The Missed Opportunity to Diffuse the Conflict with Catalonia

Simon Toubeau

Assistant Professor in Politics and International Relations, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Nottingham

The scenes that the Spain and the rest of the world witnessed during last Sunday’s independence referendum in Catalonia brought to light what ensues when each party to a territorial conflict are equally assertive in their demands and resolute in their strategy.

 

‘The Right to Decide’

The confrontation between the Catalan and the Spanish governments over Catalonia’s aspiration to sovereignty has been brewing for the past seven years. At its basis are two issues- money and recognition- that have consistently been at the heart of Catalanist movement.

The first grievances were sown in 2010 with the undignified manner that Catalans received the abrogation by a Spanish High Court of parts of their new Statute of Autonomy that referred to Catalonia’s status as a ‘nation’. Emotional grievances were then compounded by the material hardship provoked by the economic crisis which exposed the Catalan government’s high deficit and debt and revived the widely-held view that Catalan tax-payers were contributing more than their fair to the central treasury without receiving in return the expected central government investments.

But demands for recognition and a fairer fiscal pact fell on the deaf ears of the governing PP. So, speared by activist social movements such as Omnium Cultural and Assemblea Nacional Catalana, Catalans took the streets of Barcelona to stage large symbol-laden demonstrations.

From 2012 onwards, the constitutional future of Catalonia, and Catalans’ ‘right to decide’ this future, became the burning issue of Catalan politics. The conventionally moderate centre-right nationalist party- Convergencia i Unio- split into its component parts and the more assertive nationalist elements joined the left-wing republic party, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, at the helm of the Catalan government.

This coalition staged several dress rehearsals for last Sunday’s plebiscite: first with a non-binding consultation in November 2014 and then with a regional election in 2015, during which the sovereigntist parties forged a coalition ‘Junts Pel Si’ (Together for Yes) committed to independence. The majority they garnered in the Catalan parliament enabled them to pass a motion organizing the 1 October referendum.

 

The Mainstream Response

These developments were met with indifference and then intolerance by the mainstream Spanish political parties, as well as by Spain’s judicial institutions.

Their refusal to permit any exercise of sovereignty in Catalonia was justified by a steadfast defence of the Spanish constitution and the rule of law. Indeed, the preambular articles of the constitution proclaim the ‘indissoluble unity’ of the Spanish nation and state that sovereignty resides in the Spanish people. Article 149 goes on to list the organization of referendums as one of the ‘reserved’ powers of the Central government. At the time it was held, the referendum was unquestionably illegal.

This argument appealed to the rule of law to furnish it with the veneer of impartiality. The logic ran that negotiations about Catalonia’s constitutional future could not take place if Catalonia’s right to self-determination was so unambiguously illegal. But this legal argument is in fact representative of a deeper political vision of Spain, in which the constitution is a guarantor of Spanish democracy and the rule of law precedes democracy. It runs in direct opposition to the republican and liberal vision espoused by Catalan nationalist, among others, in which the constitution is itself the product of the democratic exercise that took place following the transition from dictatorship. Rather than being held up on an inviolable pedestal, the constitution is perceived as mutable parchment that must evolve with generational changes in values and aspirations.

 

The Missed Opportunity

By shielding itself behind legal sanctity and adopting a hard line on the Catalan’s ‘right to decide’, the PP has unwittingly helped to swell the ranks of Catalan independentists.

 A more empathetic and adroit political strategy would have perceived the important difference between, on the one hand, Catalans’ perception that they have a ‘right to decide’ and, on the other, their wish to become independent. Many in Catalonia wanted the right to decide that in fact no, they did not wish to form an independent state.  Up until 2013-4, opinion polls suggested as much: independence was not the preferred constitutional option of a majority of Catalan voters.

Following David Cameron’s strategy in the UK, the Spanish central government might have confidently employed Art 150.2 of the constitution to transfer the competence over the organization of referendums to the Catalan government. A negotiated condition of this transfer might have included the central government’s prerogative to influence the details of the referendum, especially the formulation of the question and the required thresholds for turnout and support. As in Scotland, an earnest and informed debate about the relative merits of independence would have followed. And, it is likely that the collective decision to remain part of Spain would have prevailed.

Sadly, this did not come to pass. This was the crucial opportunity missed by the central government.

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