Catalonia’s independence crisis

My talk at the Oxford Literary Festival.

For the past five months Spain has been living through the most serious constitutional crisis since the failed coup in 1981 against the restored democracy, following the death of the dictator General Franco. These are sad times: all the stereotypes that Spaniards are incapable of living together, epitomised by its Civil War between 1936 and 1939, of which Franco was the victor, are being reinforced.

I am going to try to be dispassionate in the very heated debate over Catalonia’s push for independence. A colleague in Madrid suggested that before talking about the crisis I should take a deep breath and stick my head in a bucket of ice.

Catalonia, like Spain’s 16 other regions, has enjoyed a degree of autonomy since 1978, instigated as part of the country’s transition to democracy after Franco’s death in 1975, which gives the regions powers over matters such as education, healthcare and welfare, and in Catalonia’s case a police force of its own. Together with the Basque Country and Galicia, Catalonia has a profound sense of national and cultural identity, and its own language.

The region plays a key role in the Spanish economy. Its population of 7.5 million (16% of Spain’s total and more than Denmark and Finland) generates around one-fifth of Spain’s economic output, one quarter of total exports and received around one-quarter of Spain’s million 82 million tourists last year, making Spain the world’s second most popular destination after France and ahead of the US. The Catalan economy is larger than Portugal’s.

A little potted history. In 1934, two years before the Civil War, Lluis Companys, the president of the Catalan government declared an independent state within the Spanish Republic but it was very shortlived. Companys went into exile after the Civil War, was detained by the Gestapo and deported to Spain where he was shot in 1940. He remains a totemic figure for the pro-independence camp. The anniversary of his execution is commemorated every year.

Those in favour of independence and seeking in history support for their cause go back much further. The County of Barcelona and the Kingdom of Aragon to the east and south were brought together through a dynastic union in 1137. The two realms maintained their own institutions and laws and were ruled separately. This composite state was known as the Crown of Aragon. Catalonia was never a kingdom or an independent state. The Generalitat (government) of Catalonia was established in 1359, with a president and what is considered one of Europe’s earliest parliaments. King Ferdinand of Aragon married Queen Isabella of Castile in 1469, uniting the two crowns. Catalonia retained considerable self-rule, with

its own political institutions, courts and laws. A key event was the War of the Spanish Succession, a 12-year European conflict caused by the death in 1700 of Charles II, the last Hapsburg monarch of Spain who died without heirs. Separatists claim the War was one of secession not succession involving Catalonia’s independence from Spain when it was a European battle over control of the Spanish crown, which at the time ruled over a global empire, between the Hapsburg and Bourbon monarchies.

The main candidates were Philippe of the House of Bourbon, grandson of Louis XIV of France, and Archduke Charles of Austria. Catalans, fearful of the consequences of a French king, plotted against Philippe and allied themselves with England, Holland and the Austrian empire, which opposed the Bourbon rule over Spain. Abandoned by its allies, following the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht (which ceded Gibraltar to Great Britain), Catalonia continued to fight but fell after the 14-month siege of Barcelona. The Bourbon Philippe became Felipe V of Spain. The Catalan government was abolished and self-rule ended.

Coming back to today, last October’s referendum on independence for Catalonia was unconstitutional and hence illegal. Spain’s 1978 constitution affirms the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”. That referendum has been just as divisive and polarising as the Brexit referendum. You probably all remember the Catalan referendum because of the televised scenes of the excessive police force used to deter voters that went around the world and did much to win sympathy for those in favour of independence and damaged Spain’s international image. Human Rights Watch condemned the excessive use of force by the police.

The secessionists’ communication with the foreign press, part of their attempt to internationalise the conflict, was also more successful than the hermetic central government’s attempts to explain its position until it sprang into action after the referendum.

Voting is one of the most essential parts of democracy, and seeing people hit over the head when they went to the polls was shocking. That said, the secessionists exaggerated the scale of the police violence. Of the 900 said to be hurt, four were hospitalised. That, of course, was four too many but if the police are sent in by the authorities they do not normally reason with those they have been told to oppose.

There was also plenty of fake news, some of it Russian engineered. Among the more pernicious fake stories was a picture of the fingers of a woman, allegedly broken by police to stop her from voting; reports that a police officer sent to Catalonia to block the vote had died of a heart attack there, surrounded by activists; and a story of a 6-year-old boy paralyzed by police brutality. None of these stories were true. One picture that showed a voter hit by a rubber bullet in the face was actually that of a miner who was injured in a strike in Madrid in 2012.

