The Catalan Crisis and Its European Context


2017-11-01 By Kenneth Maxwell

The declaration of an independent Catalan Republic by the president of the Catalan parliament, Carles Puigdemont, on Friday 27 October, was immediately followed by the imposition of direct rule by Madrid.

The Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, following the vote in the Spanish Senate to invoke article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, sacked the Catalan government, and placed himself and his ministers in charge.

This has plunged Spain into its deepest political crisis since the end of the Franco dictatorship, and for EU, its most challenging dilemma since the vote for Brexit in the UK.

Britain wants to leave the EU.

The independent “Catalan Republic” wants to remain within the EU.

But the EU is already making the exit of the UK as difficult as possible.

And the governments of all the nations within the EU, including the UK, are opposed to Catalan aspirations for independence from Spain.

France in particular has led the way in this opposition.

Carles Puigdemont making a statement in Barcelona last week.

As well it might. Catalonia, after all, once incorporated cross-frontier areas of southern France. The Basques, where violent armed opposition to Spanish rule by ETA (Basque Homeland and Liberty), dating from the Franco period (and at the cost of 800 deaths), has only recently been mitigated, also live in a territory which historically covered cross-border regions of both Spain and France.

The repercussions of events in Barcelona is already rippling through the EU.

Scottish nationalists (who want to remain within the EU), have not given up on their aspirations to see an independent Scotland, and they have been following developments in Catalonia with more than a passing interest. Meanwhile Northern Ireland (which also wants to remain in the EU) is still without a functioning devolved administration, given the continuing impasse between the Irish nationalists (Sin fein) and the Ulster Unionists (DUP), as well as uncertainty over the Brexit negotiations in Brussels, and the future land border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

The “Northern League” in Italy has recently fortified demands for much greater autonomy from Rome.

Even the recent elections in Germany have dramatically revived the resilient differences between the political outlook of the territories of the former “west” and “east” Germany, with the rise of the far-right, and its representation in the Budestag for the first time since the ending of Nazi rule in 1945.

In Belgium the Wallons are restive.

Carles Puigdemont, while everyone thought he was in his home town of Girona (where he had been mayor), and while Girona was beating Real Madrid in the soccer stadium in town, was in fact crossing the border into France on Sunday 29th October, and then caught a flight from Marseilles to Brussels.

In Belgium he has been offered “asylum” by Theo Francken, the Belgium secretary of state for immigration. Mr Francken is a member of ther Flemish nationalist party.

He said that Mr Puigdemont and other Catalan officials who felt they were “threatened by the Spanish authorities. could apply for asylum in Belgium.”

The Peoples Party (PP) in Spain were outraged, declaring that this was an “unacceptable attitude.” Mr Puigdemont and five of his ministers appeared at a chaotic press conference at the Brussels press club, in what he called the “capital of Europe,” where he again said he was seeking dialogue and guarantees which Spain, he said, has consistently rejected. He is not he said seeking asylum.

Ironically, while the EU emphasizes it is moving towards a “post-national” future, it is also clear that  “national” identities still matter.

The Brexit vote, the resurgence of nationalist parties in France, the Netherlands, and Poland, all suggest that “federalist” agenda for “more Europe” promoted by Mr Jean Claude Juncker (and by President Macron) needs to be treated with some caution.

Puigdemont said he wanted to avoid a “traumatic split” from Spain and appealed to the EU to help mediate with Madrid.

But the EU in Brussels is poorly equipped to play a mediating role between Barcelona and Madrid.       .

Mariano Rajoy has appointed the deputy prime minister of Spain, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, to administer Catalonia (she has been the long time point person in the Spanish government for Catalonia), and he has called elections in Catalonia on December 21.

It is not clear yet if Puigdemont and other pro-independence coalition leaders of the deposed Catalan government, will be able, or will be permitted, to compete. Prosecutors in Madrid have filed charges of “rebellion, sedition and embezzlement” against Puigdemont that carry a penalty of 30 years.

They have been summoned to court in Madrid. But it is highly unlikely that any will respond.

