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Catalonia: A Powder Keg Looking For A Match


Catalonia: A Powder Keg Looking for a Match

Barcelona has been on rocked by three consecutive nights of rioting in response to the police eviction of squatters from Can Víes[1], a derelict municipal building. The building had been occupied for years, and the municipal government had tolerated it until now. Over time, the building had become a center for left-wing activists and the local “okupas” movement[2], winning a considerable measure of community support. However, a new urban renewal plan had been passed which proposed turning the rail tracks and run-down buildings into parks and pedestrian walks for the neighbors. Additionally, the building inspectors maintain that Can Víes, which has not received any maintenance in over a decade, is a health hazard to the occupants and to everyone else.

When the Mossos d’Escuadra, the Catalan equivalent of state troopers, arrived to clear the building out in preparation for the wreckers, they were met with demonstrations and barricades. A number of activists had chained themselves to the immovable fixtures of the building and it took police much of the day to finally remove them. By this time, the protests had swelled and were no longer quite so passive. When the wrecking crew finally managed to demolish most of the building, the rioting became more intense: a bank was broken into, a television van was destroyed and the excavator used to bring down Can Víes was set on fire. The Mossos responded with batons and rubber bullets to clear demonstrators away from the demolition site, but these have not succeeded for the most part[3].

By this time, the demonstrations had spread to other neighborhoods and other cities and towns of Catalonia. These were peaceful demonstrations expressing support and sympathy for the activists and what was seen as an ill-advised move by the local administration that should have first negotiated with the squatters before sending in the Mossos and acting in such a heavy-handed fashion. On Friday, civil authorities bowed to the pressure and called off the half-finished demolition stating that they would seek a negotiated solution to the impasse. By this time, police had already arrested 59 people during the four nights of protests[4].


What has happened in Can Víes is not exactly a rare event in post-bubble Spain, with the exception of the level of violence and the widespread support the squatters received. The banks were bailed out, but not the people: hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs, and then lost their homes, but have not lost their debt. Thanks to Spain’s medieval bankruptcy laws, debt follows you for life, creating a class of citizens that will be little better than debt peons for decades if not longer, with  the depressing social and economic effects that should be self-evident. In the country as a whole, there are approximately 225 foreclosures every day[5], but the overwhelming majority of them simply slip off quietly into that good night.


The rate at which foreclosures are occurring is beginning to taper off, but that is scant comfort for those families who are struggling to make ends meet. The statics also fail to mention that there is a backlog of cases: approximately 198,000 according to the Spanish Justice Department. That is over half a million homes since 2008, either foreclosed or in the process of it, out of a market of approximately 6.7 million mortgages[6] (7.5% of the total).

Nor is the situation likely to get better. According to Bank of Spain data, the ratio of bad mortgages is at record highs and continues to rise, even as the total outstandings fall. The banks refuse to extend credit to anyone who doesn’t have either a very large down payment, is purchasing a bank-managed property, or both. Meanwhile, over a million units stand empty and 80,000 people a year are losing the home they have struggled to pay for through the depths of the financial crisis and recession. Is it any wonder that people are angry, or that a squatters’ movement should enjoy such widespread popular support that demonstrations are being organized in solidarity across the country?


The social impacts of the crisis really cannot be understated. Although it would be difficult to tell from reading a Spanish newspaper or watching Spanish television – they might lose their government advertisement contracts if they were overly critical – in fact, the impact of recession and austerity on the Spanish is nothing less than ruinous. Oxfam estimates that one in four Spanish nationals is at risk of falling into poverty and social exclusion and of the 25 million newly impoverished in Europe, 8 million of them will be Spanish[7]. Save the Children warned that 1 in 3 Spanish children were also at risk of poverty[8]. While the Spanish government has dismissed these reports as being uninformed[9], the government’s own National Institute of Statistics confirms the data, showing that the number of people 16 years and under who are unable to eat meat, fish or chicken at least 3 times a week has doubled since 2004, reaching almost 4%[10].

