Chronicles of the Southwest Peninsular (XXXVI): Catalonia, the following day

On the day I write (Tuesday, October 3rd), I still don't know if there will be, on the part of the government of Catalonia, […]

On the day I write (Tuesday, 3 October), I still don't know if there will be a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (DUI) on the part of the government of Catalonia.

The positions seem irreconcilable. On the one hand, the historical-political legitimacy of independence confirmed by the majority of the referendum/consultation on October 1st. On the other hand, the juridical-constitutional legitimacy based on fundamental law, ordinary laws and the decisions of the superior judicial authorities of the Spanish State.

What is happening in Catalonia, beyond the foam of recent days, is a good pretext for a more general political reflection on the “Catalan question” and interregional relations in the European context. Let's go back in time and put the Catalan problem in a more diachronic perspective.


I. The long story

Since the XNUMXth century, at least, Catalonia has been an active volcano, with more or less intense eruptions depending on the historical circumstances. Here's a brief summary:

– In the 1640th century (XNUMX), during the so-called war of the reapers, the first eruption of the Catalan republic was short-lived,
– In the 1701th century (1714-11), during the war of succession, Catalonia supported the Austrian claims of the Habsburgs to the Spanish throne and lost; Barcelona is besieged and capitulates on September XNUMX, which is now Catalonia's national day known as Diada,
– In the 1874th century, (1874-1), during the proclamation of the XNUMXst Spanish Republic by President Francisco Maragall,
– In the 1931th century, in 1936, during the Primo de Rivera dictatorship, and in XNUMX, during the civil war; Catalonia sided with the republicans and lost to dictator Francisco Franco,
– In 1978, the vast majority of Catalans voted for the Spanish constitution which establishes in its article 2 the indivisibility of the Spanish nation and the guarantee of the autonomy of nationalities and regions.

And so we arrived, after several eruptions of separatism, at the democratic period in the recent history of the Kingdom of Spain, integrated since 1986, as we know, in the space of the European Union.


II. recent history

European countries, during the glorious years of economic growth, created a “giant redistributive machine” called the “Welfare State”. On a broader scale, we created another redistributive machine which we called the “European Union”.

As long as there was sufficient economic growth, these two machines operated as huge transfer mechanisms: subnational regions transfer to the national state (1st redistribution), the national state transfers to the poorest regions (2nd redistribution) and to the European Union (3rd redistribution) ), the European Union transfers to the poorest regions of other member states (4th redistribution) and to international organizations (5th redistribution), international organizations transfer to the neediest countries and regions (6th redistribution).

In the first two decades of this century, economic growth slowed down significantly and the two machines of redistribution and transfer suffered immediately, both domestically and in Europe.

The 2007/2008 crisis is part of this long trend and further aggravated all the mechanisms of redistribution and transfer, interregional and interstate, closely monitored by the European institutions.

Having arrived here, the political and social environment in Europe today is undergoing profound change: inequality and exclusion grow in many regions and countries, populism and illiberal regimes grow, political movements (transversal) occupying the instead of traditional (vertical) political parties, media coverage and personalization of politics grow, abstention and disaffection in matters of political participation grow. “It just doesn't grow”.

In this general context of crisis of confidence, these two gigantic machines of redistribution and transfer are called into question and associated with inefficiency, injustice, clientele and corruption.

Furthermore, these powerful machines feed the “narcissism” of the large techno-bureaucratic organizations that often transform themselves into autophagic machines that consume substantial public resources.

What is happening today in Catalonia is not only a mirror of all this global, European and national contingency (especially the financial relations within the Spanish state), but it is also, and above all, a true political-partisan struggle between opponents who need to prove their survival at home.

In this context, with a lot of political tacticalism, Catalan independence is a very dangerous game of escape to the front, where all the divisions of Catalan society accumulate: among the independence activists themselves (more radical and more moderate), between Catalans (supporters and non-supporters). supporters of independence), between Spaniards (the two Spains, the monarchy and the republican), between member states of the European Union, with regard to a possible "new member", between member states of the International Community, with regard to recognition of the “new state”.

It is, however, at the party-political level that the current Spanish and Catalan situation is best understood, not only the reasons of political tactics, but also the reasons of political substance.

The constitutional reason, from the outset. Let us remember the Spanish Constitution of 1978 when it establishes in its Article 2 that “the Spanish nation is common and indivisible” and when it recognizes “the autonomy of nationalities and regions”.

Here are the facts in recent years:

– In 2010, a ruling by the Constitutional Court significantly reduced the autonomous powers contained in the Statute of Catalonia, following an initiative taken by the Popular Party; in particular, it nullifies the legal value of Catalonia as a nation,

– On the Day of 11 September 2012 (National Day of Catalonia), a large demonstration in Barcelona under the motto “Catalonia a new State of Europe” indicated that, for the first time, there could be a majority of Catalans defending independence; the Madrid government refuses to negotiate greater fiscal autonomy for Catalonia and the president of the Generalitat calls elections and threatens a referendum,

– In 2014, the Generalitat announces a referendum which is, however, considered illegal; replaces this referendum with a popular consultation on 9 November (9-N), only 33% of voters vote and of these 88% said yes to a new country,

– In 2015, on 27 September, autonomous elections are held in which the nationalist parties – the Catalan European Democratic Party and the Republican Left of Catalonia – are winners, but are below 50%, even adding the votes of the CUP (Candidature of Popular Unity); they manage, however, a majority of seats in the Catalan parliament, that is, 72 seats out of 135; on November 9, the Catalan parliament passes a resolution aiming at independence for 2017,

– In 2016, January 10, Carles Puidgemond is appointed President of Catalonia, after the CUP demanded the resignation of former President Artur Mas,

– In 2017, March, former president Artur Mas is unable to hold public office for the next two years; in June, President Puidgemond sets a referendum for October 1; on the 6th and 7th of September, the Catalan parliament, in a very tumultuous session without the presence of non-independent deputies, approves the referendum law and the law on transience and, if the participation rate is significant, a Unilateral Declaration will be made. of Independence (DUI).