Certainly not Mr Puigdemont and the five deposed minister who are in Brussels.

The Spanish Constitutional Court is expected to rule that the Catalan declaration of independence by the Catalan assembly was illegal.

All 70 MPs who voted for it potentially face arrest, as do the Catalan civil servants and police officers who reject direct rule.

Calling new elections in Catalonia is gamble for Rojoy.

The day that Catalonia voted in their controversial independence referendum on October 1st was marked by violence.

The Spanish national police and the Spanish Guardia Civil, which had been deployed from ships in the harbor, attempted to prevent citizens from voting by heavy handed actions, removing ballot boxes, and physically assaulting citizens at polling stations.

These clumsy actions were widely televised and shared over social media and led to international condemnation.

But although of the 2.26 million votes cast, 2.02 million were in favor of independence, this represented less than 40% of the Catalan electorate.

In fact the numbers voting for independence has been broadly stable since 2014 when 80% voted for independence but with only a 40% participation.. .

It is this presumed pro-union “silent majority” that Rajoy is counting on in December.

But although some 3.5 million Catalans are assumed to form a “silent majority,” unity among them is hard to find, other than in rejecting secession.

Many have nothing in common with the Partido Popular of Mariano Rojoy.

They see the current Spanish government as never having addressed Catalan concerns, or providing for a new system of regional funding, or of being open to an overhaul of the Spanish Constitution to recognize Spain’s “pluri-national reality.”

Other opponents of independence include radical leftists opposed to Catalan nationalists as much as Spanish nationalists.

Pro-union forces are also presumed to include business leaders worried about the stability of the Catalan economy, and the two major Catalan banks (Banco de Sabadell and CaixaBank).

Some Catalan companies have already moved their headquarters to Madrid or to other regions of Spain.

As well a the large group of people in Catalonia feel themselves Spanish and not Catalan, or are comfortable with dual identities.

These opponents of independence turned out by the tens of thousands in a massive flag waving pro-Spanish demonstration in Barcelona on Sunday 29th October.

But the intervention of King Felipe VI on October 24th  did not help matters.

His criticism of the Catalan separatists made a compomise even less likely.  The King’s father, Juan Carlos, who abdicated in 2014, had famously intervened on television at the time of the 1981 military coup attempt against Spain’s new post-Franco democracy.

But even the mayor of Barcelona . Ada Colau, who is not pro-independence, called King Felipe VI’s  intervention an “irresponsible and unworthy speech of a head of state” for not mentioning the hundreds of  ordinary citizens hurt by the Spanish national police as they tried to cast their votes.

Though King Felipe’s speech did rally the national political parties in Madrid, the PP, the opposition socialists (PSOE), and the liberal Ciudadanos party, to support the evocation of Article 155.

But the declaration of a “Catalan Republic” by Carles Puigdemont was not accidental.

He had refused to pledge loyalty to the Spanish Constitution when he was inaugurated as premier of Catalonia, and the portrait of King Felipe on the chamber wall was veiled.

The supporters of Catalan independence are also a coalition.

The Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP)  holds ten seats in the regional parliament and without their support Carles Puigdemont has no majority.

It is a far-left  separatist party whose spokewomen is Anna Gabriel. The mainstream politicians began the call for secession a decade ago, but now the  focus has moved to mobilization not negotiation, with power shifting to the streets and to pro-independence movements like the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) led by Jordi Sanchez which has branches in every part of the region, and is the principal grassroots movement for secession, and the Omnium Cultural, led by Jordi Cuixart, a veteran activist for Catalan culture and language, both are collectives of local groups rather than a traditional political party. The Republcian Left and the PdeC which form the Catalan government many believe has ceeded the agenda to groups like the ANC, Omnium and the CUP.

There are also deeper factors at work here which are evident as well throughout Europe as a whole. 

Barcelona is very much a part of a new conflict between an internationalized and cosmopolitan city, much like London, and the hinterland.

Catalonia is one of  most developed regions of Spain, comprising almost 20 per cent of Spain’s GDP. (Catalonia’s economy larger than Portugal for instance.) Catalonia and Barcelona, moreover, attract millions of foreign tourists each year.

