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.
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.
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?
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?