Two Catalonias collide

Two Catalonias collide

In this photo from September, neighbours from the same building in Barcelona show their flags from their balconies: the Spanish one (above), and the “estelada”, the one used by the Catalan independent movement (below).

(AP/Bob Edme)

According to Catalan separatists, the spark that caused the political crisis in Catalonia was the ruling by Spain’s Constitutional Court in 2010 that declared unconstitutional the principles contained in 14 articles of the new Catalan Statute approved in 2006 by the regional parliament. Despite the controversy surrounding many other articles, the high court approved over a hundred articles that had been challenged by the People’s Party – then in opposition – and several autonomous communities.

The two issues that caused the most controversy in Catalonia were the decision to declare the clause claiming Catalan as the administration’s “preferred” language null and void, and the Court’s ruling that the description of Catalonia as a ‘nation’ in the preamble of the new statute was “without legal effect”. This is legally significant because the Spanish constitution only recognises the sovereignty of the Spanish nation. Even though it is the Court’s duty to ensure that all Spanish legislation is in line with the constitution, these cuts to the statute were seen as an attack on Catalonia.

It triggered the first major demonstration in Barcelona, attended by a million and a half people according to the organisers. However a Spanish company that developed a counting system based on aerial images in high resolution later calculated that the real figure was much lower: 74,000 people.

This was the beginning, probably, of another element that is fundamental to understanding the current situation: the formidable agitation and propaganda machine developed by the independence movement.

It is composed of highly politicised civil associations and the majority of the media, both public and private, generously funded and working to serve the independence cause. For many, it is the transmission belt for government propaganda.

"Universal truths" later proved false, inaccurate or debatable

It was against this background, and in a social climate convulsed by the economic crisis, that one of the slogans on which the pro-independence narrative was based emerged: “Spain is robbing us”, which refers to the ever thorny issue of regional solidarity. Catalonia’s fiscal deficit in 2014, calculated at €16,400 million, or 8.4 per cent of GDP, was presented as an example of Spain’s “pillaging”. When, some time later, several highly respected economists came up with figures to prove this was false, many Catalans had already climbed aboard the independence band wagon. Paradoxically, Catalonia’s net contribution to the state that year was 5.02 per cent of its GDP. Madrid contributed nearly double that: 9.8 per cent.

It is this official narrative of the supposed offenses against Catalonia on every front, full of "universal truths" such as the example given above that are then proved false, inaccurate or debatable, that has fuelled the independence movement, and stirred up its radicalisation.

The role played by much of the Catalan press has been decisive in spreading the official narrative and, in so doing, sending the political temperature and social tension sky high. Another factor making a similar contribution has been the political indoctrination in Catalonia’s schools in the last few decades. Education is the exclusive responsibility of the Catalan government.

Madrid has also been complicit. Through electoral calculation, neglect, ignorance or political ineptitude, historically the governments of the two main national parties, both conservatives and socialists, have done nothing but give in to the demands of the governments of Catalonia. This withdrawal of the state in Catalonia was very evident last weekend, when the Spanish government was obliged to send thousands of state police officers there on the suspicion, then the conviction, that the Catalan autonomous police would not execute the order to prevent the illegal referendum of 1 October. The developments of the last five years have made the deterioration of the political and social situation inevitable.

The political momentum has left Catalonia socially torn in two. The constitutionalist bloc that defends the unity of Spain blames Artur Mas, former president of Catalonia until two years ago.

At the height of the crisis in Spain he proposed a financial pact for Catalonia that the state could not possibly accept, given that financial intervention by Brussels in Spain appeared inevitable at the time.

Rajoy therefore refused. The narrative from Barcelona following that refusal reinforced Rajoy’s immutability, and still does today. In Madrid it was insinuated that Mas blackmailed the Spanish Prime Minister with a veiled threat of independence. In 2014 Mas held an illegal referendum to promote independence, which led to him being removed from office.

The social breakdown in Catalonia was already clear, therefore. Because beyond the separatists loudly making themselves heard, with full institutional and media support from the Generalitat (the regional government), there are also the Catalans, perhaps the majority, who do not support secession.

