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Spain: Horns of a Dilemma

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Three representatives of the Catalan regional government traveled to Madrid today to formally request that the central government grant the Generalitat the necessary authority to hold a referendum on independence. This was a key issue in the 2012 regional election when voters returned a 65% majority of pro-referendum parties to the Parlament. The Spanish Constitution does not prohibit such a referendum – though secession is unconstitutional – but regional governments must have the approval of the national legislature for any general plebiscite to take place. That authorization was never forthcoming.

The Catalan representatives went nonetheless, fully aware that they were playing out the necessary acts to the unfolding drama. Jordi Turull, Marta Rovira, and Joan Herrera[1] – each representing one of the  main pro-referendum parties in the regional parliament – had no chance of convincing anyone in the Spanish legislature that they should follow the examples of Scotland, Quebec, Puerto Rico and other peaceful, democratic referendums. Mr. Herrera of the Green Party (ICV) argued that a referendum was the best way to a serious discussion of the Constitutional modus vivendi, which is today broken in Catalan eyes[2].

The national government’s reply was no less disheartening for being expected. Mr. Rajoy categorically refused to delegate the necessary powers to Catalonia saying it would go against the sovereignty of the Spanish people. He stated that he could not imagine Spain without Catalonia or Catalonia out of Spain and out of Europe; underlining the implicit threat of a Spanish veto should an independent Catalonia require readmission into the Eurozone. Mr. Rajoy maintained a tone of cordiality throughout his discourse and dangled a carrot before the visibly dissatisfied Catalans: the possibility of a constitutional reform.

parliament

The other key national parties agreed with the Prime Minister. The Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) leader, Alfredo Rubalcaba, said he was a “socialist, not a nationalist” and totally opposed Catalan independence, though he admitted that there was a grave problem and called for a new agreement for all Spaniards through a constitutional reform. In a backhanded jibe at Mr. Rajoy’s People’s Party (PP), he castigated the “forces of immobility” who refused to recognize the problem and open a dialogue[3].

Rosa Díez, of the Progress and Democracy Union (UPyD), went far further and less cordially. She insisted that there was nothing to talk about with those who disobeyed laws and “failed to respect the rules of the game.” She wondered how it was the Artur Mas, President of the Catalan government, had travelled all over the world promoting his region’s independence, but wasn’t able to board the high-speed train between Barcelona and Madrid to defend his party’s position. She called Mr. Mas a “francoist” – which is highly ironic – and compared the CiU with Marine Le Pen’s extreme right National Front[4].

 politicians

The Catalans’ final comment before the “debate” closed was to confirm that the popular consultation would go forward irrespective of the national parliament’s negative. “The people of Catalonia have started on a path from which there is no turning back.”[5]

The Bull’s Horns

Mr. Rajoy perhaps believes that he has resolved his little problem with the Catalans. Without legal authority to hold a referendum, the separatists would seem to have few options. The Parlament could unilaterally declare independence, but without a popular mandate or legal authority, they would be excoriated in Europe and subject to arrest for sedition and secession in Spain. They could hold an unofficial referendum in the Venetian style, but the results would be open to doubt and they would be back where they started. Or they could hold a regional election, which does not require the approval of the national legislature, on the sole question of independence: a de facto referendum which would be more relevant from a voting transparency point of view, though still not a legal plebiscite.

To this legal obstructionism, Mr. Rajoy adds the inducement of a possible constitutional reform. In this offer – which in my personal opinion lacks even an iota of sincerity – Mr. Rajoy is applying the ancient Roman maxim of divide et impera: divide and rule. Mr. Rajoy wants to drive a wedge between Catalan moderates and the hard-core separatists by the promise of unspecified fiscal incentives at some unknown future date, while hoping that economic recovery and political disagreements break-up the pro-independence coalition. It has worked in other countries and in Spain at other times, so his hopes are not completely unfounded. The Partido Popular is constantly bringing up the accommodation of Catalan elites and industrialists with Franco after the fall of Barcelona during the Civil War; they are confident that these elements will always sacrifice the masses for their own private interests.

This is a major gamble on the part of Mr. Rajoy. It is not 1940 and the Catalans do not face the choice of collaboration or liquidation by a fascist regime. The Catalan elites may not be allowed to back down: they know they face the prospects of political suicide if they do. Mr. Rajoy is on the horns of a dilemma, though he might not know it.

If the government is insincere in its offer to negotiate with the Generalitat for greater autonomy, it will quickly become apparent, and this will only drive moderates further into the camp of the hard-line secessionists. By cutting off all legal avenues of democratic expression for the Catalans without proffering a sincere deal, the government will only succeed in bringing about what is it trying to avoid.

Yet if the government is truly willing to offer advantageous terms to the Catalans, Mr. Rajoy’s problems do not end:

  1. The Partido Popular is already facing a revolt from the right, with numerous loyalists resigning to form a new party called Vox España. A deal brokered with the Generalitat would only provoke additional defections from the PP and weaken them before the 2015 general elections;
  2. The other autonomous communities who do not benefit from a deal with Catalonia would feel outraged that the “problem child” is once again spoiled and pampered for her misbehavior. A political revolt to gain similar concessions from the national government would be launched, perhaps even in Madrid, which would see its net transfers rise significantly to cover the decrease in Catalan contributions;
  3. If the government gives in to these regions, the already parlous budgetary condition of the Spanish state would deteriorate significantly. It would signal a loss of control of the regional budgets, which is already tenuous enough; and it would create a fiscal hole that no amount of financial prestidigitation could cover. This would bring strong reproof from Brussels and Frankfurt, especially if Madrid continued to miss deficit reduction targets, which is likely even without a further transfer of tax authority to the regions;

obstacles

All of this argues against the sincerity of Mr. Rajoy’s offer and the effectiveness of his strategy. It seems more likely that he is employing his traditional tactics of delays, obstruction and playing for time. It has worked for him often enough in the past: after two electoral losses to José Luís Rodrígues Zapatero, the financial crisis struck and Mr. Rajoy became Prime Minister. He outlasted both his Socialist and internal opponents. Mariano Rajoy may be congenitally incapable of decisive action at this stage in his political career.

