Will Catalonia Step Back from the Brink?

Will Catalonia Step Back from the Brink?
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In the week since the referendum, the atmosphere in Barcelona has been tense. I haven’t met anyone who, regardless of political persuasion, was not shocked and appalled at the images of vicious police brutality against citizens. Scenes previously unimaginable in a European democracy are now, evidently, possible. It feels like Barcelona, Catalonia, and all of Spain has suffered a collective trauma. An invisible line has been crossed and there seems to be no way back. Is there hope? Or are we about to witness the break-up of Spain and all the consequences that that entails?

Events have been moving at a dizzying pace. First, the flat denials from Rajoy: What referendum? What violence? King Felipe weighed in with an uncompromising insistence on the indivisibility of Spain. Puigdemont did not back down, vowing to put the results of the referendum before the Catalan parliament. A unilateral declaration of independence, probably on Tuesday, now seems inevitable. If it happens, there is the very real prospect of Rajoy’s government invoking Article 155 of the constitution, never before used, in order to rescind Catalonia’s autonomy and administer the region directly from Madrid. A half-hearted apology for the violence from Spanish ministers on Friday did little to bridge the growing divide. We are in uncharted territory now.

But as the week wore grimly on, I began to detect a slight hesitation among some of my pro-independence friends and acquaintances. The revolutionary spirit perhaps somewhat dampened by several Catalan banks and other large companies like Gas Natural taking the precaution of shifting their official headquarters out of Catalonia, and by the prospect of living under direct control of Madrid if Article 155 was invoked. The nightly cacerolada had petered out by Saturday, in my area at least.

If this is the beginning of a turning point, I welcome it, but I’m struggling to muster much optimism. As Barcelona accustoms itself to near daily street demonstrations, we urgently need to put the flags down, step back, and think about what’s at stake. Wherever the blame lies for this crisis, and there is plenty to go around, breaking up Spain will be economically ruinous, bitter, painful and possibly bloody. It’s not worth it.

Catalan and Spanish flags holding hands
Fewer flags, more hand-holding please.

To start with, we should stop to consider whether the status quo really is as intolerable as some would have it. Despite contributing more to Spanish finances that it receives back, Catalonia remains the richest region in Spain, with unemployment rates significantly lower than the national average. As one of the most autonomous regions in Europe, the Catalan language predominates, especially in education, and Catalan culture and traditions are enthusiastically celebrated year-round. Even politicised festivals like the annual Diada, pass off unimpeded. The vibrant, multi-lingual capital of Barcelona is the envy of Europe and draws not just tourists but large numbers of expats who choose to build their lives here. The narrative of suppressed Catalan identity simply does not fit with the day to day reality of life here.

Like any society, there are resentments, even injustices. Some, like the issues around the hollowing out of the 2010 Statute of Autonomy, have some merit. But most are the routine political disagreements that can be solved by compromise, pragmatism and perseverance. Of the many spurious arguments currently doing the rounds, one of the most outrageous has to be the comparison of Catalonia’s supposed oppression with civil rights struggles of the past, such as female emancipation or black civil rights in the US, claiming that there can be no progress without painful disruption. This is ludicrous and insulting, but it shows the extent to which the narrative of victimhood has penetrated the Catalan consciousness.

It is all too easy to get swept up in romantic notion of fighting for grand ideals. We humans are tribal creatures, doomed to understand the world in terms of insiders and outsiders. The dull, routine work of politics – making incremental improvements through solving technical problems and finding workable compromises – lacks the appeal of an exciting ideological struggle that calls for passion, courage and sacrifice. Identity politics is on the rise across Europe and in the US, and nationalist and populist movements appeal to a new generation, awakened by a sense of purpose and carried along by the excitement of mass demonstrations.  But the pro-independence movement’s utopic vision of a newly liberated Catalan Republic – a peaceful and democratic member of the EU, newly rich thanks to no longer being robbed by Spain – was always a fantasy at best, but following the referendum the reality has come sharply into focus: there is no promised land.