The Catalan referendum violated Spanish law, UN resolutions on the right to self-determination, the recommendations of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, an agency of reference on constitutional matters and referendums, and Catalonia’s own regional charter, the Estatut. Changes to the Estatut need the approval of two-thirds of members of the Catalan parliament. The independence referendum bill was approved by just over 50% of Catalan MPs. The bill’s passage also skipped an essential step in the Catalan legislative procedure – a request for oversight by the regional equivalent of the Constitutional Court to ensure regional bills conform to the law. The Catalan parliament’s lawyers questioned the validity of the fast-track procedure for approving the bill for the referendum.

Only Spain’s national parliament and the central government have the power to call referendums. What happened in Catalonia was a collision between self-determination and Spanish state sovereignty, between the supremacy of Spanish law and laws passed by the Catalan parliament.

Not only was the referendum illegal, but it came after a series of claims made by separatists that are demonstrably false. For instance, it is not true – and European treaties reflect this and endless assertions by the European Commission – that an independent Catalonia would automatically stay in the EU and the euro zone. Nor it is true that voting is an exercise in democracy (dictatorships also organise referendums, as happened during the Franco regime). Nor is it proven that Catalonia would be more wealthy on its own, which is not the same as saying that it could be economically viable as an independent state. Nor are comparisons with Scotland viable. Scotland’s referendum was an agreed process and Catalonia’s unilateralist.

Ridiculous slogans saying “Franco ha vuelto” appeared on Catalan walls after the referendum, making it sound as if his dictatorship had never ended. The accusations by those in favour of independence that the imprisoned leaders are political prisoners is in my view rubbish. It was taken as an insult by opponents of Franco who were jailed and tortured. The jailed secessionists are politicos presos (politicians in prison), not presos politicos (political prisoners).

You might be surprised to learn that Spain is among the world’s 19 “full democracies”, according the Economist Intelligence Unit, based on various categories. The United States and Italy, in comparison, are labelled “flawed democracies”. That said, Spain’s score dropped in the latest ranking and it is only just a “full democracy”. The EIU puts this down to the government’s handling of the Catalan problem and its “repressive treatment of pro-independence politicians.”

As a result of the referendum result – which showed that 2.3 million people had voted (only 43% of the electorate), 90% of them in favour of independence, although this was not confirmed independently – Carles Puigdemont, the then president of Catalonia, signed a unilateral declaration of independence which he then halted in the hope of starting negotiations with the central government. The referendum, however, lacked legitimacy to be considerer a true representation of public opinion. Police violence aside and the matter of the constitution, the vote had a large number of flaws, including being possible to vote in any open polling station, being able to vote more than once and many polling stations were closed.

Such was the depth of the crisis that at this point a stern King Felipe addressed the nation and accused the Catalan government of seeking to break ‘the unity of Spain’. His televised address recalled that of his father, King Juan Carlos, in 1981 when he faced down an attempted coup.

When Puigdemont refused to revoke the declaration, the ruling Popular Party imposed direct rule on Catalonia under article 155 of the constitution and also called a snap election in Catalonia which was held last December. Both these measures were supported by the Socialist party and the centrist Ciudadanos, but not by the far left Podemos.

The Catalan government and parliament were dissolved, the region’s ministries and local police force taken over by officials from Madrid and some of the separatist leaders imprisoned pending trial for rebellion and sedition.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s hope that the snap election would return Catalonia, one of Spain’s richest regions, to ‘normality and legality’ did not pay off, as the three pro-independence parties again won a narrow majority in the Catalan parliament on under 50% of the vote and a record turnout of 82%.

The Catalan Republican Left, Puigdemont’s Together for Catalonia, and the anti-capitalist CUP won 70 of the 135 seats, two less than in 2015, while the Popular Party, the Socialists and Ciudadanos, the three anti-independence parties, captured 57 seats, five more. Ciudadanos won the most seats of all the parties – 37, 12 more than in 2015 – while the Popular Party, which rules Spain, lost seven seats and ended up as a marginal force with four seats. The pro-independence movement is an odd mix of bourgeoisie and anarchists, among others.

December’s election was held in abnormal conditions, with the ousted Catalan president, Puigdemont, campaigning from Belgium to where he fled last October to avoid Spanish courts, while his former deputy, Oriol Junqueras, sat it out in prison in Madrid awaiting trial, like Puigdemont on charges of sedition and rebellion.