Barcelona is very much a part of the cosmopolitan new world order, which has developed since the emergence of European Buget Airlines and mass package tourism in the 1980s, which Spain in general, and Catalonia in particular, has benefited, especially after the Olympic Games were held in Barcelona in 1992.

Barcelona with a population of 1.6 million out of a Catalan population of 5 million and contributes 31% of Catalonia’s GDP, and has become a tourist mecca.

Its international airport saw 51 million air passengers in 2014.

It has a sophisticated port, trade fair facilities, a zona franca free trade zone, and ranks 34th in a listing of 123 global cities.

It is in many respects as divided from its immediate hinterland as is London.

Spain has also only recently emerged from the deep post-2008 recession and banking crisis.

The political consequences have been the rise of the Popular Party (PP) led by Mariano Rojoy to power. replacing the social democratic (PSOE) government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in 2011.  Rojoy is a dour Galician who finds compromise difficult..

The conflict between Catalan nationalism and Iberian centralism is a very old one, but it has revived in recent years.

Catalonia, in fact, already enjoys a great deal of autonomy, and since 1980 the Catalan police force (the Mossos d’Esquadra.) has been under the command of the Generalitat (the Catalan government), and was expanded in 1994 to 17,000 to replace the Civil Guard and the National Police Corps. Jodi Pujol who founded the Catalan Nationalist Party (CiU) ruled from 1980 until 2003 was a leader of a “Europeanist” regime.

But in 2006 Madrid’s reaction to a new generation of  Catalan leaders allowed a dispute which began over fiscal affairs to escalate into a constitutional crisis.

Under leader Artur Mas of the CiU, the Catalan electorate supported a new “statute of autonomy” which called Catalonia a “nation” and sought greater control over Catalan finances.

This was approved by the Spanish parliament in Madrid, but the Spanish Constitutional Tribunal after 4 years of deliberation, ruled against the statute’s main components.

The central government’s position hardened when Rojoy became prime minister and the PP successfully urged the constitutional court to annul or reinterpret parts of the statute ensuring that  Catalonia was not recognized as a nation within Spain and the Catalan language was not given precedence over Castilian.

In Catalonia in the meanwhile the nationalists had coalesced in 2015 behind a Junts pel Si (Together for Yes), and emerged triumphant in the 2015 regional elections, and Carles Puigdemont became premier.

But Mariano Rajoy and his minority PP government bear a large part of the blame for the escalation of the crisis. The use of the national police to disrupt the Catalan referendum was ill-judged to say the least.

And in particular for Spain’s central authorities and Mr Rojoy’s conservative Popular Party to torpedo the revised statute of autonomy agreed in 2006. and in wasting opportunites after 2011 to make a fresh start.

Support for Catalan independence grew as the financial crisis gripped the country and corruption scandals tainted the established political parties in Madrid and Barcelona.

Rajoy stands on solid technical legal constitutional grounds in resisting Catalan separatism to be sure.

But the great challenge for Spain and for Catalonia now requires political initiative, flexibility, and compromise, which Rojoy has so far not demonstrated.

And it does not help when Pablo Casado, the spokesman for the PP, said at a press conference on the 9th October, that Mr Puigdemont could “end up” like former Catalan leader, Lluis Companys, who declared Catalan independence 1934, and who was shot by the Franco regime firing squad in Barcelona in 1940 after the end of the Spanish Civil War.

Catalonia had played a decisive role in that bloody conflict and Catalonia was where Generalissimo Francisco Franco imposed a bitter, brutal, and repressive and dictatorial, and unforgiving system of government, which outlawed the Catalan language and culture, and which is far from forgotten in Barcelona, even if it is apparently forgotten by Mr Rajoy and the PP in Madrid.

So far the demonstrations and counter demonstrations in Barcelona have been largely peaceful.

But it will take great patience, as well as compromise on both sides, to find a mutually acceptable and peaceful solution.

Something both sides currently seem unable or unwilling to do.