.

The situation was made worse by the earlier live television performance of King Felipe VI, who had been expected to call for dialogue and conciliation. Instead he accused the Catalan separatists of disloyalty and of acting illegally while warning of the consequences of their irresponsibility. He made no mention of police methods that had included beatings and the use of rubber bullets or of the injuries caused, for which the Madrid government has belatedly apologized.

Catalonia is one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, virtually all of which have succeeded in preserving their distinctive cultural heritage, something that makes travel in Spain a constant source of fascination. In what may have been the only joke he ever uttered in public, the Spanish dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco declared: “There are too many Spains — that’s why it needs me.” Some regions, however, are more different than others, and none are as keen to emphasize their cultural distinctiveness as Catalonia. “Catalonia is not Spain,” often written in English so that the sentiment gets through to the wider world, is a long-favored separatist slogan, one that was daubed on walls and public buildings during the run-up to the referendum, appearing alongside brightly colored “Sí” posters and Catalan flags.

In their grumpy way, Catalans frequently complain that other Spaniards stubbornly refuse to acknowledge their region’s disproportionate contribution to the Spanish economy and the unfairness in the distribution of tax revenues. Many are vehement in their denunciations of the corruption and waste that they say is displayed by the Madrid government, usually overlooking the fact that the Catalan generalitat is deeply in debt and has known more than its fair share of financial scandals. It would almost certainly be a mistake, however, to conclude that the present mood of profound dissatisfaction can be solved by a fairer distribution of tax revenues: The Catalan sense of grievance and the evident readiness of Catalans to embrace victimhood are too great for that.

Such is their capacity for wish fulfillment that many separatists now put their faith in mediation by the European Union, in whose good offices they place a naive confidence, and even in the readiness of the EU to help it overcome the daunting policy problems that would need to be overcome if Catalonia’s dream of nationhood were to be achieved. Remarkably, they seem to have done little serious preparatory work on what would be required in the way of new laws and institutions if they succeeded in their aim. Despite the terrorist attack in Barcelona in August that claimed 13 lives, as much thought seems to have been given to whether FC Barcelona would be allowed to play in the English Premier Football League if it were forced to leave La Liga as has been given to the future security arrangements of a small newly independent state.

In the immediate aftermath of the vote, much of the media coverage overlooked the crucial and central fact that while a majority of Catalans favored a referendum, most do not want an independent Catalan state at all — even if they are unhappy with the region’s status under the present constitution. According to a poll commissioned by the three separatist parties that form the Catalan government and taken just a few weeks ago, only 41 percent back independence, down from 51 percent in 2013. It may well be this drop in support, in part the consequence of immigration from other parts of Spain, that prompted Puigdemont to raise the political temperature by taking calculated if cynical and dangerous steps to reverse flagging nationalist sentiments. Thanks to the ill-considered response of Spain’s prime minister and the intervention of the king, it is a strategy that appears to have paid off in the short term.

However, within days of the referendum, hundreds of thousands of opponents were in the streets of Barcelona to demonstrate their support for Spanish unity. Calling themselves the Silent Majority and carrying both the Spanish and Catalan flags, they converged on Plaça Catalyuna in the city center, shouting “Viva España, Visca Catalunya” (Long live Spain, Long live Catalonia). Others are reported to have shouted “Catalonia is Spain” and “Puigdemont to jail.” Demonstrations also took place in 50 other Spanish cities, with some protesters denouncing the Catalan bid for independence while others wore white in order to show their support for talks. In Madrid, some protesters gave fascist salutes.

In retrospect, it is certainly arguable that Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, could have seen off the separatist challenge by accepting that such was the depth and persistence of feeling on the issue that he would support a change to the constitution that would permit a binding referendum to take place — but with one very important proviso: that a decision in favor of independence would require a majority of 60 percent in a poll in which 60 percent of eligible voters had taken part. The possible benefits of such an approach would have by far outweighed the risks. But public rebukes to the Catalan government play well with the very many Spaniards who feel outraged by its actions. So instead, Rajoy heeded those within his ruling party who believe that Catalonia should be taught a lesson — which only served to increase the numbers of those in pursuit of an impossible dream.

– Mr. Frost was the director of the London-based Centre for Policy Studies and of the Institute for European Defence and Strategic Studies, which he founded.

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