Whether by coincidence or not, the separatist spark ignited just at the time when multiple corruption cases were circling around Convergència i Unió, the regional political coalition that has governed Catalonia for longer than any other party since the restoration of democracy. The scandals affected many in the top echelons, including former Catalan Prime Minister Jordi Pujol, his wife and seven children, now all under investigation by the courts. They are accused of amassing a fortune of hundreds of millions of euros, or maybe more, over decades, through illegal commissions and political favours.

The independent cause, supported by “a majority of Catalans”?

The separatists have shown great mobilising capacity. But their street demonstrations, although spectacular, do not involve as many people as their sponsors claim or their sympathetic media. During the 2013 "Diada", or Festival of Catalonia, the two million people that supposedly formed a human chain 400 kilometres long turned out to be, after being photographed from the air and counted one by one, a much reduced 796,683 people. In this year’s “Diada” the one million people supposed to have taken part turned out in reality to be 160,000.

This numbers war is important because the political argument repeatedly put forward by the Catalan government and its allied associations and media, is that they have the support of the majority of the Catalan people. To prove it they provide spectacular pictures and claim equally impressive numbers which, with no scrutiny whatsoever, are never less than a million people.

In fact, none of the local ‘mass’ media tend to use figures based on a computer counting system, which would be much more credible. To do so would be to undermine the idea that their cause is supported by “a majority of Catalans”. This is crucial, because the belief that independence is the preferred option of the majority of the population gives the notion of independence political legitimacy. But the 2015 regional elections upset these plans because only 47 per cent of the popular vote was in support of the separatists, despite the fact that the pro-independence block called the election as a closet referendum.

Then came the institutional ruse. Despite the fact that they only won 47 per cent of the vote, owing to the imbalances in the electoral law in Catalonia which favours a rural and nationalist vote, the parties that lost the plebiscite still won an absolute majority in the regional parliament. And they laid claim to a popular mandate that the results of the ballot box had not given them, setting in motion from that moment a separatist agenda “with popular support represented in the Catalan Parliament”.

The pivotal moment in this legislative strategy came last month with the approval of laws to break away from the legislation in force and propel the region towards independence.

All this was done behind the backs of the 53 per cent of the population that did not vote for them. They also ignored the requirement to have a qualified majority of two-thirds in order to reform the current statute. Spain’s Constitutional Court provisionally suspended the laws approved on the grounds they were unconstitutional, but the representatives of the parties concerned, led by the current head of the Generalitat, Carles Puigdemont, ignored the decisions and warnings of the Court.

The final chapter is fresher in our memories: the holding last Sunday of an illegal referendum that forced the state to try to prevent it – unsuccessfully – through police intervention.

Right to self-determination?

The pro-independence bloc justifies the whole process by deciding on its own interpretation of international law on the right to self-determination, which the UN only foresees in cases of decolonisation or in territories where there are serious rights violations. This is obviously not the case in Spain, which Freedom House equates with Germany in terms of civic and political rights.

Spanish legislation does set out a legal path to achieving the independence of a territory, when and only when it has the blessing of parliament and when there has been a vote in favour, amongst all Spaniards. A legal path that Catalonia’s political leaders have preferred to ignore.

The Catalan government’s decision to trample the principle of legality underfoot leads many to think that this has absolutely nothing to do with democracy as they claim, but rather it is a coup d’etat, delivered in stages. No serious country would allow part of its territory to break away from the rest willy-nilly and on the margins of legality.

The fact that the world’s most modern and advanced states make the rule of law a fundamental aspect of their existence is precisely in order to avoid what they have been trying to do in Catalonia for five years: enabling someone to claim they are representative on the basis of a so-called “democratic majority” in order to control power outside the scope of established laws, which were approved overwhelmingly in Catalonia in 1978.

Beyond the strictly legal question, it is also important to stress that in the disguised referendum last Sunday it became clear that the pro-independence faction is struggling to win people over to its cause. Given that this was an historic opportunity for them, they would logically be highly mobilised for the vote. The referendum was not guaranteed, and there were obvious doubts as to how clean the whole process was.

Less than 38 per cent of Catalans registered in the last census opted to vote in favour of secession, according to the organisers’ data. The latest opinion polls, elections and consultations confirm that the independence movement has a glass ceiling, because even at its height it failed to get more than 47 per cent of votes in favour. With minority support, they don’t even have the moral legitimacy to pursue their cause.

This article has been translated from Spanish.