Live from Catalonia

This is my third and final day in Barcelona; I’ve been sitting making notes at a cafe in George Orwell Plaza. To say that there is no atmosphere of revolution here would be an understatement.

There are Catalan flags and pro-independence posters on display around the city, but you wouldn’t say it’s thick with them. In fact there’s very little change since the last time I was here, two and a half years ago.

The dismissed premier of the Catalan regional government, Carles Puigdemont, who together with several of his ministers has prudently located himself in Brussels for the time being, has accepted the decision of the central government to call fresh elections in Catalonia for 21 December.

Madrid has clearly won this round. But it is important to understand why.

The central government has not been more sensible or more ruthless than the Catalans; it has gained the upper hand because the balance of forces in Catalonia favors it.

If support for independence was overwhelming, things would have played out very differently. A unilateral declaration of independence would have had real force; Madrid would have been unable to enforce its directives without massive intervention, which in turn would have produced a backlash.

Without the ability to count on supporters on the ground in Catalonia, prime minister Mariano Rajoy would effectively have had to choose between accepting independence as a fait accompli, or attempting a military reconquest of the region.

But this is not Eritrea or East Timor or Kurdistan. Supporters of independence form at best a narrow majority, and that’s nowhere near enough to stage a revolution.

The 21 December vote now becomes – as its 2015 predecessor was supposed to be – a de facto referendum on independence. It will probably again be close. But Rajoy’s government needs to do three things to ensure a peaceful and democratic outcome.

First, it needs to run an impeccably clean election. The pro-independence forces must be given, and must be seen to be given, every chance to seek a mandate. If they can plausibly claim that the poll has been rigged in Madrid’s favor, the crisis will only continue.

Second – partly for the sake of the first point, but also for its own sake – there needs to be an amnesty for the separatist leaders. It’s fundamental to democracy that no-one should be put at risk of criminal charges for advocating peaceful constitutional change. Spain’s trigger-happy prosecutors need to be reined in.

While I think the government will probably do the first and may well do the second, it is unlikely to do the third. But it is equally essential: the government must prepare itself, in the event that the separatists are returned with a majority, to negotiate with them in good faith for constitutional revision, including the option of an officially-sanctioned referendum on independence.

My guess is that this time the anti-independence forces will win, which means the third point would not be put to the test. But I could be wrong about that, and in any case the issue will have been postponed rather than settled. An anti-independence government would offer just the opportunity that is needed for a new deal on autonomy that might address the Catalans’ grievances.

And if Puigdemont and his allies do again win a majority, the ball will be back in Rajoy’s court. One can only hope, with very little grounds for optimism, that he would deal with the situation more wisely than he did last time.


6 thoughts on “Live from Catalonia

  1. Travelling through Spain, including Catalonia, a few years ago left me with the overwhelming feeling that there was an unresolved national tension, probably due to the laws enforced after Franco’s death in 1975 which prohibit any prosecution of crimes from the years of dictatorship. There is disquiet in many of the Provinces and Communities, not just Catalonia and the Basque Country, about the degree of central control. Maybe eventually there will be enough demand for a new Constitution with more regional autonomy.

    I fear that the Madrid Government (both PP and PS) want to make an example of Catalonia to dissuade other regions such as Galicia from pushing similar agendas.


    1. I don’t know if there is much heat remaining about the actual crimes from the Franco era but it is true that the constitution was still written by the dominant Castilians in the immediate post-Franco period. Maybe it was even justified given the need to counter centripetal tendencies on almost all cardinal points of the nation. In turn it reflects a Castilian attitude that stretches back 5 centuries.
      But even if the hard-core independent vote is under 30% it will still be foolish if the Castilians/central government or Catalan victors just try to sweep this under the carpet. I agree with your fears that this won’t happen but not necessarily anything to do with pragmatism such as dissuading Galicia. It will be simple vindictiveness and 5 centuries of habit. One does wonder if many Spanish aren’t weary of it, so Rajoy needs to be careful because it could backfire if he overplays it–and that is what he/they always does; sometimes one wonders how they ran one of the world’s biggest empires but then I look at its remnants today in Central & South America, Philippines etc … . Already Madrid wants to imprison all of the sacked Catalonia government. It’s their version of putting their heads on spikes on top of Montjuic so all Barcelona gets the message. Hard to see it working that way.


  2. Thanks Rocket – yes, I think that’s about right. The one thing I’d add is the difference in motive between the People’s Party and the Socialists: the People’s Party don’t like regional autonomy in the first place, so they want to discredit it, while the Socialists have always supported autonomy, so they’re desperate to show that it doesn’t lead to secession. I think a Socialist government would be willing to do a new deal on autonomy to forestall any more independence moves, whereas the People’s Party looks like it’s going to just double down on centralism.


    1. Charles – woke up this morning to distressed message from Catalan family we know, following the detention of the Catalan Government Ministers. You were right in your prediction – Madrid overplayed their hand! As regards the Socialists, I hate to say it but I think one of the reasons they oppose independence is that it would make winning an election for them in the rest of Spain minus Catalonia just a little bit harder. Though I do agree that they would be more likely to back increased autonomy.


      1. Indeed. I’ve just been talking to a couple of Catalan academics at the conference I’m at, and they think that pro-independence sentiment has increased significantly in recent weeks – along the lines of, “Well, if this is how we get treated …”. And you’d think someone in Madrid might have been sensible enough to foresee that, but apparently not.


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