Despite the abnormality, the December election – orderly, organised and transparent unlike the unconstitutional referendum – clearly showed the depth of pro-independence sentiment and the profound polarisation of society.

The Catalan crisis should be seen in the context of the growing disconnect between government and the governed and the rise of nationalism. What is happening in Catalonia is a localised strain of what is happening in Trump’s America, the UK’s Brexit and Germany with the rise of the far-right AFD party. In the words of Albert Einstein, “Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”

In Catalonia, the independence push is particularly strong among those who have no direct experience of Spain’s transition to democracy between 1975 and 1978, a remarkable feat that has given Spain, a country noted for its bloody history, an unprecedented period of peaceful co-existence, freedoms and prosperity. But that means little to those who yearn for an independent Catalan state and see in it a panacea for the region’s problems, however irrational their cause might be.

How did we get to this state of affairs? I will go back in time and take you through a sequence of events, without which you might not understand what is happening today.

The Catalan parliament approved in 2005, at a time when pro-independence parties did not have a majority of seats, a new autonomy statute, which sought to recognise Catalonia as a nation, gave the Catalan language primacy over Spanish, defined the areas in which the regional government has exclusive competence and established a new body to directly collect taxes. In 2006, the Popular Party, then in the opposition, challenged the statute and collected four million signatures against it. It took the reform to the Constitutional Court. The national parliament and Senate approved a watered-down version of the statute, which was accepted by the centre-right CiU party, the dominant nationalist party at that time in Catalonia, but it was rejected by the Catalan Republican Left party. Catalans voted in favour of the statute in a referendum and the result was ratified by the national parliament. In 2010, the Constitutional Court overruled some articles of the statute and disputed the interpretation of other articles. It said there was no legal basis to recognise Catalonia as a nation and inserted eight references to the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation” into the statute.

The court’s ruling, in my view a big mistake, took a staggering four years (it was a hot potato that no one wanted to touch) and inflamed nationalists who until then were not pushing very hard for independence. Support for an independent Catalan state surged from 13.6% in 2005 to 49% in 2013.

This situation was aggravated by Spain’s long and harsh recession and corruption in political parties as this fed the grievance that Catalonia was paying a disproportionate amount to the Spanish coffers and not receiving enough in return.

Other factors driving the independence movement are the falsifying of history taught in schools in Catalonia. In the words of the distinguished historian John Elliott in an interview in El País, “With their devolved powers, generations have been exposed to a falsified version of history, a manipulation with nationalist tendencies.”

TV3, the public Catalan TV channel, financed by taxpayers, also pushed the cause of independence in a most blatant way and gave hardly any voice to the anti-independence camp.

The Catalan government’s linguistic policy has also fostered nationalism. All classes are taught in Catalan (Spanish is taught as a separate subject and for few hours a week). Successive Catalan governments refused to implement the 2010 Constitutional Court ruling that those parents who want their children to be taught in Castilian have that right, as it is the common language of Spain, and postponed its implementation through legal manoeuvres. The Court ordered that 25% of instruction should be given in Spanish when the student or parents asked. The ruling Popular Party, as a result of the direct rule, could easily implement the court’s ruling but inexplicably has not yet done so.

Tensions came to a head in June 2011 when protesters over the economic crisis, mainly from the grass roots movement against austerity known as los indignados, surrounded the Catalan parliament, forcing ministers including Catalan president Artur Mas, the head of the centre right CiU, to reach the building by helicopter.

In November 2011, the Popular Party won the general election with an absolute majority and Mariano Rajoy became prime minister. Mas requested a funding deal similar to the Basque Country’s special and unique arrangement, where the regional government collects all taxes directly and transfers to Madrid every year under a system known as the cupo an amount that covers services provided by the state. This would mean more funds for Catalonia and fewer taxes collected in the region going to other regions, Rajoy rejected the proposal, saying it was “contrary to the constitution.” The Basque financial deal set a precedent, which some regard as part of the current Catalan problem.

Mas, in response, called a snap election in 2012, seeking support for an independence referendum. Pro-referendum parties won 80% of seats in the Catalan parliament and in 2013 parliament voted to negotiate an independence referendum with the central government.

