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Catalonia and Spain Prepare for the #IndyRef Endgame


Summers in Spain have always been hot, but the past few years have been unusually so. This is partially due to climate change, which has been turning July and August in Iberia from merely “hot” to “torrid”. But mostly it is because of the constitutional and national crisis that has simmered between Catalonia and the central government regarding the former’s desire to hold a referendum on independence. The fluctuating levels of tension usually reach their peak in September, when the Catalans celebrate their National Day, “La Diada”: a commemoration of the end of the 1714 Siege of Barcelona when the forces of Philip of Anjou finally defeated the last holdout of the rival claimant, Charles of Savoy, and established the Bourbon monarchy over the ashes of that city[1]. Catalan civic organizations, like ANC and Òmnium Cultural, have used the occasion of La Diada[2] to organizing massive, peaceful demonstrations linking millions of Catalans across the region in protest of measures by the government in Madrid viewed as discriminatory as well as by those demanding self-determination.

This September is being called by pro-independence supporters as “La Diada del Sí” – the National Day of “Yes”. That is because the government of Catalonia has called for the organization of a binding referendum on independence to be held on the 1st of October. The President of the Generalitat, Carles Puigdemont, has promised that if the “Yes” vote wins by even a single ballot, he will submit a proposal for a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain to the Catalan Parliament on October 2nd. The central government, led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the Partido Popular, has repeatedly denounced the illegality of the referendum and has threatened legal action against anyone in the Catalan government supporting it. The showdown between Madrid and Spain’s prickliest region (or nation) is fast coming to a head.

Spain Has a Problem

The “Catalan Question” is a problem for the government of Mariano Rajoy which refuses to go away, though it is largely one of his own making. Support for Catalan independence was negligible prior to 2010, with nationalists mostly focused on promoting linguistic and cultural policies that stressed their heritage, rather than actively plotting secession.  In 2006, the Catalan government had successfully negotiated a reform of its charter of autonomy with the government of José Luís Rodriguez Zapatero, the former Socialist Prime Minister. That reform was duly passed by both the Spanish and Catalan Parliaments; but then opposition leader Rajoy spearheaded a legal challenge to the reformed charter, as well as a vicious public relations campaign to stoke up anger against the “thieving Catalans”[3]. After four acrimonious years and in a split vote[4], Spain’s Constitutional Court approved the reformed charter, but only after making major changes to 14 articles and defining the interpretation of another 27 articles: a situation that supporters of the charter likened to gutting it and returning something totally different inside the shell.

If the Partido Popular made itself loathed as the latest in the long history of “Castilian oppressors” of Catalan nationhood, Mr. Rajoy made himself doubly despised by his imposition of strict austerity measures when he took office from the moribund Mr. Zapatero in a landslide election in November 2011. The Great Recession, which was assiduously tanking Spain’s hyperinflated property market, had now made such inroads into the books of Spanish banks, especially the smaller cajas, that the collapse of the entire financial system was a topic of open discussion by traders who were busy shorting Spanish bonds. Mr. Zapatero was caught flat-footed; he had dithered during the run up of the crisis, preferring to claim that the Spanish had the best financial system in the world rather than the most well-hidden; he thus failed to staunch the massive hemorrhaging while Spain still had a positive fiscal and borrowing position. Mr. Rajoy inherited this near apocalyptic situation and was forced to bow his head when Europe came to the rescue: his only consolation was that he was able to avoid the official use of the term “bail-out” for the 300 billion euro (goodwill gesture? solidarity demonstration?) with which the EU finally stopped the bleeding. That, and Mario Draghi’s promise to do “whatever it takes” to defend the Euro. In return, however, he had to agree to severe budget cuts that imposed significant pain on a country with 22% unemployment[5]. And the Catalans felt themselves to be singled out by the malevolence of the Spanish conservative party.

What had been a fringe movement of radicals and hopeless dreamers suddenly became the rallying cry of millions who were fed up with the “system”, with austerity imposed from Madrid[6], with the terrible economic conditions. They were further incensed by the Partido Popular’s complete refusal to discuss anything substantive with them, much less agree to an independence referendum. The example of the United Kingdom, which on January 2012 offered to mediate a “fair, legal and decisive” referendum with the Scottish nationalist, was held up as an example of democracy and contrasted against what separatists characterized as the “clique of Franco’s sons and grandsons” ruling from Madrid. Meanwhile, Mr. Rajoy has maintained that he is open to discuss anything with the Catalans, within the context of Catalonia as a region of Spain, but that he will not support a referendum on an unconstitutional topic[7]. Democracy only works, he piously states, when the rule of law is respected.

