Catalonia’s Lesson in Intranational Power Dynamics

Jeremy Kinsman

Among the more melodramatic political narratives in a year when the combustible American president set quite a high bar was the Catalan separation crisis. It had a seemingly intractable intranational showdown, a passionate debate about the intricacies of competing democratic imperatives and a fugitive Catalan leader charged with—in a modern European democracy—
rebellion and sedition. Veteran Canadian diplomat
Jeremy Kinsman dissects the backstory.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” 

Tolstoy’s opening line of Anna Karenina applies equally to “families” of peoples, especially those affirming a separate national identity, “separatists.”

“Who are we?” is a question of our age. “Unhappy people,” is a partial answer for many. In some countries, notably Canada, diversity is celebrated. But in many others, fragmentation, polarization, and division indeed cause unhappiness, each in its own way.

The outcomes are not of only local interest. The 21st century’s identity-based nationalist surge is often fueled by global migration and trans-national Islamophobia. Populist nationalists oppose immersion in the norms of liberal internationalism, the reality of globalization, and the sway over them of multilateral constructs such as the EU. Populist nationalist leaders of the U.S. and Russia assist the process by themselves turning away from cooperative internationalism, and actually cheering on fragmentation.

Break-away nationalists may draw from similar emotional and intoxicating narratives of victimhood, claiming their identity and cultural traditions are endangered. In making their case for self-determination, they commonly seek validation of independence scenarios through the populist device of a referendum.

Referenda are the nuclear weapons of democracies, winner-take-all reductions of complex issues into simplified binary choices, often presented in emotion-fired campaigns of false narratives, increasingly via social networks unfiltered for truth. They usually present their unhappy citizens with painful existential choices, as we know from our Canada-Quebec history.

Outcomes can carry grave consequences: the U.S. will surely be rid of Donald Trump sometime in the fairly near future, but those who chose Brexit by a 52—48 margin, with no idea what it would entail, will affect Britain for generations.

The most prominent separatist-nationalist crise du jour is unfolding in Catalonia, a region of Spain whose population of 7.5 million has had an on-again, off-again history of relative autonomy among Spain’s 46 million people.

Typically, an age-old grievance is language suppression. Catalan had a distinguished and ancient history as a language of literature and administration, but after Catalonia supported the losing side in the Spanish War of Succession, Madrid in 1714 unified Spain under the Spanish language, and soon barred Catalan from schools. (Memories are long. Reverent Barcelona football fans rise in vengeful commemoration at the 14-minute marks of the first and second halves when paying Real Madrid.)

But over time, Catalonia won a role of influence and autonomy within Spain. Barcelona became a primary home of the sailing and trading fleets of the Spanish Empire and emerged as Spain’s manufacturing hub. However, the loss of Cuba after 300 years (and Puerto Rico and the Philippines) in the Spanish-American War in 1898 was a harsh blow that Catalonia blamed on incompetent rulers in Madrid, fueling an upsurge in Catalan nationalism.

Decades of instability followed. Centralizing right-wing governments vied with decentralizing left-wing opponents. In 1930, a popular insurrection established the Second Republic, whose Constitution formalized the autonomous status and language rights of both Catalonia and the Basque country.

Elections in 1936 vaulted into power a Popular Front government of socialists and communists that was immediately contested by the military under Franco, who launched under a fascist flag the notorious civil war that became an ominous foretelling of the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy. It caused half a million deaths and ended Spain’s fledgling democracy. The fall of Barcelona in early 1939 that signaled the end of the Spanish Civil War ended Catalonia’s short-lived autonomy. Cementing harsh authoritarian rule from Madrid, now-dictator Francisco Franco again banned the use of Catalan in schools and government administration.

After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain began its transit back to democracy and enshrined in the 1978 Constitution Catalan fiscal and language autonomy. It was overwhelmingly supported in Catalonia. The region began to attain the fastest growth rates in Europe.

In reaction to the sour history of state dictatorship, the Spanish government de-emphasized central rule and nationalism in general but failed to build in a healing process. Regional autonomists flourished. The Basque campaign for full independence soon turned violent, the terrorist organization ETA causing thousands of deaths over the next three decades.

In Catalonia, the growing appeal of Catalan nationalism was peaceful. Autonomist coalitions won repeated regional elections under Jordi Pujol, who served as regional president from 1980 to 2003. Pujol advocated a federal Spain rather than outright independence. He mentored Quebec sovereigntists in seeking international recognition of cultural autonomies, but distressed Parti Québécois hosts on a visit to Québec when he acknowledged that if Catalonia had Québec’s status within the Canadian federation, “There would be no talk of independence.”

Catalan self-confidence was boosted by the successful 1992 Olympic Games that projected Barcelona’s image as an open and vibrant world capital. The case for self-reliance was reinforced by the region’s economic security that contrasted with the severe hit the rest of Spain suffered from the 2008-09 recession.

So, the Catalan family looks out at the world with wary satisfaction—unlike regions in economic stress such as Wallonia or Corsica. Also, Catalonia seems immune to the European winds of anti-immigrant populist nationalism. “Being” Catalan is not a blood legacy but a qualification of residence and language; immigrants are welcome.

