Anecdotage #10: Is Catalonia heading for a crash?


The news from Spain is confusing and alarming to anyone who cares about this beautiful, vibrant place. It seems to be heading towards a violent disaster though everyone wants ‘cooler heads’ to prevail. Allow me to introduce you to one of the coolest heads I know, Robin Alan. My guest on today’s blog, he lived on the outskirts of Barcelona for seven years with his young family while working as an administrator at an international school in that beautiful city. A Canadian, he speaks both Spanish and Catalan, and apart from his teaching credentials, earned a BA from McGill and master’s degree in Political Science from the Université de Montréal. He currently works in international education in Belgium.

Here is Robin Alan’s view on the crisis, its origins, and how it might be resolved.

I think about Catalonia and Spain all the time these days. I have friends on both sides of the fence, and some in between, occupying various shades of grey.

My favourite analogy for the situation is that for Catalan nationalists, it is about asking for a divorce when a marriage has gone sour. For pro-Spanish unionists it is like having a limb amputated! Not much middle ground between those two perspectives.

I do think that this could have been avoided if

(a) Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy and the constitutional court had not unilaterally cancelled the modifications to Catalonia’s statutes in 2010 that had been approved by the previous Spanish government led by Zapatero and the Catalan people in a referendum a few years earlier

(b) if the Spanish government had agreed to a referendum Quebec or Scotland style back in 2013 or 2014. “No” would have won easily, but Madrid’s inability to see Catalan nationalism as anything but evil and Rajoy’s  inflexible reliance on legality and the constitution as opposed to listening to the demands of Catalans, has just fanned the flames of separatism exponentially since then.

In 2010, independence was probably supported by 15% of Catalans. In the 2015 elections, 47.5% of Catalans voted for overtly separatist parties (centre-right PdeCat, centre left ERC, and radical left CUP), which were able to form the majority they now have in the Catalan parliament. Only about 39% voted for overtly anti-separatist or unionist parties. The remaining went to the Catalan equivalent of Podemos (Si que es Pot), a left-wing party that is ambiguous about independence but supports the right for Catalans to decide their future.

Now there is a deadlock partly because the separatists conducted an illegal referendum. Even though it’s not their fault that Madrid did not agree to a legal one, it is hard to base breaking up a country on a referendum only one side really participated in, without a real debate or proper campaign.

Anything can happen now that Spain says it is going to be taking over Catalan institutions within a few days by invoking the notorious Article 155 of the Spanish constitution. The Catalan parliament, for its part,  might meet before then and declare independence. Strangely, part of Article 155 requires the Spanish Senate to invite the President of Catalonia to present his case there – he just might do so on Thursday or Friday – probably too little dialogue, too late.

For the moment, the international community (EU, governments, etc.) is officially supporting Madrid. They don’t see any good reasons to encourage a proliferation of small countries out there. It would just encourage more potential separatist movements and potential fragmentation everywhere. However, if the Catalan people protest en masse and are repressed, or if they prevent Madrid from imposing its will, the tide could shift in their favour quickly. The images of police beating up elderly voters and protesters on October 1 made Madrid look really like thugs to many, as has the jailing of Catalan civil society leaders. We could see more of that soon if the separatists don’t back down. This week could be the calm before the big storm that we may start to see by the weekend.

The Catalan population enjoys a good standard of living and is not oppressed as though Catalans were living in a banana republic. However, they have a strong identity and want it to be recognized. Yes, Catalonia is a divided society, but though hard-line separatists makeup perhaps less than half the population, a lot of other Catalans are in favour of the right to decide their own future and are resentful of the heavy-handed nature of Spain’s recent interventions.  

I have no idea how this will turn out, but I fear it will get worse before it gets better It is alarming that the two sides are not having direct talks. There is a logic to this though: the more the standoff gets polarized, the more each side is supported by its base (sounds familiar – look at the US now). The confrontation is boosting Rajoy’s support in the rest of Spain and converting more moderates to separatism within Catalonia.

Moderates and neutrals are calling for the Catalan government to back away from declaring independence unilaterally now and instead call for elections in exchange for Madrid dropping Article 155. This solution could help both sides save face in the short term at least. Hard-line separatists, however, feel that they already have a mandate for a new Catalan republic and for its part, the Madrid government would probably rather call elections on its own terms after imposing Article 155 and potentially exclude separatists from participating in them!

As a Canadian, I am proud that we were able to pass the test of two legal referendums in Quebec in 1980 and 1995. The Yes and No sides were on a more or less level playing field and accepted rules of the game allowed for meaningful campaigns and debate, and political and social reconciliation after the votes. Thanks to this true dialogue of the deaf, Spain and Catalonia, on the other hand, are entering scary, unknown territory.  

Thank you, Robin. If I believed in God, I would be praying for Catalonia now. Maybe I will anyway, it wouldn’t hurt and it might help!


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