Yet now he faces a situation where time may not be on his side. Mr. Mas has promised to go ahead with the consultation regardless of the legislature’s reproof; Mr. Mas has no choice without having his government collapse; and it may well be that Mr. Mas is now convinced that the best chances for himself and his party lie in being the man who secures independence for his country. Regardless, the clock is ticking down to November 2014, when the Catalans plan to hold their consultation. The economy will not improve by then; the government is unlikely to produce real concessions by then either.

Perhaps Mr. Rajoy is praying for a Spanish victory in the June World Cup. That appears to be the only circumstance that could save the integrity of the Spanish state.

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Sources and Notes

[1] Convergencia i Unió, Ezquerra Republicana de Catalunya and Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds respectively. Convergencia i Unió (CiU) is the leading party in the Catalan government, but shares power with the Ezquerra Republicana (ERC) to form a majority.
[2] Daniel G. Sastre, “Los enviados del Parlament: ‘Cataluña ha iniciado un camino sin retorno,’” El Mundo, 08 April 2014 (in Spanish)
[3] Luis Ángel Sanz, “Rubalcaba propone un ‘nuevo pacto constituyente’ para integrar ‘la singularidad catalana,’” El Mundo, 08 April 2014 (in Spanish)
[4]“Rosa Díez, en el debate catalán: ‘No hay nada que dialogar con quien incumple las normas,’” El Mundo, 08 April 2014 (in Spa nish)
[5] See note 2

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Discussion

6 Responses to “Spain: Horns of a Dilemma”

  1. For sure, the largest generator of the pro independence voters is the PP (but also PSOE) and I think the result at this point is past the tipping point.
    If they do go old school on Catalonia with suspension of the autonomy or arresting 65% of the democratically elected deputies of the Generalitat, I think it will blow up in spain’s face.
    What Madrid fails to grasp is that they could eliminate the local government and civil society would take over. A vast majority think that our elected representatives have only served to slow down or attempt to stop the independence movement.

    Remember, we only need 50% plus 1 of the votes.
    People have been putting up with a lot and it has been pacific and festive up to now. I don’t think the nuclear option will be accepted here. Massive mobilizations and straight to unilateral declaration of independence.

    After all, we declared independence from the most powerful nation in the world with only about 20% of the population supporting it.

    Posted by Adam Lang | April 10, 2014, 14:12
  2. Except that most Catalans root against the Spanish national team anyway.
    There really aren’t any moderates in Catalonia (at least that can mobilize a base). You are for independence or against it or you don’t care and even those who are against it are minority parties (PP, Ciutadans) or now irrelevant(the once central and now subservient and dying PSC).
    The last chance that Spain had for a Catalonia inside of Spain was the new Estatut for Catalonia in 2006 which was watered down by the Congress and then eviscerated in the courts.
    At this point anyone who has been paying attention in Catalonia simply doesn’t view the Madrid run central government to be either A)legitimate B)competent or C) democratic.
    One of the first lessons I learned in Chicago politics was that anyone could say they “represented” people. However, who controls the turf is far more important and right now the pro independence groups are doing exactly that.
    I think it is now not a question of if, but of when Catalonia is independent.

    Posted by Adam Lang | April 9, 2014, 22:34
    • Adam,

      You are naturally closer to the issue, living as you do in Barcelona, so your observations are direct whereas mine are all from a distance. From the last election, it seems that there are about 32% undecided/apathetic, which is the percentage of eligible voters who stayed home. There are another 14% who are hard-core unionists or anti-secessionists (the PP and Ciutadens voters); 10% moderately anti-secession PSC voters; and the remaining 44% are moderate- to hard-core pro-referendum voters. That’s not an overwhelming margin for secession, though Rajoy’s government seems to be doing everything in its power to increase that percentage. As the PP continues to refuse all dialogue with the Generalitat, the percentage of pro-referendum voters will only increase.

      It will be interesting to see what happens in May – if the ERC does well, that will certainly reinforce the independence drive.

      I tend to agree with you that Catalonia continues to move towards independence, but I don’t rule out drastic measures by the PP: suspending the regional charter of autonomy, disbanding the government, arresting the “secessionists”, direct rule from Madrid. It would be calamitous, but the defining characteristic of this government so far has been the boundless depths of their incompetence and stupidity.

      Posted by fdbetancor | April 10, 2014, 00:07

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] “Catalonia: The War of the Words”, “Die Lüge: (The Lie)”, “La Serenissima”, “Spain: Horns of a Dilemma” [2]Daniel G. Sastre, “Los enviados del Parlament: ‘Cataluña ha iniciado un camino sin […]

  2. […] “Catalonia: The War of the Words”, “Die Lüge: (The Lie)”, “La Serenissima”, “Spain: Horns of a Dilemma” [2]Daniel G. Sastre, “Los enviados del Parlament: ‘Cataluña ha iniciado un camino sin […]

  3. […] “Catalonia: The War of the Words”, “Die Lüge: (The Lie)”, “La Serenissima”, “Spain: Horns of a Dilemma” [2]Daniel G. Sastre, “Los enviados del Parlament: ‘Cataluña ha iniciado un camino sin […]

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