The Catalan problem for dummies

(especially for non-Spanish) 

Revised and updated translation on Friday 29 September

Versión en español aquí

Imagen por Javier Ramos Llaguno

Many of you have read in the newspapers of your respective countries that there are demonstrations in the Spanish region of Catalonia because regional authorities want to call a referendum on independence from Spain, a referendum which the State rejects. From the media, you may have heard that suffrage is a democratic right and that Catalonia is therefore entitled to a referendum, or perhaps you have been told that the Catalan leaders have bypassed the Spanish Constitution and are in a seditious process.

Well, we’ll give you some facts. First, let us introduce ourselves: the Hay Derecho Foundation is an independent institution whose purpose is to defend the rule of law. I am, at the moment, the president and, in addition, a lawyer that has served in Catalonia and now in Madrid.

Secondly, I’d like to introduce you Spain. It is a country of about 500,000 square kilometers and 46.5 million inhabitants, located in southern Europe. It has a GDP per capita of 24,100 euros (26,528 dollars – Italy 30,000 and France 36,000) in 2016. The Spanish language is spoken throughout the country, but several regions of Spain have their own official languages. Catalonia is a region in the northest of Spain, which has 32,100 square kilometers and a population of 7.5 million, with a per capita GDP of around 28,590 euros in 2016. In other words, Catalonia is relatively small and rich.

Spain is a very old country, formed by the union of several kingdoms, more than 500 years ago. It was a world power in the 15th and 16th centuries and then its power began to decline. Politically, it has had a relatively tumultuous past (as so many others), but from recent history it is important to remember that after the 1936-39 civil war we had a period of almost 40 years of dictatorship under General Franco. When he died there was a phenomenon almost unparalleled in world history, which came to be called “Transition.” During the Transition, Spain moved peacefully from a dictatorship to a democracy, solely by reforming laws, through much consensus and good will, and ultimately established a democratic Constitution (from 1978). Today, the Spanish Constitution can be considered one of the most progressive in the world in terms of social rights and freedoms. We therefore have a parliamentary monarchy at the level of any progressive country. However, we will not pretend that our democracy is perfect: in fact, the purpose of this blog and the Foundation is to highlight the shortcomings of the system, fundamentally due to the degeneration of political parties into invasive power structures that have colonized all the democratic institutions to their advantage. But we do not believe that this phenomenon is exclusive to Spain, although it may affect us more aversely because of our younger democracy and relatively new enjoyment of civil liberties.

During the years of democracy, we have suffered some major scourges, such as a coup d’ état that came close to success in 1981, and many years of terrorism at the hands of  Basque nationalism. We have also had corruption that has affected the various political parties, and is more rampant in the political sphere than in the administrative or civil service. Yet, the reality is that we have made progress in all areas. We entered the European Union in the1980s, which enabled us to come up to speed with our neighboring countries and to grow economically. Terrorism ended some time ago. The dysfunction of government institutions and political corruption, although they still exist and are difficult to eradicate, has become a national concern, and the tolerance towards both has lessened. Nevertheless, Spain is pioneer in freedom and (civil?) rights. Perhaps our forty-years dictatorship made us envious of other’s liberties, up to the point it drives us to reject any imposition on our costly-won liberty, even in cases in which such motions would be perfectly justified,

The economic crisis of 2007, from which we have not yet recovered, has been an important turning point in politics. The crisis was significant because the two traditional parties, the PP on the right, and the PSOE on the left, have suffered significant wear and tear. The PSOE was blamed for denying the crisis and offering a wandering and inconsistent policy and the PP, which currently governs, for burdening all the consequences of the crisis on the citizenry and for very serious corruption. All this has led to the emergence of regenerative movements, and also left-wing populism of an anti-systemic nature. In fact, the current PP government took almost a year to form.

Now, I will recount our current problem of Catalonia. The fact is that the territorial divides in Spain is not new. The territorial uniformity achieved in other countries, such as France in the 18th century, did not take place in Spain, which has preserved the idiosyncrasies that were fundamentally idiomatic and legal (that is to say, non-racial and non-religious) and that survived throughout the centuries. In the 19th century, this regional diversity acquired a new, vindictive dimension, in line with the fervor of nationalism that took place in that century. Clearly, during the Franco’s dictatorship, regional nationalism was severely repressed, although curiously enough,

When the dictatorship ended with the Transition in 1978, these regionalist sentiments had to be dealt with in some way, and a system of autonomy was introduced to enable each region to have its own parliament and government with jurisdiction over key areas, including education and health. The bad thing is that the regulation of Title VIII of the Constitution was excessively flexible and this, together with the fact that the electoral system -proportional with a majority bias- does not facilitate the existence of absolute majorities, has meant that the successive parties in power in Spain have had to negotiate their support with regionalist parties to form a government. This has meant that regional governments have increasingly been given more powers. This in itself is not bad, but the nationalist authorities in certain regions have used their powers unfairly, insisting on exaggerating differences at every opportunity and abusing their roles in education to indoctrinate the minds of students. For example, in Catalonia it is practically impossible to study in Spanish, and most schooling takes place in Catalan, despite the fact that repeated rulings have recognized the right to be educated in Spanish. You can’t name a store only in Spanish either, otherwise you will be fined.

In other words, this significant degree of autonomy, money and competence has not served to calm nationalist feelings in some autonomous regions, but has only exacerbated them, though all evidence might point to the contrary. In the Basque Country, where they enjoy a privileged tax system in comparison to other regions, the feeling persists and, truthfully, the end of regionalist Basque terrorism was not due to the action of local elites, but to a slow and constant work of the security forces and to political action at the national level.