But Catalans have been dissatisfied with the heavy hand of Madrid beginning with the election in 1996 of the conservative and centralizing Peoples’ Party led by hardline businessman, José María Aznar.

Relief came in 2004, when Socialists under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero upset the right-wing’s tenure, adopting in 2006 a Statute of Autonomy that enlarged Catalonia’s autonomous powers over taxation and the judiciary and officially recognized it as a “nation.” It was ratified by Catalan voters in a referendum.

But the opposition Popular Party challenged the statute before the Constitutional Court which, in 2010, struck down the Statute’s provisions on the Catalan language, regional powers on taxation and the judiciary, and declared that the references to Catalonia as a “nation” had no legal effect.

The debate polarized when a right-wing government under Mariano Rajoy succeeded the Socialists and spurned the Catalan regional government’s request for negotiation with Madrid. Rajoy holds that the 1978 Spanish Constitution made Spain immutably an indivisible and non-federal state. He called for the independence of the Spanish judiciary to be respected (though the European Commission gives Spanish courts the lowest marks in the EU, save for Bulgaria and Slovakia.)

Catalonia adopted a harder, more populist, autonomist line in response. Leader Artur Mas was succeeded in 2015 by firebrand Carles Puigdemont, who channeled the more militant nationalist mood. At his swearing-in, he refused to pledge loyalty to the Constitution and had the portrait of the Spanish King Felipe covered with a veil.

Many Catalans, not just nationalists, see Rajoy and his party as bending to the diktat of reactionary Castilian centralizers, notably Aznar, reviving the provocative enmities of the Franco era not far below the surface. The militant mood persuaded Puigdemont to call for a referendum on independence that was held on October 1, 2017. The Madrid government declared it illegal. Opposition parties in Catalonia boycotted the vote. The Spanish police intervened, arrested election officials and confiscated ballot boxes, crushing demonstrations with more arrests. Ninety per cent of those who voted supported independence but participation was only 43 per cent.

Puigdemont rashly doubled down, using the Catalan nationalist majority in the regional parliament to unilaterally declare Catalonia’s independence as a state. Hundreds of thousands celebrated the symbolic and defiant declaration as a “dream come true.”

But it may turn out to have been delusion. Days later, a counter-demonstration in Barcelona supporting national unity drew hundreds of thousands, recalling divided Montreal in the last days of the 1995 Quebec referendum campaign.

Madrid’s response was overwhelming. Using extraordinary powers under the 1978 Constitution, Rajoy announced the Madrid government was taking direct charge of the Catalan regional administration, dissolved the Catalan Parliament, and ordered new regional elections.

The Spanish authorities then deepened the crisis by arresting Catalan ministers and activists for sedition and rebellion. Puigdemont had fled to Belgium, where he is resisting extradition.

The European Union swung behind Madrid, especially Germany and France (with its own nationalist movement in Corsica), despite misgivings over Madrid’s harsh measures as being offensive and counter-productive. Even Vladimir Putin has given Madrid Russia’s stern support, despite reports that there has been Russian meddling with social media in the run-up to votes. If there were, it wouldn’t make a significant difference to Catalans who have enough home-made arguments pro and con on their plates.

In the short term, the December 21 regional election will be vital. Polling in November predicted that pro-remain candidates would likely win the edge in popular votes but that pro-independence candidates could win the most seats, though not a majority.

The situation cries out for some form of mediation. Most informed observers who have dealt with separation issues and pressures for autonomy in other countries agree that only a substantial amendment to the Spanish constitution permitting federalism will provide a compromise solution. But it won’t be palatable to the Popular Party’s base or to Catalan independence diehards.

In the meantime, companies are re-locating corporate headquarters to other parts of Spain. “Remain” advocates are reminding people that when corporate headquarters left Montreal in the 1970s and 80s, because of discomfort with obligatory public schooling in French for newcomers, they didn’t come back.

The Catalan population is conflicted. A late-November Metrocopia poll for El Pais showed that 71 per cent want Catalonia to remain part of Spain. At this writing, pro-independence parties were expected to lose their slim majority in the Dec. 21 election. As former Canadian Liberal leader and internationally respected human rights expert Michael Ignatieff described to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, some people have dual identities, mixed in varying proportions. Being forced to reject one of them is to be asked to eject part of themselves.

Such choices may make ethno-centrist nationalists, from Puigdemont to Nigel Farage to Stephen Bannon feel affirmed with the laughably shallow slogan that “the people have spoken.”

But one cardinal take-away lesson ought to be clear by now: winner-take-all referenda are the most destructive and obtuse way to cast the path for future generations. Representative democracy can do much better to resolve divisions through negotiation, compromise, and inclusivity.

There have been several national laboratories for these potentially toxic issues since 2000, notably Brexit. But the Catalonia-Madrid showdown may prove to be a master class. We may again owe homage to Catalonia.

Contributing writer Jeremy Kinsman is a former Canadian ambassador to Russia, the UK and the EU. He is affiliated with University of California, Berkeley.