Mr. Rajoy suffers from a perception problem. His party has been locked in one of the largest corruption scandals in Spain’s post-fascist history, with thousands of officials under investigation and with the Prime Minister himself being forced to testify before the judges investigating the case. This vast and continuing investigation makes his talk of “respecting the rule of law” sound like a bad joke, or worse, insulting condescension. Nor is it only the Partido Popular: there are so many ongoing investigations in Spain that people have trouble keeping track of all the cases, a fact which was not made easier by the collapse of Spain judicial intranet due to shoddy programming. The Populares have also adopted the attitude that simply denying Catalans the right to self-determination will make the problem go away: but attempting to deal with political problems as if they were legal technicalities does not have a very positive history of success. At best, it will cause the problem to fester for years or decades; at worst, it will lose them Catalonia.

Catalonia Has a Problem Too

If Catalonia is proving to be a pain in the back for Mariano Rajoy[8], then pro-independence Catalans have their own share of troubles. Most critically, support for independence seems to have reached its peak and is now on the wane. Part of the problem is the inevitable difficulty of maintaining a high level of enthusiasm for years on end; people have to live their lives, they need to go to work, and to raise kids after all. Without the continual stimulus of constant, new outrages – such as President Trump provides his opponents daily, if not hourly – it is very hard to keep large masses engaged.

Another challenge is the improvement of the Spanish economy. No one would call Spain a picture of health – no one who wasn’t employed by the Partido Popular – but growth has picked up and unemployment is visibly falling. Tourism is beating historical records, thanks to the collapse of the rest of the Mediterranean as desirable destinations thanks to war, terrorism and economic dislocation. As the economy picks up, some of the underlying discontent is being ameliorated.

The Catalans have some self-inflicted wounds as well: after the relatively successful, though unofficial, referendum[9] held on 8 November 2014, supporters of independence promised to call a snap election[10] and use it as a proxy for a referendum. This was a mistake. A referendum benefits from its focus on a single topic: groups like Convergencia and Esquerra Republicana, who agree on nothing except on independence, can work together without friction. Putting those two groups together on a common election ticket is a recipe for disaster: and disaster, or something close to it, struck the pro-independence Catalans. The combined party, Junts pel Sí, was actually less than the sum of its parts, as many supporters from both constituent parties were turned away from voting for “that other party”. Convergencia (i Unió) and Esquerra separately took 44.4% of the vote in the 2012 election; three years later, they only secured 39.6% of ballots despite the addition of some smaller pro-independence parties. This misreading of the situation led many frustrated voters to join new formations like Podem Sí Que Es Pot and Ciutadens[11], as well as a surge in support for the anarcho-leftist formation CUP, who became the kingmaker in the Parliament once Sí Que Es Pot made it clear that they would not support the plans of Junts Pel Sí.

The resulting parliamentary messiness eventually cost President Artur Mas his job; he was forced to resign so that CUP would finally vote in favor for the Generalitat’s budget[12] after months of delay. Mr. Puigdemont replaced him; but the inherent contradictions between the radically different ideologies of the governing parties continued to show: a commitment to independence simply wasn’t enough to smooth over the cracks in the day-to-day running of the region. One of President Puigdemont’s first official statements was the recognition that the “electoral referendum” had failed to deliver a mandate for declaring independence[13]. He promised to schedule another definitive and binding referendum for 2017 and vowed that he would be undeterred by any ruling of the Constitutional Court, by threats from Madrid or even by the possibility of going to jail. Nevertheless, there has been notable voter fatigue in Catalonia: since 2010, they’ve had to vote in three regional elections, three national elections and one unofficial referendum and not much has happened[14].

Three other factors are working against the Catalans, and these are out of their control:

First, the Scots voted to stay in the United Kingdom. While the example of democratic process this provided was welcome and helps the pro-independence Catalans in their demand for a similar chance to determine their own fate, the fact that Scotland voted “remain” has denied them of a practical example of a new state forming from out of an existing member state and exactly how Europe would handle that situation. The official EU position is that Catalonia would have to reapply for membership, which Spain could veto; but there were enough ambivalent statements regarding Scotland that a reasonable case could be made that Europe would prioritize stability over technicalities and let the Catalans in immediately. That supposition remains untested.

Second, Brexit happened. If the European Union was not heartily sick of popular referendums before the 23rd of June 2016, it certainly was afterwards[15]. So the argument of the democratic legitimacy of popular referendums, especially those that potentially increase instability in large and influential member states, is going to fall on some very stony ears in Brussels.