In 2014, Mas called a non-binding referendum on independence, in defiance of a ban by the Constitutional Court. In 2017, he and three of his former ministers were banned from holding public office. Of the 2.3 million people who voted in the mock referendum (out of 6.3 million who were eligible), more than 80% were in favour of independence (29% of the possible votes). Mas hailed the result as a victor and followed this with a snap election in September 2015, which was billed as a de facto vote on secession. This was won by a pro-independence movement called Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes), an unholy alliance between Mas’s Democratic Convergence party (the more moderate and smaller Democratic Union, the other party in the CiU, had by then broken away in a disagreement over independence), the much more radical Republican Left of Catalonia and grass-roots separatists. Junts pel Sí won 62 of the 135 seats in the Catalan parliament which, together with the 10 seats of the far left, anti-capitalist CUP gave the pro-independence camp 72 seats and 48% of the vote.

The CUP, as the kingmaker, repeatedly refused to back the incumbent Mas ahead of the deadline to form a new government. CUP viewed Mas as too business-friendly, and he was also damaged by a string of corruption scandals, particularly that of Jordi Pujol, the most prominent figurehead for Catalan nationalism (Mas was his political heir). In a last minute deal to avert fresh regional elections in March 2016 (which would have been the fourth in five years), Mas stepped down in January in favour of Carles Puigdemont, the mayor of Girona and an ardent defender of secession from Spain.

The cause of independence then took off, but it emanates from Pujol’s 23 years as Catalan president, between 1980 and 2003, when a Catalanisation strategy was implemented, which began the creation of a narrative that claimed Spain was the source of Catalonia’s ills and idealized the past. This gave rise to slogans such as “Spain does not understand us,” “Spain robs us”, “Spain oppresses us”, etc. Pujol said Spain was plundering Catalonia as it was paying around 9% of its GDP into the country’s common budget.

“Spain robs us” came back to haunt Pujol in 2014 when at the age of 84 he was stripped of his party privileges as a former president after admitting to more than 30 years of tax fraud. He admitted to concealing large sums of money in secret foreign bank accounts. Several of his sons were also investigated for corruption and influence-peddling.

So far I have only dealt with the political consequences of the push for independence. There is also an economic dimension. Not only has Puigdemont fled, but also more than 3,500 Catalonia-based companies and two banks, including some big names such as CaixaBank, Spain’s third largest bank, and the cava producer Codorníu. They have voted with their feet so to speak and have moved their legal headquarters, and in some case tax domicile, out of Catalonia because of the uncertainty. An independent Catalonia would mean the territory would no longer form part of the EU and the euro zone, and would have to re-negotiate its membership. Only one country would have to veto that move, and no guesses which one it would be.

There was a run on the deposits of these two banks when the independence declaration was made, which was stemmed when the banks announced they had moved their domicile.

Even the lottery business in Sort, which has an uncanny record for producing winning tickets (not for nothing does Sort mean luck in Catalan), has moved its domicile and changed its name to La Suerte, the Castilian for luck.

Tourism and consumption have been hit by the Catalan crisis, unemployment has nudged up more than would have been the case and investment decisions have been put on hold.

Where do we go from here?

The independence movements appears to be losing momentum among Catalans, though not among the leadership of the secessionist parties. Fifty four per cent of respondents to a poll by the Catalan government’s Centre for Opinion Studies in January said they were against independence compared to 44% last October. Those in favour of independence were down to 41% from 49%.

Puigdemont announced earlier this month, from his so-called self-imposed exile in Belgium, that he was giving up his campaign to be re-appointed as the region’s president. This followed divisions in the ranks of the secessionists over the strategy to follow. Until then he had sought to get re-instated. One idea was to do this via video link at the investiture session at the end of January, but he was legally required to be present and this would have meant being arrested as soon as he set foot in Spain. At that session the new pro-independence speaker of the Catalan parliament, Roger Torrent, declared Puigdemont’s candidacy “absolutely legitimate” but he postponed the session, to the anger of some secessionists.

