It is unlikely that recent developments in Catalonia will have an impact on the territorial organization of Spain.
Politicians in Madrid and citizens all over Spain accept the fact that Catalonia’s dream is to become an independent republic. However, nobody thought that the pro-independence coalition would go so far as to make its recent (and reckless) attempt to declare unilateral separation. Catalonia’s regional president, Carles Puigdemont, completely ignored both the signals of cooperation coming from Moncloa (Spain’s central government) and the rulings of the Spanish Constitutional Court. As a result, Catalonia has seen its autonomy suspended and most of its leadership imprisoned.
To further complicate matters, thousands of companies have moved their headquarters from the region, Spaniards are boycotting Catalan products, and Barcelona has just lost the chance to host the EU Medicines Agency after it relocates from London.
Spain has faced numerous crises over the past decade. The deep economic and financial crisis of 2008 was followed in quick succession by the anti-austerity Indignados movement in 2011, multiple corruption scandals at both central and regional levels, and a year-long process of forming a stable government in 2016. Conversely, a recent survey conducted by the Center for Sociology Report (CIS), a Madrid-based pollster, found that Catalan independence ranks second (29%) among Spain’s three top problems, behind unemployment (66.2%) and just ahead of corruption and fraud (28.3%).
Accordingly, the recent crisis over the Catalan question following its illegal referendum and non-binding declaration of independence is another symptom of the country’s wider problems. The crisis also underpins a complex clash of democratic legitimacies, where inter-periphery tensions constitute a permanent feature of Spain’s political landscape. This is amply demonstrated by the findings of another poll conducted by the Catalan-based Center for Opinion Studies. While the overwhelming majority of respondents want Catalonia to gain more autonomy from Madrid (64.6%), many are also in favor of remaining part of (49.3%), rather than separating from, Spain (40.2%). Not to mention the fact that many Spaniards from Valencia, Galicia or Andalucia would also like to have a greater say on the future of their country. Indeed, the 1978 Spanish Constitution states that sovereignty resides with its people, which, in turn, implies that all Spaniards would have to agree on letting Catalonia leave the union.
That said, separatism in Catalonia is partly rooted in its culture and history. While the region has never been independent in the modern sense, it nevertheless retains a strong regional identity and its own language, and was not fully incorporated into Spain until the early 18th century. In more recent times, nationalist parties have contributed to Spanish governance (1977-2012) and signed up to the constitution. However, mutual mistrust between the regional and central government has intensified, especially since the last economic crisis hit Spain. Madrid’s response left the majority of Catalans unhappy and feeling that Spain simply takes too much of their money.
The mobilization of nationalist sentiment and civil society gathered further momentum in 2010, following the Constitutional Court’s decision to partially outlaw the 2006 Catalan Statute, which was approved both by a local referendum and the central government. While reviewing the statute, which defines the scope of self-government within the Spanish state, the court decided that promoting Catalan as the region’s main official language and calling Catalonia a nation violates the Spanish Constitution. What followed was years of inactivity on both sides to ease tensions. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that the “operation dialogue” launched by Mariano Rajoy’s government in 2016, which consisted of frequent visits by the deputy prime minister to Barcelona and a promise of €4.2 billion in infrastructural investment by 2020, was destined to fail.
It is unlikely that recent developments in Catalonia will have an impact on the territorial organization of Spain, as it will most probably remain part of the kingdom for several reasons. First, secessionist parties have failed so far to win a clear majority in the Catalan Parliament, and many Catalans remain wary of independence. This feeds into the second point that support for independence may be crumbling. Prior to recent events, the ousted regional government failed to deliver on a key promise made to the Catalan people: a binding and effective referendum with legal guarantees. Moreover, even though the Catalan government claimed to have the required legitimacy, it did not in the end declare independence. Additionally, some high-profile secessionists have recently downplayed their enthusiasm for independence; these include former regional President Arturo Mas, who admitted that Barcelona was “not ready for it.”
It should also be pointed out that Catalonia’s political parties were very quick to accept the new reality of Article 155 that removed the incumbent Catalan government and called for regional elections. Finally, world leaders are hardly falling over themselves to welcome Catalonia into the international fold, with the exception of Venezuela. As the European Commission was quick to point out, even if a referendum were to be organized in line with Spain’s Constitution, it would mean that an independent Catalonia would fall into the so-called “Barroso doctrine” and find itself outside of the European Union.
The upcoming regional elections to be held on December 21 will be key in determining the future political landscape of both Catalonia and Spain. Recent polls suggest that non-separatist parties will win a majority (52%) in Parliament with the pro-independence Esquerra Republicana being the largest party (27%). It’s a scenario that should inspire both sides of the independence debate to moderate their positions and become constructive coalition partners. Smooth cooperation at the regional level would also vastly improve relations with Moncloa. This “new beginning” would not lead to a review of the Spanish Constitution, which could address the steps of a potential secession by Catalonia, but it could result in Catalonia being granted even more autonomy.
At the end of September, Spain’s government said it was willing to discuss giving Catalonia “more money and greater financial autonomy if the region backed down from its demands for independence.” Back then the offer was not accepted, but it means that there is a room for maneuver on both sides. On the other hand, if the pro-independence movement does the unlikely and wins big on December 21, it will have a strong enough mandate to negotiate with Madrid for a countrywide, binding and effective referendum with legal guarantees. What will then follow is discussions regarding constitutional amendments that pave the way for secession.
Whichever scenario becomes reality, Madrid and Barcelona must stop blaming each other and restart genuine cooperation. Christmas would be the ideal time for Moncloa to begin a meaningful dialogue on all levels of society, taking care to include Spain’s youth, representatives from the nonprofit sector, businesses, finance and academia. Only by erasing misunderstandings and ignorance on both sides will it be possible to turn the current negative dynamics into a positive and forward-looking development for all Spaniards, the region and the EU.
*[This article was updated on November 21, 2017.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.