Finally, Theresa May had her disastrously bungled snap election in May. Although it was a terrible night for the Prime Minister especially and the Tories in general, there was at least one silver lining from their point of view: it put to bed the threat of Scottish secession. The Scottish National Party took a severe beating, losing 21 points and any sort of mandate for requesting a second referendum. Scottish Premier Nicola Sturgeon admitted as much when she shelved plans to demand another vote on “Freedom!” from England.

If there is a tide to the course of human history, it begins to feel as if the Catalans missed it. They might have been better advised to have bulled through with their referendum law in 2014.

Endgame Scenarios

It seems certain that the referendum will proceed regardless. President Puigdemont has been forced to purge prominent members of his government, presumably for their lackluster support of the vote. The Generalitat’s Advisor on Business Relations, Jordi Baiget, was asked to resign after he had expressed doubts that the referendum would take place at all, given the power of Madrid. Mr. Puigdemont then announced the demission of the Ministers of Interior, Education and the government’s Spokesperson on the 14th of July: all critical posts for the organization of the referendum[16]. Three days after that, the Chief of the Catalan regional police force – the Mossos d’Esquadra – also resigned. No reason was given for Albert Batlle’s decision, only 70 odd days before the referendum – but it is obvious enough that you don’t want to have lukewarm separatist as Chief of Police when the order comes from Madrid to arrest the regional government. Proof enough, if more was required, that Mr Puigdemont plans to see the referendum through.

For the central government, Mr. Rajoy seems to be employing one of his favorite political strategies: wait-and-see. The Prime Minister plans to travel to the break-away region along with the whole top leadership of the Partido Popular to hold their annual leadership meeting in Tarragona. The date of the planned trip is not coincidence: the 15th of September is also the official start of the referendum campaign. The decision looks like a smart move on the part of wily Galician:

  1. It follows the Diada del Sí on the 11th of September, allowing the Populares to gauge just how much popular support there really is for the upcoming vote – a lackluster Diada will embolden them, while a strong and vibrant turnout might lead them to reconsider their trip;
  2. It allows them to more directly influence events on the ground. They will surely be calling up prominent Catalan government officials, civil servants and business people: there will be a lot of carrot and a lot of stick shown in those conversations;
  3. It allows them to have very discrete conversations with President Carles Puigdemont, who could not possibly be seen in Madrid before the plebiscite. This will be critical if Mr. Puigdemont begins to get cold feet – the Populares will want to be on hand to take advantage of any last minute weakening on the part of the President;
  4. It is the path of least resistance. Mr. Rajoy could attempt to stop the referendum before it happens, but down that road lies a tremendous amount of uncertainty and the potential for severe and lasting civil strife. The Prime Minister wants to avoid “tanks on the street” and “Guardias versus Mossos” until and unless it is absolutely necessary.

Mr. Rajoy is no doubt buoyed by the Generalitat’s most recent polling results showing waning support for independence. He seems willing to take a calculated risk, avoid direct confrontation and let things play out. He hopes the Catalan government will fold; but even if it doesn’t he seems prepared to let the referendum proceed. He should actually want it to take place. In the best case scenario for the government, the “No” vote beats “Sí” by any margin – that would put paid to the whole Catalan question for the foreseeable future and it would be the end of a whole crop of pro-independence Catalan leaders who have caused Mr. Rajoy many sleepless nights.

An intermediate case would be a narrow “Sí” victory with a low turnout. The referendum law does not establish any minimum turnout for validity, so if just Messrs. Puigdemont and Junqueras show up and vote, it would be considered legally binding. There is also no supermajority required for the “Sí” vote. Both of these could be viewed as mistakes – given the importance of European support for a successful secession in the face of Spanish opposition, having a substantial margin of victory with high turnout is absolutely essential to put Brussels in a bind. Spain holds most of the cards as far as the EU goes; pro-independence Catalans need to draw a royal flush if they want a smooth and peaceful separation. In this case, high participation rates are more important than the margin of victory. It will be easier for Mr. Rajoy to dismiss the legitimacy of a result with 30% voter turnout than one with 80% voter turnout. Indifference is the greatest enemy of the referendum.

Madrid’s nightmare scenario is high voter turnout coupled with a substantial margin of victory for “Sí”. It will be too late to put the tanks on the streets at that point; and it will be very awkward explaining to Brussels why he just ordered the arrest the leaders of the Catalan government after such a powerful demonstration of the peoples’ desire for independence. He might do so anyway and attempt to administer Catalonia centrally, or through a rump parliament composed of pro-union representatives; but the political cost would be enormous and it would generate instability that neither Spain nor the EU desires or can afford. It would also put Europe in a bind: respect for democracy remains important for the organization, even if it continuously contradicts this principal when “necessary”.