Ideologues like Catalan President Carles Puigdemont are not driven by recent grievances such as the issues around the Statute of Autonomy or the mismanagement of the financial crisis. They have been passionately pro-independence for decades. They want independence for its own sake, regardless if times are good or bad. They want it by almost any means necessary, and at any cost. When circumstances came together to arouse sufficient discontent in Catalan society, pro-independence leaders wasted no time in seizing their opportunity to channel people’s anger into support for their cause. They are motivated, organised and media-savvy – running rings around the dinosaurs in Madrid who are still dragging themselves out of the 20th century.

A ramshackle coalition of several parties with almost nothing in common besides independence has managed to hang on to a wafter-thin majority in the Catalan parliament and urgently push the independence agenda forward before their time runs out. Now they are successfully portraying Catalan independence as the unshakeable will of the people, when less than a decade ago it was a fringe issue. But the very concept of the will of the people is mostly a myth. True democracy involves an evolving series of messy compromises between competing interests in society – it’s about finding a consensus that everyone can live with. Only around 40% of the electorate voted yes on October 1. No doubt the threat of violence kept some away but those who considered the referendum illegal were also unlikely to turn out. Even among Catalans who favour the idea of independence, there are many points of view and differing priorities, and there remains a majority who do not favour independence, or at least not at any cost.

Rajoy and Puigdemont
Relationship counselling urgently needed.

We need to take a cold, hard look at what effect a unilateral declaration of independence would have on the only thing that really matters – the quality of people’s lives in Catalonia. Independence has no value for its own sake. It is only worthwhile if it improves people’s lives in real, tangible ways. There is nothing to suggest that a unilateral declaration of independence next week would lead to anything other than prolonged economic and social strife. Even if Spain resisted invoking article 155, Catalonia would find itself facing huge economic uncertainty to say the least. So many practical ramifications have not been talked about: The huge debt Catalonia owes to Spain and Catalonia’s share of the Spanish public debt, the cost of finding itself out of the EU, and taking on functions previously managed by Spain (defence, customs, security, tax collection etc) among many other considerations. These things are almost never discussed, because it suits the pro-independence camp to promote the idea of an easy transition to independence.

When reality bites, who will suffer most? As always, it is the most vulnerable people in society who bear the brunt of ideologues’ delusions: the people who rely the most on public services, those whose lives would be devastated if they lost their job, those who are relying on a stable and solvent state to pay their pension. While the privileged among us may have the luxury of moving elsewhere if necessary, most people will be forced to deal with whatever comes, whether they voted for it or not.

But the Spanish government’s intransigence is also blocking the path to a negotiated solution. Rajoy has offered talks but only on the condition that “illegality ceases”. He has been repeatedly accused of trying to impose a legal solution on a political problem. Regardless of the merits of Catalan independence, he cannot ignore the fact that the movement has gained significant support from Catalans, even more so after his botched suppression of the referendum, which undoubtedly drove even more into the arms of the separatists. Allowing the problem to fester will only make it worse. There must be negotiation in good faith, with all options on the table, including the possibility of constitutional change leading to a legal referendum with proper democratic safeguards and a planned timetable to preserve stability. Other types of constitutional change that don’t involve the break-up of Spain might serve as a compromise where everyone gets at least some of what they want – a federal system for example.

Unfortunately, leaders on both sides seems to be in no mood for compromise, even as citizens may be starting to have doubts. On Saturday, at twin demonstrations in Madrid and Barcelona thousands turned out without flags and wearing white under the banners Parlem?/Hablamos?

Ada Colau convenes meeting
Everybody please calm down – Ada Colau heroically attempts the impossible.