Opponents of independence, in an a humourous move, proposed that Tarragona and Barcelona, the two Catalan provinces where anti-independence sentiment is strongest and which generate most of the region’s wealth, cede from an independent Catalonia in a new and fictitious country called Tabàrnia. They turned the secessionists’ slogan ‘Catalonia is not Spain’ back on its supporters with their slogan, ‘Barcelona is not Catalonia’. And, in a mock ceremony via video link cocking a snook at Puigdemont, Albert Boadella, a well-known Catalan theatre director, was sworn in as president of Tabarnia from his ‘exile’ in Madrid. Echoing the famous phrase of the 77-year-old Josep Tarradellas, the last president of the Catalan government in exile, who returned to Barcelona in 1977 after the death of General Franco –‘Ciutadans de Catalunya, ja sóc aquí!’ (‘Citizens of Catalonia, here I am’) – Boadella proclaimed ‘Ciutadans de Tabàrnia, no sóc aquí!’ (‘Citizens of Tabàrnia, I’m not here’).

Puigdemont found very little support in the rest of the EU except among some nationalist parties and he was not treated as a hero. In an ironic column the FT’s Robert Shrimsley mocked him, saying the world has a new and heroic freedom fighter. De Gaulle, Gandhi, Mandela and now Puigdemont.

When Puigdemont went to Denmark in January he was publicly criticised by a professor during a debate on Catalan independence. Her questions about whether democracy is just about holding referendums or whether it is also about upholding the rule of law, and if the rights of the approximately 50% of Catalans who reject independence were being respected by the independence push made the news more than Puigdemont’s justification of his cause.

Puigdemont “provisionally” withdrew his candidacy as Catalan president in favour of his ally Jordi Sánchez in order, he said “to give us the freedom to embark on the next phase of the road to independence”. Sanchez is being held in pre-trial detention in Madrid on charges of rebellion, which carries a possible 30-year jail sentence. The Supreme Court ruled earlier this month he could not be let out to attend the investiture because there was a risk of committing the same crime. That investiture was then postponed sine die, and that is the situation at the moment.

This has intensified speculation that the only way to break the impasse and form a new Catalan government is by holding a fresh election, but the situation would only change if the anti-independence parties overturned the slim majority of the pro-independence parties won at last December’s election. The pro-independence parties, however, are not in a mood to relent and so direct rule does not look like ending anytime soon.

Spain is in uncharted waters over Catalonia. The clock starts ticking on electing a new Catalan premier once the first investiture has been held, but this has not happened and there is no sign that it will. The premier has to be elected within two months of the first vote, assuming someone is not elected at the first investiture. Some lawyers believe this surreal situation could last until the next Catalan election in 2021.

Amnesty International has called for the release of Sànchez, calling his continuing detention “an excessive and disproportionate restriction on his right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly”. Lawyers for Sànchez, the jailed grass roots separatist Jordi Cuixart, and the imprisoned former Catalan deputy president Oriol Junqueras are appealing to the United Nations, claiming the men are unlawfully imprisoned. The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights recently brought attention to their imprisonment by saying “pre-trial detention should be considered a measure of last resort.”

The Spanish justice system is notoriously slow. In other European countries, people prosecuted for the same reasons would probably have come to trial by now, but not so in Spain, where someone can be held in pre-trial detention for two years if the jail sentence the prosecution is seeking is more than three years, which is the case here, and this period can be extended. In England, I believe the maximum time in pre-trial detention is 182 days.

Clearly the Catalan problem is not going to be resolved by the courts. Some kind of political compromise will be required to encourage the significant proportion of the Catalan population in favour of independence to be comfortable within the Spanish state. Polls show a substantial majority in favour of constitutional reform and more self-government for Catalonia, a kind of third way between independence and maintaining the status quo. The Popular Party seems to regard the constitution as carved in stone rather than written on paper.

But the pro and anti independence camps are so entrenched that a dialogue is a non-starter. The Spanish constitution gives the central government ‘exclusive competence’ on the authorisation of referendums; it is highly unlikely that one will be granted, whatever the political colour of the government. Allowing a referendum would run the risk of opening up a Pandora’s Box of competing demands for plebiscites in other regions, most notably the Basque Country, and would not go down well in the European Commission which does not want the EU to fragment.

One option would be to hold a referendum or some kind of consultative procedure, under something similar to Canada’s Clarity Act, which would establish the conditions under which the government would enter into negotiations that might lead to secession. For example, setting a threshold of say a 60% vote in favour of independence before it could happen – something in my view that the UK government should have done over Brexit. Deciding the destiny of the UK by a margin of four percentage points seems ridiculous to me and is hugely polarising.

The Catalan problem is to some extent a story of shared political failure, with most of the responsibility falling on the Catalan government, and needs to be resolved politically and not through coercion. There is too much common history between Catalonia and the rest of Spain to establish a frontier between the two.