At the onset of Spain’s democracy, a Spanish politician wrongly predicted that with the consolidation of democratic rule in Spain peripheral nationalisms –namely Basque and Catalan- would disappear. As a matter of fact, not only Catalan and Basque nationalisms have not vanished, in fact a brand-new sort of Spanish nationalism has in recent years re-appeared with a strong desire of putting a brake of the Catalan autonomy or even calling for the total elimination of it. In addition, a strong desire of re-writing the history of the country is also an outstanding mark of it. Accordingly, no persecution was inflicted by Franco or other Spanish rulers to Catalan language or centralisation is perceived as something positive for the country, an idea that not so long ago most Spanish political leaders would be very reluctant to put forward.
Restoration of self-government was among the major and historical demands of Catalan democratic forces in the wake of the death of Franco in November 1975. The Generalitat, prior to the approval of the new Constitution, was re-established, along with self-governing institutions in the Basque Country –the two territories with bigger aspirations that had enjoyed autonomous institutions during the Second Republic and the Civil War-. The 1978 Constitution also allowed other regions to gain autonomy, in order to water down the whole process, and soon the whole of Spain was divided into seventeen autonomous communities plus two autonomous cities –Ceuta and Melilla, Spanish enclaves within Morocco-. It should not surprise anyone if at that time the vast majority of the Catalans cheered the arrival of the democratic rule for the whole Spain not only as the instrument to modernize the country, but also as the most effective way to recover autonomy, and therefore massively voted for the 1978 Constitution. In retrospective one needs to acknowledge that the Catalans had no other credible option, unless they would have wanted a return to a soft-version of Francoism which was only hailed by a very tiny and back-ward minority.
Given this context, for more than thirty years Catalans accepted their statute of autonomy, the instrument to regulate relations with the central state and the functioning of Catalonia’s institutions of self-government, as a reasonable compromise between historical Catalan autonomous demands and Spanish centralism/unionism classic model, while gradually enhancing self-government in socio-political and economic/fiscal areas. In this sense, Catalan mainstream parties showed full support to European-led initiatives of the different Spanish governments in a varied number of policy areas and help to foster legal, economic and fiscal policies that stemmed from Brussels. Independence had no part of the political agenda, but reinforcing autonomy with more additional powers did. However, and this is a key point, many Catalans as democratic rule consolidated became embittered or even disaffected with the system, as they noticed that self-government was more noticeable on paper and on formalisms than in real or practical terms. Clearly a growing sense of frustration was looming among important parts of the Catalan society and that was irresponsibly neglected by Madrid politicians.
This convoluted ethos partially explains the great consensus attained in Catalonia for a new political statute, with an overwhelming support of 90% of the Catalan Parliament and 75% of the popular vote -2006-. Irrespective of this, the Constitutional Court at the insistence of the Popular Party and the indolence of the Spanish Socialists Party, following an astonishing four years period of deliberations, cut down significative parts of the bill. Such blow, it was perceived in Catalonia as a clear and malicious break of the Constitutional deal settled in the late 1970s that had eased the Catalan’s attitude towards the new legal framework, and therefore had avoided a move for independence by the Catalan parties. Needless to say, that did not please many in the country –Catalonia- and turned most federalists and autonomists into a brand-new independentists. The great discontent caused by the verdict on the “Estatut” by the Spain’s Constitutional Court, have shown not only an increase for the cause of independence, but also a majority of pro-independence seats in the chamber.
In this new scenario, the mainstream political parties have been clearly affected and also its view towards independence. Ideological differences today matter to a much lesser extent than in the past in Catalonia as the divide is clear between “independentists” and “unionists”. Besides, Unionism, understood as centralism, is today far more visible in the Catalan parliament. Thus, today Catalonia is a far more polarised country than it ever was since the return of self-government. Therefore, that situation does not seem very likely to change at least in the immediate coming times. Both sides seem pretty resilient in their supports, with an overall majority for the independentists, but obviously this may vary considering that some 10% of the Catalan electorate are voting for a third way option between full independence and remaining as we are now.
In both sides their electorate is not easy-going with the whole idea of playing down their core values. On the one hand, in the pro-independence block voters were promised the full restitution of the dismissed government, with Puigdemont at the forefront, and idea that may gain ground again and a new boost towards the accomplishment of independence. On the other hand, as for the unionists, they were clearly promised the total defeat of independentist. None of them so far, have been able to come to terms with their promises. In that way, independentists lack the courage to make Catalan statehood a reality, whereas unionists miss the intelligence to persuade a majority of voters. Given this context, new elections are likely and dangerously approaching and, along with this, autonomy continues being suspended under the auspices of article 155 of Spain Constitution, the judicial process against the independence leaders follow and societal tensions remain frozen, but nobody knows for how much longer.
Following the 1st October referendum, the arrest of eight regional ministers and several high ranked politicians and political activists accused of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds, fired over Catalonia’s declaration of independence and the issue of a European Arrest Warrant for the Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and four other ministers will not help to lower tensions. For some in the country, notably in Catalonia, Spain is following Turkey’s authoritarian path; for others, order and discipline is being restored; some pay tribute to Ireland or Scotland and also admired the Baltic States path towards independence, others longed for a Spain based upon the French jacobinist-style model. What it seems clear is that, communication channels between Spain and Catalonia are far from being optimal and the gap, like rich and poor regions in Europe, does not cease to grow. In addition, the use of force inflicted by Spanish Civil Guard and police against peaceful demonstrators and voters during October self-determination referendum shocked most people in Catalonia, even within the unionist side. It is, however, another clear example of distinctive perceptions of what is happening in the country. Thus, rather than good wines that improve with the age, there was little or no love in Catalonia and Spain marriage at present.
On the unionist side, the elections held in late December 2017 under the article 155 of the Spanish Consitution imposed by Madrid government had an open purpose: restoring and implementing institutional normality in Catalonia. Unionist political parties expected to win with a majority of the seats in the Catalan Parliament. In addition, some in the pro-Spain side may have the hidden intention to roll back devolution and make Spain a country based on the French centralist model. Nevertheless, the victory of pro independence political parties (Junts per Catalunya -JxCat-, Esquerra Republicana per Catalunya -ERC-, and Candidatura d’Unitat Popular -CUP-, has changed the scenario wrongly predicted by unionists and the Spanish government could not achieve its aim. Despite the impact of the article 155 in Catalonia, the independentist side has the majority of seats in the Parliament (70 over 135) and a part of them wants to implement the independence of Catalonia. Thus and at present, a reconciliation of these conflicting desires and the beginning of a process of negotiation between the supporters of Catalan independence and those who wants a strong and a united Spain do not seem very plausible. A famous Catalan politician Francesc Cambó spoke out in the 1920s “Regimes may vary in Spain, but the Catalan question remains”. Now, we just need to know whether it will be within or outside the borders of Spain.
Photo 1: Catalan independence supporters demonstrate in Barcelona to demand the release of Catalan political prisioners, 11/11/2017 (Source: Albert Gea / Reuters).
Photo 2: Catalan pro-indy protesters rally in Barcelona, 08/11/2017 (Source: REX/Shutterstock).
Photo 3: Pro-independence protesters block a motorway in a strike against Spanish government in Vilafant, AP7, 08/11/2017 (Source: Josep Maria Montaner / Nació Digital-NacióFotos.cat).