A lonely voice of reason, Barcelona major Ada Colau, is valiantly attempting to find a way to de-escalate the situation. In a meeting on Thursday which included EU officials, she proposed a sort of ceasefire, whereby Catalonia would not declare independence in return for Spain withdrawing its police forces and not invoking article 155. The idea is to somehow create a space where talks could lead to a negotiated resolution. So far, she has had little thanks for her efforts – denounced as a traitor by the pro-independence camp and ignored by Spain. The EU has repeatedly (and short-sightedly) insisted that it is an internal matter for Spain. But on Friday it emerged that the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs is in contact with both sides and is prepared to build a platform for dialogue.

It could be a glimmer of hope, but the situation remains grim. The anger people feel here feel about the brutal attempt to suppress the referendum is understandable, but a unilateral declaration of independence would be an egregious act of self-harm that would compound the problem rather than solve it. We cannot turn back the clock by a few weeks and do things differently. From where we are now, the only way out is a negotiated solution. Let’s step back from the brink. Parlem?

Comments (13)

  • I’ve shared this with all my expat friends here in Barcelona. Thanks for a well-written, thought-provoking article. I couldn’t agree more about the need for talks and “relationship counseling”! With the divorce/breakup rate so high, how can we be surprised when our countries/governments want to split, too?!

    • Author

      Thanks Michelle! I’m supposed to be writing about family-related stuff but I just can’t stop thinking about this!

  • well I think anybody who has a family here is thinking about this. As a recent immigrant family we sometimes feel as though we have been taken in by a family where the parents want to get divorced and we are not sure what to do about it!

    Also as a parent I want to know what kind of country my children will be growing up in and don’t feel so comfortable.

  • A great, balanced look at Catalunya and Spain right now.

    Congratulations on the article, I’ve shared this as I think it hits on many fundamental points!

    Let’s hope common sense prevails!

  • Another brilliant piece, Annette! Just curious about what you made of Sunday’s demonstration.
    Jo, let me tell you, that is EXACTLY what this is, really, I divorce that only one spouse is seeking, and gets messier by the minute. The spouse who wants to leave feeling in part the victim of…. it’s not quite clear what; and the one that wants to remain in the marriage feeling deeply hurt and rejected hence sometimes showing its nastier side which is nothing but counter-productive.
    I feel the worst over their “children” made to choose a side and, personally, I feel like an adopted child, who will suffer for a while but survive this eventually, very likely resuming my life sheltered by another set of parents.

    • Paloma

      yes I think the family analogy works well! But does not look good with all my work on mental health, migration and integration. AS refugees we wanted to come to a place where we could start again and this is not the best situation as through all this traincrash immigrants and refugees are bottom of the pile as usual. Just read a whole article that was titled country of Broken Dreams. Many of my immigrants feel like that. We made a mistake but we are stuck here now. If people can not accept their own diversity there is little hope for the incomers. Much human capital is wasted. I found a Syrian family in a park one night when I was feeding the homeless and I asked them what they were doing and if they did not have help from refugee organisations. They said NO NO we don’t want to stay here, we have heard it is really difficult, we are leaving for France when we can. I couldn’t argue with them, when you have suffered much trauma and hardship you just want to be somewhere you can build a new future.

      I work every day with immigrants and sometimes it is hard for me to be optimistic and positive with them but I do give them all the empathy I have and tell them they are not alone, we are all in the same boat.

  • I also congratulate you on a balanced article…the only thing that may have been downplayed is the part about Catalunya’s oppression. There are many who remember when they were not allowed to speak or write in Catalan, others (younger) who remember being terrorized by fascists….

    So for a sector there is an emotional , historical element….and that is something whose embers have gone to full flame with the police repression and the renewed perception that Franco is still very much “alive and kicking”…

