Spain’s stilted officialdom and Catalan’s slovenly UDI: para-state nations in post-national Europe

Spain’s stilted officialdom and Catalan’s slovenly UDI: para-state nations in post-national Europe


by Rajan Philips


What began as an exciting drama in national self-determination in Barcelona is petering out into wooden legal proceedings in Madrid over charges of rebellion and sedition and the issuing of European arrest warrants. Barcelona is the sparkling regional capital of Catalonia and Madrid is the brooding national capital of Spain. Catalonia is Spain’s northeastern and most prosperous region, the largest contributor to Spain’s GDP with an even larger share in Spain’s exports. It is also one of the three more autonomous regions among Spain’s 17 regional governments. All three are located along Spain’s northern border: Galicia in the north-west; Basque Country and the Region of Navarre – also of the Basque people and the home of the Jesuits founders Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier, in mid-north; and Catalonia in the north-east.


In September 2015, a coalition of three pro-independence parties won a majority of 72 seats out of 135 seats in the Catalan regional legislature but on a minority vote count of less than 48%. Carles Puigdemont, the 55-year old former journalist and somewhat romantic proponent of Catalan independence became the President of the regional government. One year later, in 2016, Mariano Rajoy, the leader of the conservative Popular Party of Spain and one of the corrupt parties in all of Europe, retained his position as Spain’s Prime Minister but heading a minority government with Rajoy’s party mustering only 137 out 350 seats. Rajoy was supported by a majority of the 85-member strong Socialist Party who wanted the country to finally have a government after two indecisive elections in December 2015 and in June 2016, and to avoid going for a third election in one year.

The sequence of events that led to the current has all the marks of inaction, impatience and incompetence. From the time the pro-independence coalition formed the regional government in Catalonia, in September 2015, its leaders have been vocal about testing the support for independence among Catalonians. The almost year long absence of a formal government in Madrid because of a hung parliament between December 2015 and October 2016, and the emergence of only a minority government thereafter, meant that the pro-independence government in Barcelona did not have a steady negotiating partner in Madrid. Even after his minority government came into being in October 2016, Prime Minister Rajoy has been taking an intransigently legalistic position against the independence moves of the Catalan regional government. Such a position would have been defensible if the Catalan government had unilaterally moved to declare independence based on its minority election victory in 2015.

But a different response was needed when the Catalan government announced its decision to hold a regional referendum on independence on the 1st of October 2017. The government in Madrid should have joined forces with the opponents of independence in Catalonia and decided to either severely ignore the referendum as a political farce, or actively participated in the referendum to demonstrate the true majority view of the Catalonian people. Severely ignoring the referendum, would have taken the air out of the independence trial balloon, significantly lowered voter turnout and rendered the whole exercise as ridiculously lacking in credibility. On the other hand, actively participating in the referendum would have hugely mobilized the opponents of independence to turn out in large numbers and hand out a drubbing defeat to the pro-independence government. In its best showing in opinion polls, the support for independence never went past 40% mark. So, a substantial victory for the opponents was always a certainty.

Examples not followed

There were examples to follow from Canada and from Britain. In Canada, twice (1980 and 1995) in two decades, the Parti Quebecois governments in the Province of Quebec have held referendums, not for total separation but for sovereignty-association with Canada. Both times, the Federal Government in Canada participated in the referendum and on both occasions the vote for sovereignty-association was defeated. On both occasions, the Prime Ministers were French Canadians from Quebec: Pierre Trudeau in 1980 and Jean Chretien in 1995. Admittedly, the 1995 referendum was a close call. The Federal Government then took the bold step of asking clarification from the Canadian Supreme Court regarding the constitutional parameters for a secessionist referendum. In a landmark ruling not only for Canada but for also for international law, the Court ruled that to succeed the referendum must ask a ‘clear question’ and must win a clear majority, understood to be, but left unspecified, significantly higher than a 50% + one vote. The ruling will no doubt come into play if the Catalonian case were ever to be taken up in a competent court.

It was the same with the 2014 Scottish referendum for independence called by the SNP government in Scotland. The British Conservative government did not dismiss the referendum as illegal but vigorously participated in it and even let the Labour opposition take the lead for the NO Campaign. Scotland’s son of the soil, the former Finance and Prime Minister Gordon Brown became the campaigner in chief for the NO side which eventually prevailed. Both in Quebec and in Scotland, the support for independence have since plummeted quite significantly. The Spanish government emulated neither example.

Instead, Prime Minister Rajoy declared the Catalonian referendum illegal and unconstitutional, and ordered the national police to go into Catalonia and disrupt the referendum. The unnecessary police action created a political furore and gave the referendum political credibility which otherwise it would not have had. Ninety three percent voted for independence in the referendum but only 43% of voters turned up to vote, which is at best is nothing more than a hung jury. And by any stretch, it is not a clear mandate for independence. After the referendum, the prudent course for the two sides and all the political parties would have been to start a meaningful national conversation about redefining the relationship between Madrid and the regions. Instead, both sides played cat and mouse, each side waiting for the other side to blink first. Madrid didn’t blink, but glared and invoked Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, threatening to take over the Catalan regional government if its President Puigdemont did not rescind the results of the referendum and call for a new parliamentary election.

