Three centuries of Catalan grievances came to a head this week, but the intransigence of Spain’s government is ultimately to blame for the crisis
October 7 2017, The Times
Shortly before the King of Spain addressed the nation this week, some of his more rational-minded subjects hoped that maybe, just maybe, he might rise above the petty-mindedness of the Madrid political establishment. He could, they thought, offer a generous vision of how to resolve the crisis caused by the escalating clamour for Catalan independence. No such luck. By the end of his six-minute speech Felipe VI had only made things worse.
Stiff in his bearing, coldly commanding in his tone, he did not build bridges, he dug trenches. He did not lament the police violence during last Sunday’s simulacrum of a referendum in Catalonia, so damaging to his country’s global image; he denounced the “irresponsibility” and “scorn” of the elected Catalan government and threatened more violence. It was the “responsibility of the legitimate state powers”, the king warned, “to ensure constitutional order”, code for if the Catalan government makes good on its promise to declare unilateral independence, we’ll send in the tanks.
Speaking on behalf not of the nation but of central government, he did as prime minister Mariano Rajoy has done these last five years: he abdicated responsibility and, oblivious to what he was doing, abdicated his sovereign hold on the hearts of Catalonia’s increasingly embittered 7.5 million people, 80 per cent of whom are in favour of the right to vote on independence.
Before Sunday several polls indicated that the secessionist vote in Catalonia stood at between 40 and 50 per cent. There can be no question that those numbers have since risen. As a British friend who knows Spanish politics well remarked, minutes after the king’s speech, “that’s another ten points for the independentistas”. Yes. To add to the ten or more they added after the police clubbings of last Sunday.
I have a more than academic interest in this unfolding slow-motion disaster. My mother is Spanish, from Madrid. I lived 15 years in Catalonia until I moved to London four years ago, but I have always meant to return and applied for a Spanish passport after the Brexit referendum. I love Spain and so am against Catalan independence but I have never loved Spanish politics, especially the authoritarian strain represented by the people in power today and shared by much of the Madrid establishment. I have never forgotten a conversation I had 15 years ago with a man who remains a pillar of that establishment. “I can’t stand the Catalans,” he exclaimed. “They always want to make a deal. They’ve got no principles, for God’s sake! No principles!”
It is Madrid’s adherence to its blessed principles that has led us into today’s dangerous mess. It also explains what, to the Anglo-Saxon mind, seems to be the inexplicable refusal of Rajoy’s government to try to solve the problem through international mediation, or dialogue of any kind. “Principles” in the Catalan context means the Spanish constitution, which does not allow for a Catalan referendum on sovereignty. One might think that a constitution, being a necessarily fallible human document, would be open to change as circumstances change. Not on the Catalan question; not for Rajoy.
Miguel de Unamuno, a celebrated Spanish writer of the last century, lamented what he saw as a national political spirit contaminated “by the barracks and the sacristy”. My sense has long been that the intransigent habit of thought exhibited by Spain’s political classes is the inheritance of 500 years of Catholic absolutism. Spanish Catholicism was to Christendom generally what Saudi Islam is to the Muslim world today: the most resistant to outside philosophical, political, cultural or scientific influence. I don’t think it is any accident that there is no translation in Spanish, or in Arabic, for the English word “compromise”. The concept of “I cede a little and you cede a little so we both end up winning” is alien to the Spanish political mind.
It is why the Spanish empire lost Cuba in 1898 and before that California and the rest of what is now the western United States. It is the chief reason why, on the Catalan question, the centre-right Popular party government of Rajoy and the Madrid establishment have achieved the opposite of what they claim to want: instead of working to preserve the unity of Spain they alienate the Catalan people and fuel the drive for independence.
Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, King Felipe VI and Catalan president Carles Puigdemont in a rare moment of unity, observing a minute’s silence for victims of the August terrorist attacksMatthias Oesterle/Alamy
Put simply, they are third-rate politicians. Rule one for the intelligent resolution of a dispute like the Catalan one is to know your enemy: put yourself in their shoes, try to understand why they think the way they do and then try to persuade them to come around to your point of view, or at least to meet you halfway. The Struggle for Catalonia, a new book by the New York Times correspondent in Spain, Raphael Minder, ends on just this note. The peoples of Spain will not be reunited, Minder writes, so long as the political establishment in Madrid makes no effort to “understand the feelings expressed by hundreds of thousands on the streets of Barcelona”.
Catalan nationalist feelings go back at least 300 years. On September 11, 1714, at the end of the Spanish war of succession, Barcelona fell after a long siege to the army of Felipe V, Spain’s first Bourbon king. His namesake might have trodden with a little more tact in his speech this week had he chosen to recall that this glorious defeat, the Catalan Dunkirk, today marks the date of Catalonia’s annual national holiday. It is a commemoration of the suicidal heroism of the city’s defenders but also a reminder of the oppression they suffered under Felipe V. An absolute ruler, he demolished a fifth of the city, closed the Catalan parliament and the universities and banned Catalan as an administrative language.
An absolute ruler of more recent memory, Francisco Franco, fanned the flames of nationalist grievance by carrying out uncannily similar measures after he assumed absolute power in 1939 following the victory of his fascist forces in the Spanish civil war. Apart from the executions by firing squad of leading Catalan politicians and thousands more, he too suppressed the local language, the chief emblem of Catalan identity. Under Franco’s rule parents were not allowed to give their children Catalan names such as Jordi or Josep. The generalissimo chose to regard Catalan as a dialect, which was as insulting as it was wrong: Catalan is just as much a language in its own right as Spanish, French and Italian.
The suppression of Catalan culture after 1939 under General Franco, which included banning Catalan Christian names, finds an echo today in the disdain of many Spaniards for the region and its peopleKeystone/Getty Images
A hangover of the Franco era that continues to stir the nationalist pot is the disdain for Catalan among other Spaniards. It is accompanied by a dislike for Catalans generally, whom many choose to regard as snooty and superior when the truth is, I think, that they are merely shy. But nationalism is a sentiment, a simmering resentment towards a neighbour perceived to be abusive. Nationalism is not a plan. Independence is. What we see today is how one has evolved into the other and on a scale never before seen. Many who were once merely heart-sore nationalists are now active campaigners for independence.
The years 2006, 2010 and 2012 mark the progression. In 2006 the pro-independence vote stood at barely 15 per cent of the population. A decision taken that year gave hope that the number would drop: not only the Catalan parliament in Barcelona, but the national parliament in Madrid, voted in favour of a new statute defining Catalonia as a nation and granting it greater autonomy than it had enjoyed since the death of Franco in 1975. This included giving Catalonia a greater degree of judicial independence.
Delays in the implementation of the statute gave time for a Spanish nationalist backlash. In 2010 Rajoy’s Popular Party, then in opposition, succumbed to the impulse that sparked the explosion of Catalan independentismo and has led to the present crisis: seeking votes in the rest of Spain, it campaigned against the Catalan statute and took it to the notoriously politicised constitutional court, where it was overruled. The law trumped politics, the precedent that continues to hinder a solution of the problem today.
In 2012 what was then the centre-right Catalan government nevertheless tried to find an accommodation with Rajoy, who had become prime minister the year before. It sought talks to try to obtain fiscal concessions along the lines of those granted to the Basque country, whose government has a much greater authority over the collection and distribution of tax money. But Rajoy rebuffed them. Add the economic crisis and high unemployment to the outrage among ordinary Catalans at the scornful treatment they felt they had received and the upshot was the biggest protest anyone in Catalonia could remember. On the national holiday of September 11 a million people poured on to the streets of Barcelona.
What they called for was a legally binding independence referendum and the clamour only grew after the British government agreed to precisely such a vote in Scotland in 2014. But Rajoy’s government would not budge. The law was the law. Pragmatism was for him an unintelligible Greek word. It was as if he took his cue from the advice Franco once gave a friendly newspaper editor: “Do as I do, don’t get involved in politics.”