For the moment, the government seems to have learned two critical lessons that it should have taken in years ago: first, that many more Catalans want to be able to vote on their future than necessarily want to secede from Spain; and second, that threatening and browbeating the Catalans – even if it is only directed at the pro-independence leaders – is the surest way to increase support for independence. So the iron fist has gone back into the velvet glove for the moment, and though Mr. Rajoy has threatened to cut off central government funding for the region, they are not willfully pouring gasoline on the blaze. Whether that will be enough to keep the Catalans from voting to leave is a question that will be settled in 54 days.

And then the real fun begins.

Sources and Notes

[1] Quite literally: the victorious Bourbon troops leveled a large area of the old city in order to establish permanent military quarters, la Ciutadella, inside the walls to prevent any further risings. The Mercat del Born was built in 1873 over one portion of this area and restoration work in 2002 revealed the extent of the medieval city that was destroyed by the occupying troops. It is currently the site of a public exhibit and museum explaining the forgotten history of that neighborhood from the artifacts that have been unearthed.

[2] Catalan nationalists have used 11 September as the birth date of the independence movement, though the Catalans of 1714 were not fighting for independence, but rather for the House of Habsburg to rule Spain rather than the House of Bourbon. Those opposed to independence are quick to point this out, though pro-indy Catalans counter that this was when “it became clear” that there could never be a just co-existence with Madrid, since the newly crowned Felipe V immediately rescinded all the medieval rights, or fueros, enjoyed by the Catalan cities that had supported his opponent (contrast with the Basque Country, which continues to enjoy many of these in a modernized form under the current Spanish constitution). BTW, this is an extremely complicated subject with centuries of history behind it; I am aware that my one paragraph simplification can be severely criticized…

[3] The Partido Popular was referring to the reformed charter’s remission of numerous competencies and taxation authority to the Catalan government, which they alleged would have led to a “breach in solidarity” between Catalonia and the rest of Spain from a fiscal transfers point of view. Defenders of the reformed charter were quick to counter “Spain is trying to rob us” and so it has been, back and forth.

[4] The Court voted 6 in favor of amendments and 4 against, with the split being generally regarded as a partisan divide between “conservative” and “socialist” judges.

[5] The austerity was real enough, but it was never as severe as the Promethean punishment inflicted upon Greece by the troika of creditors. Spain was always able to resist enough to keep a “healthy” fiscal deficit – healthy in the sense that it prevented a complete collapse in social services, consumption, lending and economic activity, which is what happened to Greece.

[6] It is ironic that the basic theme of pro-independence Catalans has been rejection of Madrid, but full acceptance of Europe – despite the fact that the austerity measures imposed by Mr. Rajoy were more or less teletyped from the offices of the Eurogroup in Brussels. I daresay that if the Catalans ever did succeed in winning their independence AND immediately joining the European Union, their welcome letter would contain a lengthy annex explaining how they were expected to impose their own version of austerity on themselves.

[7] The current Spanish constitution establishes the indissoluble nature of the Spanish state.

[8] The Prime Minister today postponed a scheduled meeting with the King of Spain, citing back pains (lumbago).

[9] From the point of view of pro-independence Catalans, it was certainly successful. A peaceful, well-organized and well-executed dry run that involved 2.2 million voters – more than voted in the 2006 referendum on the new Estatut.

[10] While the Spanish constitution grants the central legislature authority to block referendums proposed by the regions, it does not give it the authority to stop regional elections. This was a means of getting around the interference of the central government and Constitutional Court.

[11] These are respectively the Catalan branches of Podemos and Ciudadanos, though the latter actually began in Catalonia before jumping to the national stage.

[12] To make a long story short: CUP blamed Mas for the painful austerity cuts imposed on Catalonia, much as Mr. Mas blamed Madrid, and refused to back him as President of the government. They also loathed him as a tool of the bourgeois-capitalist exploiter class that “runs Catalonia”.

[13] Junts pel Sí’s original position had been that they would assume a mandate for a declaration of independence so long as they won a plurality in the parliament, which they did. But they did not win the resounding majority they clearly hoped for and expected and the wind was taken out of their sails.

[14] A statement which is open to dispute by pro-independence supporters who will argue that the Generalitat has made good use of this time to prepare its plans for separation from Spain…but for the man and woman on the street, this is not evident.

[15] In fact, the European Union has been violently allergic to anything smacking of direct democracy ever since the shocking rejection of the European Constitution by the French and Dutch in 2005. The experience with Greece and Ireland has not helped one bit either.

[16] The Minister of the Interior has public security within their portfolio, while the Minister of Education is critical since public schools will be the most common polling places used for the referendum.

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