Puigdemont obliged by moving the Catalan legislature to vote for unilateral declaration of independence. On Friday, October 27, four weeks after the referendum, the Catalan parliament voted for independence: 70 for, 10 against and 2 returned blank votes. Fifty-three legislators stayed away. Puigdemont left for Brussels, and Madrid started taking over the affairs of the Catalan. The Spanish government also fixed December 21 as the date for the new parliamentary election in Catalonia, and indicated that pro-independence parties were welcome to contest the elections. So far so good, but then the prosecutors in Madrid decided to arraign Puigdemont and his ministers in the Spanish High Court over charges of sedition. Last week eight of the former Catalan ministers who answered the summons and appeared before the court were remanded in jail pending bail or trial. A European Union warrant has been issued to arrest Puigdemont and the other ministers who failed to show up in court.

All of this is bound to turn Puigdemont and his ministers into political heroes in Catalan and potentially boost support for pro-independence parties in the December 21 election. An unlikely, but not impossible, pro-independence victory in December would totally turn the tables against the Rajoy government. There is also the risk of opening the old wounds from the 36-year (1939-75) dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. The governing (minority) Popular Party is the remaining receptacle of Francoism in Spain. Catalonia, on the other hand, has the strongest legacy of resistance to Franco. It was the last of the Spain’s regions to fall to Franco in the Spanish civil war of the 1930s, just as it was the most to suffer under Franco in terms of repression and the denial of cultural liberties including the ban against the use of the Catalan language in public affairs.

The end of the dictatorship and the birth of the new Spain in 1975 were both predicated on the regional autonomies of Catalan and other traditionally established regions. Besides Galicia and the Basque country, Valencia the region south of Catalonia is also a region of Catalan people and another region of significance for the redistribution of powers between the centre and the peripheries. Regional parties are dominant in these regions and while none of them have come out in support of Catalan’s independence, they are also not supportive of the Rajoy government’s heavy-handedness. In fact, they have expressed their opposition to Madrid’s approach to managing the Catalonian crisis. The Rajoy government is dependent on the representatives of the regional parties for its survival in parliament, given its minority status there. In other words, the assertion of legality by the central government does not have the political support to back up its claims. It is also ironical that a government mired in a myriad of scandals and transgressions of the law should become the upholder of the rule of law against the autonomous claims of regional governments.

Europe’s predicament

After Franco’s centralizing brutality, Spain has become a decentralized country but not a federal state. The regions have powers over health and education. Catalonia and Basque country have their own police force, while the Basque country and the Region of Navara also have fiscal and taxation powers. The answer to the Catalan crisis is neither the return to brutal centralization nor the balkanization of Spain into multiple mini-states. The answer could only be in striking a new balance in the distribution of powers between the centre and the regions. Such a distribution cannot take place in isolation within Spain but in the broader dynamic of the European Union. The EU has become a part of the problem of emerging regional claims in the EU member states, and it must invariably be part of the solution. Practically every EU member country has one or more regions claiming greater autonomy status within their natal nation-states. And the Catalonian example will have its demonstration effects on these regions.

In addition to Scotland and Catalonia, two of Italy’s richest regions have also held referendums in support of greater autonomy for their regions. The Lombardi region centered on Milan and the region of Veneto centered on Venice overwhelmingly voted for greater autonomy on October 22, five days before the Catalan parliament voted for independence. The referendums are non-binding and will be used for wresting more powers from Rome. Lombardi and Veneto are two of the five regions enjoying autonomous status in Italy that has a system of 20 regional governments. Apart from factors of tradition and culture, the economic strengths of these regions are the driving force behind their claim to autonomy. In the case of Spain, and more so in Italy, the restive regions are also fed up with the level of corruption in the central government and resentful of having to waste their wealth to pay for the economic mismanagement at the centre.

The metropolitan dynamic is another reason behind the claim for autonomy. Barcelona, Milan and Venice are economic engines not only for their regions and their countries, but also in Europe overall. They provide the growth-poles around which the claims for autonomy are built. At the same time, people living in the urban centres are less willing to vote for separating from an existing state or union unlike people in the more rural areas who show greater propensity of independence or autonomy. In Catalonia, support of independence is much greater in the rural hinterland than in the urban metropolis of Barcelona. Similarly, in the Brexit vote, Londoners were overwhelmingly in favour in staying the European Union while those in English small towns and villages were adamant about getting out. The Trump land in the US is all rural and all anti-free trade, while Trump is detested, and free trading is welcome, in all the major cities of America.

The long and short of Spain’s current crisis is that between the wooden legality of Rajoy and the starry-eyed amateurism of Puigdemont, Catalonia and Spain have been brought into a needless confrontation and the precipitation of a full blown political and constitutional crisis. The European Union has been caught in the middle, and by formally taking up the position that the Catalonian crisis is entirely an internal Spanish matter, the EU leadership has only demonstrated its ineffectiveness in addressing the growing reality of regional nationalist assertions within the established nation-state members of the Union. For now, the only words of wisdom have come from the EU President Donald Tusk, who has been pleading that all parties must endeavour to “look for a solution without the use of force, to look for dialogue, because the use of argument is always better than the argument of force.”

Tusk’s advice is universally applicable. Only more so and not less in Sri Lanka, and especially so in the heightened debate over the current constitutional proposals. Political differences should never lead to violence, or to threats of tattooing and killing people for their political opinions, which is what the Viyath Maga protagonists are shamelessly and stridently asserting. Killing with or without tattooing would be a gross betrayal of the civilizational premises of Sri Lanka’s claim to exceptionalism among the world’s comity of peoples. A second lesson from the Spanish situation is that the old genie of nationalism is showing new manifestations in its original European home where it was first articulated in history and in theory. But the new manifestations are materially different from their old version and, therefore, require appropriately different political, as well as emotional responses. Otherwise, nations and nationalities will forever be on the recurring cycles of farce and tragedy.

About editor 3045 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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