But the Catalans were doing plenty of politics and in 2015 a rag-tag pro-independence coalition led by Carles Puigdemont took power by a slender margin in the Catalan parliament. Whereupon the rhetoric from both sides became more angry and the political climate more hostile.
Rajoy’s government and his supporters in the media have portrayed the mop-topped Puigdemont and his radical comrades as irresponsible and infantile but it has been hard to avoid the conclusion that, if so, the supposedly adult politicians in Madrid have descended to the same level. The education minister stoked the flames by stating the government’s intention to españolizar — Spanishify — Catalan children; the foreign minister did the same when he accused the Catalan government of “an uprising” and “a coup d’état”. Felipe González, a former socialist prime minister, trumped them both in an article in El País in which he compared the independence movement to “the German or Italian adventure” of the 1930s.
Things could have been so different, so easily, starting with the Popular Party restraining the vindictive impulse that drove it to overrule the autonomy statute through the courts. Even if it had not, the massive street protests two years later provided another opportunity. Had Rajoy possessed an ounce of statesmanship, he could have gone to Barcelona, made a conciliatory speech and offered dialogue with the less militant, more pliable Catalan government that was then in power. Applause would have rung out around the hall and the Puigdemont radicals would probably have been done for.
Had Rajoy an ounce of statesmanship, he could have gone to Barcelona in 2012, made a conciliatory speech and offered dialogue with the less militant Catalan government then in power
The dangerous showdown today between Spanish fanatics and Catalan romantics would never have happened if, along with the change in mood music, the upshot of talks had been the granting of a binding referendum such as the one Scotland was given three years ago. Catalans say of themselves that two emotions vie in their hearts, seny and rauxa: common sense and raging passion. They are by ancient Mediterranean tradition a trading nation. When they are not angry, as they are now, they are the most practical people on earth. A proper referendum held a couple of years ago would have yielded in all likelihood a substantial “no” to independence from Spain and, as happened in Quebec, the subject would have been put to bed for a generation at least.
Instead what we have is the cruel absurdity of the Madrid government acting towards the Catalans like a husband who hates his wife and mistreats her but refuses to let her contemplate leaving him, screaming “She’s mine!”.
What happens now? Puigdemont has said he will make a unilateral declaration of independence but his delay in doing so indicates an entirely realistic fear of more violent reprisals from Madrid, hence his stated desire for EU mediation, so far refused. Such a declaration would signify scarcely more in substance than the outcome of the unilateral “referendum”: it would be more political theatre. Catalonia is not a small Pacific island, sufficient unto itself. It is part of Spain and part of the European Union. A hard, overnight Catexit is simply not possible. Puigdemont is playing a high-risk game.
The Spanish government could see he is playing a game, if it chose to, and react proportionately: watch and wait a while and, acknowledging that the Catalan independence clamour has significant numbers behind it, accede to talks. The wife, in this scenario, could respond yet to some blandishments. Rajoy could do what he should have done five years ago and agree to a binding referendum. In the event of a victory for the “yes” vote, order — at least order of the type now found in Brexit Britain — would be restored. Madrid, having given its legal blessing to the referendum, would have to abide through gritted teeth by the result. In the event of a “no” victory, the problem would be solved.
Fat chance, though, as things stand. More likely is that ominous royal defence of the “constitutional order” by “the legitimate state powers”. Luis de Guindos, the economy minister, showed just how inflexible the Spanish government remains when he said in a television interview on Thursday that Catalan independence was “out of the question” because it was, first, “illegal” and, second, “irrational”: “Catalonia has always been part of Spain”.
A part of me still clings to the sliver of hope I felt before the king’s speech, that maybe the EU will intervene and knock sense into Spanish heads. But it is more likely that they will do so only after the cracking of more Catalan bones, by which time it may be too late. One death at the hands of the king’s police, one martyr for the Catalan cause, and anything could happen. Rajoy calls Puigdemont a traitor but if the conflict descends into widespread violence, and if Catalonia does eventually achieve independence, history may record that the bigger traitor was Rajoy.
John Carlin writes for the Spanish newspaper El País