A few days ago, a Catalan businessman at the Barcelona Mobile Technologies Congress refused to shake hands with Felipe de Borbón (the Prince of Asturias), denouncing him as “no friend” and citing the government’s opposition to the proposed referendum. That set the cat loose in the henhouse, at least among the conservative press and twitterverse.
Now, José Manuel Sánchez Fornet, the head of Spain’s National Police Union sent out an equally inflammatory tweet: “Dear Catalan Separatists: Catalonia is Spain and the rest is conquered territory. It will always be Spain. By civil or military means. Deal with it.” Mr. Sánchez Fornet was, of course, vilified online by Catalans and praised by pro-union conservatives – as a cursory glance at this Twitter feed will verify.
When contrasted with the situation in other nations facing active separatist movements, Spain looks less like the United Kingdom or Canada, and more like the former Yugoslavia or Georgia. It is of course a stretch – so far – to compare Catalonia with Croatia or Abkhazia, but threats of violence and police and military repression are increasingly heard in Spain whereas they are entirely absent in former countries. It’s not as if the Catalans were arming separatist militias and engaging in ethnic cleansing campaigns along the frontiers, as was the case in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. They are proposing a peaceful and democratic referendum and are being met with legalistic obduracy from the government and growing hostility from elements of the Spanish populace and some members of the security forces.
These are not optimistic developments.
It is perfectly true that the Spanish constitution prohibits secession; but it does not prohibit non-binding referendums. The government has tremendous leverage in setting the conditions of a referendum in such a manner as to provide a result favorable to Spanish interests. For example, Mr. Rajoy could agree on a non-binding referendum and:
- Require an absolute majority of eligible electors, not just participants;
- Requiring multiple options on the ballot, including increased devolution of powers and a federalist structure, rather than a straight up-down vote on independence – which would surely split the vote and ensure that less than 50%+1 of electors voter in favor of actual independence.
The fact that Madrid’s strategy fails to take advantage of this fact and of the evident division of interests even among Catalan separatists, not to mention the entirety of Catalan civil society, is just mind-boggling. Mr. Rajoy’s current policy of stupid and arrogant intransigence is the one policy MOST sure to unify Catalans against continuance in Spain. Belligerent comments by Spanish officials and retired military officers are the second most effective way to radicalize even pro-union Catalans, who still remember who Franco was and what “the unity of Spain” meant back in the 1940’s and 1950’s. They frighten no one except foreign investors.
And if, even under these circumstances, the Catalans still voted overwhelmingly for independence? Is Mr. Rajoy willing to become the next Mr. Yanukovich? To see Guardia Civiles and Mossos blasting away at each other? To have Plaça de Cataluyna turned into another Euromaidan? Or worse? Is Spanish unity – in the context of a Europe pledged to “ever greater union” – really worth a bloodbath and perhaps another decade or two of domestic terrorism?
That then begs the question of whether Brussels, Berlin and Frankfurt will be willing to continue backstopping Madrid financially and economically as the civilian body count begins to rise.
I am left wondering if Mr. Rajoy has ever read “Facundo: Civilización y Barbarie,” the seminal work of the brilliant Argentine writer and later President Domingo Sarmiento. A mixture of geographical exposition, history and political commentary, the book describes post-independence Argentina and the bitter, internecine struggles between the Unitarians of Buenos Aires and the provincial Federalists, represented by the “barbaric” landlord and gaucho, Facundo Quiroga. To the author, Buenos Aires represents the modern, the civilized; while the vast, open pampas were barbaric, antiquated, violent, incapable of progress. The enduring power of Sarmiento’s work is in its starkness: to every Argentine it made plain their choice “to be or not to be savages.”
It is in Mr. Rajoy’s hands that the choice now lies.
Sources and Notes
 “Un empresario catalán niega la mano al Príncipe en el Mobile World Congress.” Euronoticias, 25 February 2014 (in Spanish)
“Cataluña siempre será España, por lo civil o por lo militar,” Nació Digital, 26 February 2014 (In Catalan and Spanish)