Caritas, the non-profit charity of the Catholic Church, has also severely criticized the government. The organization finds that 3 million Spaniards suffer from extreme poverty, living on less than €307 per month, double the rate in 2008. Caritas has seen the number of people seeking regular assistance triple to 1.3 million, while fully a third of these have been seeking help for more than 3 years – not only chronically unemployed, but now chronically impoverished. Caritas then notes that the social divide has increased dramatically, a charge supported by a separate study undertaken by Credit Suisse, which finds that the number of millionaires in Spain had increased in 2012 by 13%[11]. Given the very close political and ideological ties between the Spanish Church and the Spanish state, these are extraordinary accusations.

Though it should be clear by now that the social situation in Spain is volatile and deteriorating, you might well ask what all this has to do with Catalonia being a powder keg. Nothing whatsoever, except that tensions over the Catalan referendum have risen to the point that pretty much anything now generates extreme anti-Catalan feeling in the rest of Spain.

Ms. Ana Castillo, who is a pro-union Catalan running for mayor of Cardedeu, posted a comment on Facebook regarding the situation in Can Víes: “Catalonia is a powder keg”. Furthermore: “Separatism and anarchy are taking over the streets, the atmosphere is very tense. Apply article 155 now. Shameful what is happening, the culprit is Artur Mas[12].”


These are all rather extraordinary accusations on the part of Ms. Castillo. What is the possible connection between the dislodging of Catalan squatters by Catalan police with a desire to vote on independence from Spain? How precisely does the responsibility for the disturbances jump from the Barcelona City Council to the regional President? Furthermore, there are sympathy protests planned in Madrid, the Balearic Islands, Valencia and Andalucía: does Ms. Castillo think these are a Catalan fifth column in operation? Perhaps she does.

Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution states that when any regional government is found to be in violation of the laws or constitution, the Spanish government is authorized to use all legal means necessary to enforce compliance with said laws.[13] I assume that Ms. Castillo is not asking that the Spanish government simply lodge a protest with Artur Mas and the Generalitat. Article 155 is interpreted by some to authorize the central government to suspend the errant region’s charter of autonomy and to impose either direct rule from Madrid or through local agents like the Partido Popular de Cataluña (PPC), though this point is disputed. The power to suspend a region’s charter is not actually explicitly given to the government in the Constitution, whereas the regions’ right to autonomy is. In any event, it seems clear that Ms. Castillo is calling for drastic measures before the situation gets out of hand.

The Catalans are not the only ones who are being radicalized. Spaniards are increasingly supportive of a hardline approach to the region’s desire to secede. In a March poll, support for suspending the Catalan charter of autonomy in the event that the referendum is held stood at 46%. This is surely an understatement; one thing is answering a hypothetical question during a survey, the reality of secession is quite another.


Some responders to Ms. Castillo’s post were also vehement to the point of suggesting recourse to violence:


Inflammatory statements like “tanks in the streets now”, “stand the scum up to a firing squad”, “it’s no exaggeration, a pre-war environment is evident…” might be dismissed as the work of a few extremists, but they are becoming more and more frequent on both sides. And even a single hothead can become the spark that sets off the explosion. Gavrilo Princeps[14] anyone?

The situation is indeed getting out of hand, as I’ve been saying for some time. Ms. Castillo blames Artur Mas and the Catalan separatists, and she has a right to her opinion. But the Partido Popular must bear a heavy share of the burden for turning the Catalan situation from tense to incendiary in the space of two years. The Republican Left Party has always been in favor of independence; but until recently, Mr. Mas’ Convergence and Unity Party has not been. Devolution of additional powers to Catalonia, yes; a more federalist model for Spain, certainly; but outright independence? That is a change that has come recently, driven by two factors:

  1. The refusal of the Partido Popular to negotiate any change whatsoever to the status quo; and,
  2. The increasing support for outright independence in the Catalan population.

These two factors form a positive feedback loop. Every time Mr. Rajoy and his government rebuff a proposal from Mr. Mas and CiU, the Catalan people become more frustrated and independence gains one or two percentage points. This in turn causes the conservative hardliners in the Partido Popular to dig in their heels and refuse to listen to “those damned Catalans”.

This situation became truly poisonous after the Partido Popular, then in opposition, challenged the newly enacted Catalan charter of autonomy in 2010. The challenge was heard by the Constitutional Court – the Spanish version of the US Supreme Court, with the power of judicial review – and 10 articles in the statute were found to be in violation of the Spanish Constitution and so struck down. The Catalans were infuriated by what they viewed as simply another attempt by the Spanish to continue milking the Catalan cash cow, as one of the primary nullified articles dealt with devolution of fiscal powers to the Generalitat; furthermore, they were incensed by what they viewed as political pressure from the Populares placed on the judiciary, which in Spain does not have a particularly good reputation for independence from political interference.