    But still in all, very much in agreement with your article! Thank you

  • It all boil down to negociate a accorded and definitive referendum to clear doubts EXCEPT that Madrid does not want even begin to consider a real referendum. Not now nor ever. Full stop. In fact Spanish 78 constitution as such makes impossible an accorded referendum as in the a Scottish scenario . In fact all te constitution contemplates is that at the end of a very long process it will at the very most grant a referendum where ALL spanish voters from 17 autonomus comunities wil decide the furure of Catalans …simply ludricus. Changing the constitution to make room for a REAL accorded referendum is even more impossible since the indistructible unity of Spain is inshrined in the constitution as it was one of condicions the MILITARY hasked for in order to stop rattling the sables back in 78.It was granted, (even so they tried it anyway with the Coronel Tejero Guardia Civil attempet coup in 1981) So the question is NEGOTIATE WHAT? According to Madrid :1) back down 2) dimit 3) wait home for the police to CAME for you since most menber of the catalonian governement are in the proces of being investigate for sedition and other serious accustaions. One more thing :2 milion people voted yes + an usizable number or votes where lost due to the police sizing urns in many of te 400 electoral colleges they tried to close. It would take 2. milion NO-independence votes + some to top the 2 milion SI votes. That will mean 4 milion votes total. Now,he most concurred election EVER in Catalunya was 77% in 2015. just over 4 milions votes. Do your math….

    • Yes because referendum is poorly thought out quest. Did you read the article actually, it seems everyone wants to talk, but maybe stop and listen, the author covered pretty much all points.

    • Author

      Hey Giorgio,

      I agree on the point that Madrid’s stubborn refusal to negotiate at all is a huge driver of the pro-independence movement. If there seemed to be an alternative way forward to get more autonomy (ie; the Staute that was watered down) then I think the pro-independence movement would lose a lot of its momentum. It’s really hard for me to understand the strategy of Rajoy – everything he does seems to bring about the opposite of what he wants. He is also very fond of judicial solutions, when political engagement is what’s called for. As I’ve been realising more and more, the Spanish political system is just broken. One possible upside of this crisis could be that it forces some political change at the national level (my expectations are low however).

      What it comes down to for me are the practicalities. Independence right now in these circumstances would be so catastrophic for peoples’ lives here that the status quo, however imperfect, is preferable.

      Your maths is pretty questionable. I’ve seen a lot of this about on twitter…everyone counting the votes of those who stayed at home, or votes confiscated etc, according to their preference. For a change as profound as this, with all the consequences that would follow, you need more than a simple majority of votes (not that the pro-independence camp even have that). You need a much broader consensus in society, so that even among people who wouldn’t choose independence as their first option, they could live with it. We are nowhere near that point, because the discussions that would allow us to be have not been had. The pro-indy activists keep the discussion firmly on grievances and identity, refusing to discuss important points like lack of a central bank, leaving the EU and Eurozone, needing to set up government departments like Tax collection, defence, border control, etc. It’s like Brexit on acid.

      • Here I am in Berlin. I visited this city in 1988 one year before the wall came down and it is so exciting to be here again talking with Berlin people who come from everywhere. Suddenly the craziness and drama of Spanish politics seems ridiculous and in this unified city and country the last few weeks of my life in Catalunya are fading fast. I sat on the plane and talked to the young German (in his perfect English) about everything … Hitler, Franco, reunification, Merkel’s East German origins, refugees in Germany and of course the situation in Catalunya (his sister lives in Barcelona). As I strolled around a very cool barrio in the old East I thought about the two countries and how one has moved on from their fascist past and embraced multi culturalism and the other is still stuck on Nazi time. (Referring to the fact that Franco changed the hour to be in line with fascist Germany in 42 and Spain has never changed back). Now more Israelis emigrate to Berlin than anywhere. I think that says a lot.

        I am not an economist or a politician but I realise I am now living in a country that cannot seem to move on from it’s past … and they seem to be continuously scratching their scars. The lowest birth rate in Europe but they still refuse to let in refugees and will continue selling more nappies to old people than babies.

        Spain never had their revolution, nor did they lose a world war but until they change that clock back I think they are clutching on to Franco time and until they start to look outside and truly embrace multi culturalism there will quite possibly never be a new political order.

        How they get there I still don’t know but are there any diversity laws in Spain or Catalunya? that may be a good start.

  • Lots of numbers there but I did meet a man who told me he had voted 17 times! He wanted to test it and see how many times he could vote. Maybe he was winding me up!


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