In Catalonia, there is undoubtedly a feeling of difference. This feeling is in part due to a language of its own and a certain regional pride  that has remained constant in recent years, with a right-wing regionalist/separatist party that has governed most of the last 40 years. It is also true that it is a rich, labor-intensive and innovative region, and thus laments that it contributes disproportionately to the whole of Spain, especially compared to other, less affluent regions. Recently they invented a slogan, Espanya ens roba (Spain robs us), which resonated with many in Catalonia, although the reality is that there are other regions of Spain – Madrid and the Balearic Islands – that contribute more than Catalonia.

Catalonia is in a gridlock, because the region is divided in half between those who are Catalan nationalists and those who are not, so it is difficult to reach an agreement. If it was 80% on one side or the other, there might not be a problem. However, one way or another, we have been enduring this situation, although in general, the lack of order in the territorial sphere has generated economic inefficiencies, an excessive number of rules and disproportionate spending.

However, when the Crisis began in 2007, the Catalan elites, then in power, saw promoting the cause of Catalan nationalism as a way to divert the blame on to the State. The State would conveniently be the guilty party who had robbed Catalonia and cut all its self-government initiatives, which, in reality, always tried to go beyond the limits of the Constitution. This had also been accompanied by massive corruption in Catalonia, which, although corruption is certainly not unique to the region, had reached very high levels. It is well known, because it was said by a political leader and was later confirmed, that the Catalan nationalist party in power was given at least 3 percent of the works and concessions authorized by the Catalan administration. So much so that the emblematic Catalan leader, many decades in the regional presidency, Jordi Pujol, has revealed himself to be the head of a corrupt plot that involves him, almost all his family, and many of his collaborators. Nationalism, however, considered the fact that the Constitutional Court annulled some years ago the reform of the Statute of Autonomy promoted by the former Spanish President Zapatero to be an aggravation of nationalism, and has based its claims on this grievance. But this means not understanding that political promises or pacts are not and should not be above the law.

Thus, the independence drift that has been in motion since 2010 has consisted of a threat to hold a referendum for independence, one that was already attempted in 2014 and is set for a second attempt on October 1. In order to ensure that many people support the initiative, the Catalan government has taken advantage of the educational system, which for many years has taught Spain to be considered as a foreign entity, somewhat inferior, but always oppressive. The media, which are practically all subsidized by the Catalan administration (to the extent that, contrary to the principle of journalistic independence, in 2010 all the Catalan newspapers published a joint editorial called “La dignidad de Cataluña”); and a powerful network of client relationships from which many people live.

The message that these Catalan nationalist elites promote have been, at their roots, emotional, appealing to concepts such as “oppression”, “lack of freedom”,” robbery”, and, above all, for the people to whom these concepts produce a cognitive dissonance because of their obvious contradiction of reality, they have manipulated concepts such as “democracy”, in concluding that the right to vote matters above all else, regardless of whether or not the way to do so is legal. On the other hand, they have recklessly minimized the economic consequences of secession and have lied to citizens by saying that secession would allow them to continue in the European Union, despite the continuous warnings from the European authorities on this matter. In recent weeks, the disobedience of regional authorities has been very serious— approving laws illegally and disrespecting minority rights— actions that would allow them to hold the referendum and thus explicitly challenge the government with threats to use the de facto route and possibly criminal public declarations

The reality is, even with this massive mobilization of resources, the separatists do not add up to more than 50 percent of the Catalans, despite their majority in Catalan parliament due to electoral rules. Yet, they continue onwards. The Spanish Constitution, our national bedrock, does not allow referendums of self-determination called by the regional authority to be held, and in no way does it permit a region to separate on its own free will. Many of us believe that this is correct. This does not mean that the Constitution cannot be reformed and nor that no agreement can be reached, if the corresponding support is obtained. Perhaps, even a referendum can be held if it is considered appropriate. Unlike other countries, however, we have rules on this action and, at the moment, they do not allow it. By the way, Catalonia does vote: since 1980 there have been 11 regional elections, and many other general, local and European elections.

The central government has maintained a prudent and passive stance during these years, due in part perhaps to political instability in the country, and or because it assumed regional authorities would never dare. Or, perhaps the central government hoped that the issue would resolve itself in the face of the practical difficulties that secession would entail, of which the Catalans should be aware. In the last few days, it seems that the State has finally awoken a little and some measures have been taken to prevent the referendum, confiscating ballots, disrupting the voting system and controlling the region’s economy to avoid diversion of funds. Incidentally, these measures have not been adopted by the government itself but by the judicial authority, except for certain decisions on financial intervention to prevent the diversion of funds. In fact, the government has not dared to use Article 155 of the Constitution, which would allow it to “adopt the necessary measures” (even to suspend autonomy) if an Autonomous Community does not comply with the obligations imposed on it by the Constitution or other laws, or acts in a manner that seriously infringes the general interest of Spain. Nor has it declared a state of emergency, which would enable it to take extraordinary measures of public order in the event that normal functioning is affected. I assume they don’t want to lose the “battle of the image” that using these measures would entail. However, the regional authorities have not hesitated to harangue people into going out into the streets and there are currently riots, surrounding the courthouse and other state buildings, and they have tried to prevent police action.

We do not know what will happen in the next few days, but many Spaniards are very concerned because we think that the rupture of the Constitution, in addition to the fact that it could mean the loss of a region that we love and feel as ours, could shake the foundations of our democratic system. We trust, however, that resolving this crisis will be an opportunity to improve our democratic system and strengthen our institutions, because we can talk about everything, in an open discourse of mutual respect.