Regardless of whether or not there was a degree of arm twisting – perhaps none was needed, the Spanish judiciary is on the whole extremely conservative – the perception in Catalonia was that the Populares were out to impose their will on the Catalans, and the people be damned. You don’t have to agree with this narrative, you only have to agree that the Catalans believe it.

Mr. Mas did make at least one further overture to Mr. Rajoy regarding possible accommodations for the region’s demands. In September 2012, he travelled to Madrid to discuss Catalonia’s financing model and came home empty handed and apparently convinced that Catalonia no longer had a future within Spain. This meeting, and the losses suffered by his party to the pro-independence ERC in the November 2012 Catalan elections seemed to make a true believer out of Mr. Mas[15].

It seems inconceivable that the political and economic status quo could continue for another decade but that is precisely what the IMF and OECD have forecast in terms of growth and employment for the country. The surprise turnout in favor of the radical left “Podemos” in last week’s election should be a warning to the complacent establishment, but it seems unlikely that Mr. Rajoy has heard the message[16]. Spain is already an inflammable mix of anger, fear, impoverishment, outrage and despair; it is now getting a steady and growing injection of nationalism. The Spanish tinderbox is smoldering, it is only looking for a spark to ignite: the most likely dates are September 11th[17] and November 9th[18].


Sources and Notes:


[1] “Can” means house in Catalan.

[2] “Okupas” is a Spanish slang term for squatter; but the “okupas movement“specifically refers to the organized activities in support of people who have lost their homes during the financial crisis. It includes manuals, websites with online guides, and even personal advisors: all directed at instructing someone on the legal loopholes and limits to police authority in order to help them become successful “okupas”.

[3] Stephen Burgen, “Thirty arrested as rioting continues at Can Vies building in Barcelona,” The Guardian, 29 May 2014

[4] Fiona Govan, “Squat demolition called off after four nights of rioting in Barcelona,” The Telegraph, 30 May 2014

[5] I note the difference between the initiation of a foreclosure proceeding, the judicial ruling that permits the foreclosure, and the actual eviction of the tenants or homeowners. These are all separate legal procedures, sometimes separated by months or years, and in some cases, the full process is not completed for a variety of reasons.

[6] Banco de España

[7] Teresa Cavero and Krisnah Poinasamy, “A Cautionary Tale: The true cost of austerity and inequality in Europe,” Oxfam International, 13 September 2013

[8] “One in three Spanish kids ‘at risk of poverty’,” The Local, 15 April 2014

[9] “Montoro critica los informes de Cáritas sobre la pobreza infantil en España,” Cadena Ser, 28 March 2014

[10] Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas, Encuesta de Condiciones de Vida, Tabla 3.1 Carencia Material

[11] Thorfinnur Omarsson, “Extreme poverty affects three million people in Spain, says Caritas Spain,” Caritas Europa, 15 October 2013

[12] Artur Mas is the President of the Generalitat, the regional government of Catalonia.

[13] The English-version of Article 155, as found on the official Government of Spain website, reads:

1. If a Self-governing Community does not fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the Constitution or other laws, or acts in a way that is seriously prejudicial to the general interest of Spain, the Government, after having lodged a complaint with the President of the Self-governing Community and failed to receive satisfaction therefore, may, following approval granted by the overall majority of the Senate, take all measures necessary to compel the Community to meet said obligations, or to protect the above-mentioned general interest.

[14] Gavrilo Princeps was the Bosnian Serb who assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which led directly to the First World War.

[15] Or perhaps he is simply a crafty politician, and realizes that his party is facing extinction if it doesn’t shed its image of being soft on the referendum. Mr. Rajoy seems to be betting on this possibility, and on Mr. Mas folding when his bluf fis called.

[16] Though the PSOE leader, Alfredo Rubalcaba certainly has: he has called for a party congress to elect a new leader in the wake of his party’s terrible performance.

[17] The Catalan national day of celebration, La Diada.

[18] The date scheduled for the Catalan referendum on Independence.

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