Catalonia, a frozen conflict in the heart of the EU?

Catalonia, a frozen conflict in the heart of the EU?

Torn down election posters (for the 2021 Catalan regional election held on 14 February) in a street in Sant Adrià, in the province of Barcelona.

(Ricard González)

Three years since its government’s failed attempt to unilaterally declare independence, Catalonia has disappeared from international headlines. While its institutions are unlikely to pose any serious new threats to Spain’s stability, the political situation in the autonomous region is far from normalised: Several pro-independence politicians are currently in jail or in exile (wanted by Spanish justice), violent protests regularly break out in the streets, and the ‘war of flags’ continues on the balconies of Catalonia’s towns and cities.

The results of the 14 February regional elections show that the question of independence continues to divide Catalan society roughly in half. While the federalist Socialists’ Party of Catalonia (PSC) achieved the best results with 23 per cent of the vote, pro-independence parties defended their absolute majority in terms of seats and, for the first time in history, managed to surpass the threshold of 50 per cent of the vote, increasing their share from 47.5 to 50.9 per cent (51.3 per cent when counting both the parties that won seats and those that did not). But this milestone loses its lustre in the light of a historically low turnout of 53.5 per cent, a 25-percentage point drop from 2017, due to the public’s fear of catching Covid-19 in the midst of the third wave of the pandemic.

“The elections consolidated bloc politics. Citizens are voting based on their national identity, so it will be very difficult for the new government to cross those lines,” Lluís Orriols, professor of political science at University Carlos III of Madrid, tells Equal Times.

It has been several weeks since the election and the formation of a stable government remains a difficult task. “The negotiations between pro-independence parties will be long and complicated, especially since one of them, the CUP, is not motivated by traditional mechanisms of power. But in the end they will reach an agreement. There are already precedents,” he adds.

In fact, the previous legislative term could not be completed after President Quim Torra of the Together for Catalonia party (Junts) was dismissed for disobeying judges, and the two major pro-independence parties, the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and Junts – which came in second and third in the most recent election, with 21 and 20 per cent of the vote respectively – could not agree on a replacement. In addition to waging a fratricidal power struggle, both parties have different strategies for achieving independence: ERC advocates for dialogue with the central government, while Junts prefers confrontation.

Working through polarisation and bloc politics

The difficulties that forming a government entail are in no way exclusive to Catalonia. “We are less unique than we think. The problem of governability in these times of polarisation and fragmentation is shared by many Western democracies. It simply takes on a different form here because of the conflict,” says philosopher Josep Ramoneda. “And this has a very negative effect because it prevents other problems from being solved, such as the social divide caused by the pandemic, the distribution of European funds or the country’s very economic life,” he adds. In several articles written for the press, Ramoneda has criticised the previous Spanish government under the People’s Party (PP) for taking the conflict before the courts, which he argues has served to entrench rather than resolve it.

The particularities of Catalonia’s political reality complicate the search for governing majorities. In addition to a left/right political axis, there is also a pro-/anti-independence one. It may prove difficult for a centre-right pro-independence party like Junts, for example, to reach a governing agreement with the anti-capitalist CUP, the smallest of the pro-independence parties. The same is true of the anti-independence parties, which include the Socialist Party as well as the far-right Vox party. While the election produced a left-wing majority, the Socialists and the ERC have ruled out forming a coalition with one other. The contentious ‘Catalan question’ has also undermined the governability of Spain, as seen in the repeat election in 2019.

Beyond the question of governability, some analysts believe that the election results represent a potential path forward in the conflict. “The parties that received the most votes in the two respective blocs have changed, and the ones that won this time, the PSC and ERC, are more moderate than Ciudadanos or Junts. There is much less distance between their positions. They are less polarised and this may help in the search for an understanding,” says Orriols, who is confident that a more open dialogue between the two governments (central and regional) is possible.

Catalonia’s place in Spain is a centuries-old problem that remains unresolved. Catalonia regained its autonomous status when the Spanish constitution was approved in 1978 (three years after the death of dictator Francisco Franco). But by the 1990s, a portion of the population already considered this to be insufficient (even though at turn of the century, Spain was among the most decentralised states in the world, along with Germany, Belgium and Switzerland).

In 2003, Catalonia’s then president Pasqual Margall of the Socialists’ Party set out to cement the autonomous region’s official status with a new Statute of Autonomy, later approved in a 2006 referendum. However, in 2010, the Constitutional Court declared several of its articles unconstitutional. The centre of gravity of Catalan nationalism then shifted towards independence, which led to the illegal Catalan independence referendum of 2017 and the subsequent temporary suspension of the region’s autonomy.

One of the consequences of this episode was the exile/escape from Spanish justice of half of the members of Catalonia’s government, including then president Carles Puigdemont, and the sentencing of the other half to long prison terms of up to 13 years. The imprisonment of these leaders, considered to be ‘political prisoners’ by the pro-independence movement, has been one of the main stumbling blocks in a negotiated resolution to the conflict. However, the current Spanish government, led by Socialist Pedro Sánchez, has hinted that it will soon grant them a pardon.

“The release of the Catalan political leaders from prison is a necessary prerequisite for easing tensions and creating a positive atmosphere for negotiations,” says Cécile Barbeito, researcher at the School for a Culture of Peace at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Last year, the Socialist Party and the ERC agreed to set up talks between the Spanish and Catalan governments, though they were only able to meet once. While the reason given for the lack of follow-up was the outbreak of the pandemic, this is more likely an excuse as the postponement was sine die.

When it comes to outlining possible solutions to the conflict, Josep Ramoneda warns against false hopes:

“The talks should prioritise agreements on issues that affect day-to-day governance in order to build trust between the two governments. If the goals are too ambitious, the dialogue will be short-lived and fail.”

According to Ramoneda, an agreed upon referendum like the one held in Scotland, which the pro-independence parties advocate and which garners the support of between 70 and 80 per cent of Catalans in some polls, is an unfeasible solution, at least for the time being: “The central government will not accept it. In the future, if Madrid fully accepts the existence of a conflict and support for the pro-independence movement does not decrease, imaginative solutions could be considered, such as the status of an associated nation or something along those lines.”

Another obstacle to dialogue is the rejection of any type of negotiation (to end the conflict) by Spain’s right-wing parties, currently in the opposition. According to the Spanish constitution, constitutional reforms (one path towards ending the crisis advocated by several politicians) must be approved by a broad majority of parliament (three fifths of both chambers) and generally ratified in a referendum. Given the composition of the current parliament, right-wing parties would have veto power over any possible agreement to significantly extend Catalonia’s autonomy. “When negotiations begin, polarisation in Spain will increase, and it will not be easy for President Pedro Sánchez to manage. This is the reason for the widespread perception among citizens and political parties that negotiations have little chance of success,” Barbeito argues.

Given the significant differences between the positions of the key political players, there is a real risk that the ‘Catalan conflict’ will join the list of frozen sovereignty conflicts. “There has been a territorial problem in Spain for two centuries. I don’t think it can be resolved now. It’s a question of reducing tension and managing things in the meantime,” says Orriols, an idea with which Barbeito agrees.

This article has been translated from Spanish.