– In 2017, on the 1st of October, the referendum/popular consultation takes place, amidst serious and very violent confrontations; the world watches in disbelief these images broadcast in the media.

In summary, since 2010, at least, we have witnessed a succession of demonstrations (Diada), resolutions and parliamentary laws, referendums, popular consultations and regional elections, many of them considered illegal and unconstitutional, with the sole purpose of increasing the participation rate policy of the Catalans and thus create the necessary and sufficient legitimacy for the declaration/negotiation of the independence process.


III. The next day

On a strictly legal level, the Spanish constitution, as a fundamental law, prevails over regional laws, such as the referendum law and the law on transience, both approved in the Catalan parliament.

Let us remember, once again, that the 1978 constitution does not provide for the right to secession for autonomous communities, but guarantees the right to autonomy of nationalities and regions.

In this sense, as we know, the Madrid government has appealed to the Constitutional Court to suspend the referendum law.

Furthermore, as a last resort solution, the Spanish constitution, in its article 155, provides for the taking of coercive measures, which, in practice, may result in a suspension of one's autonomy.

On the other hand, the difficulty in defending, in terms of international law, the argument of the right of peoples to self-determination and, consequently, the international recognition of the Republic of Catalonia by other member States of the International Community is evident.

Despite all opposition from the Madrid government and other jurisdictions, on October 1st, under extraordinarily difficult and dangerous conditions, the referendum/popular consultation took place, with the express objective of validating, once again, the legitimacy of a unilateral declaration of independence.

I am not going to report here the serious events that occurred as a result of the clashes between the Catalan population and the national police and security forces, nor comment on the participation rates under the conditions in which they occurred. Instead, I prefer to draw some scenarios of political negotiation, more or less credible, between the two parties present and which, everything suggests, should take place in the next few days:

– The “revolutionary legitimist” scenario of a unilateral declaration of independence; the president of the government of Catalonia will have to send this claim to the Catalan parliament very soon (48 hours?), counting, for this purpose, with the majority he holds in the parliament; we will see how the Spanish government will react to this illegality and unconstitutionality, while until then large demonstrations are awaited in the streets of Barcelona; obviously, with all the opposition of the Spanish government;

– The “radical legitimist” scenario of early autonomous elections; to finally validate Catalan separatism, the government of Catalonia can propose to the Spanish government in Madrid to call early autonomous elections that would serve as a substitute for the popular referendum; there is no guarantee that the government of Madrid will accept this “exchange”;

– The “legitimist and constitutional” scenario of opening a path of dialogue; the government of Catalonia proposes to the Spanish government the opening of political negotiations, with a view to a revision of the 1978 constitution, and, in this context, a revision of the statute of Catalonia that recognizes it as a nation; there is no guarantee that the Madrid government will accept this “dialogue” path;

– The “legitimist and reformist” scenario of opening a path of dialogue; the government of Catalonia proposes to the Spanish government the opening of negotiations, with a view to reviewing the interregional and financial relations between the various autonomous communities, which, ultimately, could lead to a federal organization of these relations; in this scenario, there is no longer any talk of independence for Catalonia, there may be some opening of the Madrid government for this negotiation;

– The scenario of “international or European mediation” to open a path for dialogue; given the political impasse in which the two governments find themselves and after the serious facts that occurred on October 1st, this hypothesis should be well considered, provided that the most accredited mediators are found for this purpose.

Final grade

Anything can happen in the next few days and all the imponderables are possible, starting with the fate of the current protagonists.

One need only look at the instability of government solutions in Madrid and Barcelona to quickly come to the conclusion that it is political survival and tacticism that drive operations.

In the coming days, we will hear from the Catalan parliament, perhaps, a unilateral declaration of independence and even a proclamation of the republic and the Catalan state, as in 1934, when Lluis Companys proclaimed, for a few hours, a “Catalan State”, precisely on October 6, 1934.

Within the Spanish national framework, interregional fiscal and financial relations are a sort of Pandora's box, since once opened, no one knows how it ends, from a simple readjustment of existing autonomies to federalism and separatism.

The next few days will be decisive.

However, the calendar for negotiation and approval of the annual budget is approaching. If the prime minister fails to pass the budget, we will most likely have early elections in Spain. And, almost certainly, early elections in Catalonia.

With other protagonists, it may be easier to resolve outstanding issues.

We will return to the subject, not least because the European Union is extraordinarily uncomfortable with all this.


Author António Covas is a full professor at the University of Algarve and a PhD in European Affairs from the Free University of Brussels