What began as a political conflict resulting from the arrogance shown by the two negotiating sides – the Spanish Central Government and the Catalan Government – has evolved into something much larger and far more complex than anybody could have ever expected. What the international community has seen during last few months is a remarkable social conflict, a squabble which has caused not only a social breakdown between those for and against independence, but one in which the idea of an agreed referendum has become the only possible solution.
The heightened tensions over past weeks compel me to take a different approach to the one I had intended for this article. Insecurity, uncertainty and anxiety is what is causing the current situation in Spain. Fiscal consequences have included the relocation of factories and head offices (1502 by last Wednesday including 6 of the 7 largest Catalan companies (part of IBEX 35)), as well as a decline in tourism and industrial activity. However it is the hatred, violence and intolerance fueling the crisis that causes the vast majority of Spanish society considerable concern.
Nevertheless, division finds one commonality here: both parties engaged in dispute, Puigdemont’s Generalitat Government and Rajoy’s Central Government, are equally responsible.
Puigdemont’s government has created a climate of confrontation. This atmosphere has deliberately been intensified over the years through lies and hiding the truth from Catalan citizens, preventing them from having a full picture of what is at stake.
The most recent example of this was when Catalonia’s Govern decided to claim Catalunya would automatically be part of the European Union (EU) after the unilateral declaration of independence, as well as part of the Schengen Agreement or even the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). The Govern was of course aware of the lack of truth in these words. The region would have to face a process, which could take years, and also win international recognition and unanimity of the 27 Member States. Brussels showed an unusual clarity in this regard by setting out this process.
The constant challenge shown to Spain’s Central Government, courts and rule of law by the Catalan public authorities has not helped to allay tensions. For instance, the laws which provided for the vote and for the legal transition of a hypothetical Catalan Republic were passed in September with limited opportunity for scrutiny by opposition parties, outside usual parliamentary processes.
Additionally, Catalan’s Govern has repeatedly called for a referendum which barely followed democratic standards – proper census and international guarantees – and was ill-argued on the United Nations (UN) right of nations to self-determination. On the one hand, both the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and the EU stated that any referendum had to be held in accordance to the Spanish Constitution and the applicable law. On the other hand, the UN claimed that this right can only be exercised when occupations, decolonizations or serious violations of human rights take place, and they judged this does not apply in a context such as Catalonia.
Finally, it should not be forgotten the fact that both the Catalan Govern and other pro-independence forces have continued to pursue independence, despite having no clear mandate from the results of the last regional elections in 2015, having won only a narrow majority (72 of the 135 seats) and no majority vote share (47.7%).
Nonetheless, if Puigdemont can be blamed for fuelling the conflict, Rajoy will be remembered as the President whose inaction first and disastrous management of the crisis second allowed the fire to spread.
Accepting that Spanish law undoubtedly favours the central authorities, the President should not have persistently ignored a growing independence movement in Catalan society. He should also have shown willingness to negotiate and to seek points of agreement, articulating a national strategy with other political parties if necessary. Ultimately, President Rajoy should have shown that which he falls short of: strong leadership and statesmanship.
His lack of vision (and self-defeating stubbornness) is precisely what led to the disproportionate use of force by the National Police and Civil Guard action, resulting in the extremely worrying scenes of violence seen on Sunday 1 October. State forces acted as a consequence of the regional police’s failure to follow an order from the Catalan High Court of Justice court to remove ballot boxes. The violence that followed sprung from this tension. Arguably, Rajoy could have allowed Catalans to vote in the referendum, albeit one that lacked basic democratic standards and so would not have been recognised by the international community. At least this would have established the popular will of the region and crucially, would have avoided the use of any force.
We will never know if those scenes were part of Rajoy’s master plan, but we have no doubt about how counterproductive his inflexibility and paralysis have been. His failure has been proved in two ways: the crisis has seized international attention; the use of disproportionate force has created a world distorted view of Spain as a repressive and centralised State.
Recent weeks have additionally been punctuated by numerous remarkable events. King Felipe VI gave an unprecedented TV speech on Tuesday 3 October accusing Catalan authorities’ behaviour of having ‘eroded the harmony and co-existence within Catalan society itself, managing, unfortunately, to divide it’. This speech was far from being acclaimed, not because of its tough tone or its excessive use of legal argument, but its failure to condone the violence, and failure to call for dialogue, mediation and mutual understanding. This is what we should have been able to expect from a Head of State, the arbitrator of the Spanish institutional life.
President Puigdemont addressed citizens from a more serene and inclusive perspective the following day, asking for mediation. However, what could be interpreted as a gesture to try to bring parties together was in reality a means of legitimising the result. It is hard to believe that the Spanish central authorities would negotiate with the referenda result still on the table.
The Spanish Government decided to apply Article 155 (which allows the Spanish Government to take away powers from an “Autonomous Community”) of the Spanish Constitution ‘proportionately, gradually and with limited effect on time’ last Saturday. They secured the support of the Popular Party along with the Socialist Party and liberal-democrat Ciudadanos, which together represents around 70% of Spanish MPs. Their rationale? To allow the country “to return to constitutional legality” as well as to hold regional elections within 6 months.
Despite the fact that it is an exceptional measure, it is not a unique one in a European context. Other neighboring countries have similar clauses enshrined, for example in German, Austrian or Portuguese Constitutions. A comparable constitutional tool has been used several times by the United Kingdom with regard to Northern Ireland.
At this point in time, there is no doubt the Catalan crisis is linked to broader trends across Europe. The burst of far-right ideologies, or even Brexit to a lesser degree, indicate a rising support for protectionism as the only way to ‘battle’ for personal identities and economic prosperity. This would represent, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a major step back for European values.
These European values are based on the respect for freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law. With these values in mind, it should be pointed out that the Catalan Parliament has totally ceased its usual activity during the crisis.
This afternoon a resolution to declare Catalonia’s independence has been passed by the Catalan Parliament with 70 votes for, 10 against and 2 abstentions. The truth is that a half-empty parliament voted secretly, in a vote deemed illegal, in the absence of opposition parties.
Ultimately, myths and misconceptions are what has brought Spanish society to this turning point. There has been an increasing social consensus from all parts of Spanish society that dialogue and understanding are the paths towards a solution to this political maelstrom. This being the case, one has to ask whether ministers who are not able or willing to sit down and engage in a dialogue should stay in the Government?
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