Spain’s government largely created the Catalan crisis and may not be able to end it

Spain’s government largely created the Catalan crisis and may not be able to end it

The Catalan crisis has been simmering for years. It is also a lot more complex than most reporting would suggest. As things reach boiling point, a resolution may only be possible once Spain’s ruling PP leave power, says Joff Wild

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the Partido Popular he leads have spent 10 years playing into the hands of Catalonia’s separatists. And it could just be that they have made their biggest mistake yet. In invoking Article 155 of the Spanish constitution – which provides for central control of any autonomous region whose government “doesn’t comply with the obligations of the Constitution or other laws it imposes, or acts in a way that seriously undermines the interests of Spain” – and calling elections for 21st December, Rajoy has upped the stakes even further in a dispute that has always had the potential to tear Spain apart.

That the triggering of Article 155 has been accompanied by the flight of Carles Puigdemont, the ex-Catalan president, to Belgium and a judge’s decision to place eight of his cabinet colleagues on remand in prison as possible cases of sedition, rebellion and the misappropriation of public funds are prepared against them has only amplified the bitter mood music. This is especially so following the Spanish police brutality beamed around the world on 1st October as Catalonia’s illegal referendum took place.

There can be no doubt that if separatist parties win over 50% of the vote on the Thursday before Christmas, Rajoy will face huge internal pressure to stand down, as well as massive international pressure to talk without precondition to individuals who are currently either sitting in hotel rooms in Brussels or jail cells in and around Madrid. Put simply, the taciturn, obstinate (some would say pig-headed) Galician has put his own future and, potentially, the territorial integrity of the Spanish state on the line. It really doesn’t get much bigger than that.

The world loves an underdog and the Catalan separatist movement has been given plenty of ammunition to portray itself in that way. From the PP’s derailment via the courts of an enhanced autonomy package the Catalan government agreed with the previous PSOE government in Madrid (and overwhelmingly backed by Catalans in a referendum), through serial PP corruption scandals across Spain, to complete PP inaction in the face of growing separatist sentiment in Catalonia expressed through the election of a regional government that proposed a referendum on secession, the separatists have built a narrative of an oppressed people denied basic rights by hostile central forces intent only on bleeding Catalonia dry.

The truth, of course, is somewhat different. There is no indication of any overwhelming desire for independence from Spain among Catalans. It is true that since PP took power in Madrid backing for separation has grown from under 20% to over 40%, with one recent poll suggesting it may just have crossed the 50% mark; but even now – after all that has happened – if the Catalans had the self-government that the Basques have most would be happy.

The Catalans are a smart bunch: they know that, despite being assured otherwise by their leaders, an independent Catalonia would not be an EU member state. They have also seen thousands of businesses relocate their HQs to other parts of Spain, noted the fall in the number of tourist bookings since the crisis really hit and the rise in unemployment.

What’s more, while everyone who reads a newspaper knows that Catalonia is the richest part of Spain, what is less well reported is that support for independence is strongest among the wealthiest and most privileged. Polling shows that those who most strongly back separation have the highest incomes and the strongest Catalan bloodlines. By contrast, opposition to independence is strongest among Catalonia’s poorest. One of my favourite statistics is that 30% of those who support the far-left independence-advocating CUP – who held the balance of power in the last Catalan Parliament – have private health insurance.

One of the most powerful forces driving the separatists is resentment that too much of Catalonia’s money gets spent in poorer regions like Andalusia, Aragon and Extremadura. What is less acknowledged, though, is that a great deal of Catalonia’s wealth actually derives from its being an integral part of Spain. Many of Catalonia’s long-established families – the ones most likely to back independence now – grew rich on the back of the Spanish colonies of Cuba and the Philippines, then again thanks to the inward investment that took place during the Franco dictatorship and, finally, as a result of Spain’s membership of the European Union. And much of the heavy lifting was done by poor immigrants from other parts of Spain.

The simple truth is that Catalonia is prosperous, the Catalan language and culture dominate there and, until Article 155 was invoked, the Catalan people had never enjoyed a greater degree of sustained self-government than the one that they had had since the beginning of the 1980s. Far from being a constantly repressed yearning, separation only became a serious issue five years ago. In fact, for much of the time since the restoration of Spanish democracy, Catalan politicians have been active in Madrid – either as key members of national governments or as power brokers supporting minority governments and extracting serial concessions. The Catalans are about as far from oppressed as is imaginable. It is little wonder that so many in Spain, not just the dwindling numbers who back PP, feel hugely misrepresented and not a little insulted by much of the international coverage of recent events.

But back to those elections on 21st December. Will Rajoy’s gamble work? Well, it is too close to call. There have been a number of opinion polls published over the last fortnight and all are showing something very similar: pretty much the status quo. Depending on which poll you read, secessionist parties will fall just under or just over the line. The most recent – published yesterday – is typical, indicating a seat range of 66-69 for the separatist bloc in a Parliament where 68 delivers a majority.

Complicating things further is that the secessionists can quite easily get a majority while not receiving more than 50% of the vote. That’s because their strongest areas of support are ones in which it requires fewer votes to return MPs. Indeed, yesterday’s poll showed a drop in the percentage of voters set to support the separatist bloc, on the back of a predicted turnout that could exceed 80%. My hunch is that this rise comes mainly from Spanish-speaking unionists who in the past have not participated in elections. However, they will tend to live in and around Barcelona, where unionist parties already win most of their seats, so making the extra votes they might receive inefficient.

Essentially, what Catalonia has is a population split down the middle. That is never going to be the basis for a successful independent country, but neither does it mean this crisis will go away on 22nd December. In fact, there is a very good chance that the separatist parties will win a majority of seats, but a minority of votes. That will not reduce the clamour for an independence referendum, but increase it.

How does Rajoy get out of the fix he has largely created? It’s hard to see. The solution to the Catalonia crisis lies in a Spain-wide process that leads to changes in the constitution which give Catalonia more power.These are changes that the Partido Popular has consistently rejected – though it has now agreed to discussions about reforms. What those who value Spanish unity need to do is to get to a point where the next referendum to be held in Catalonia is not one about independence, but about endorsing a greater degree of autonomy. It will be a case of going to back to the future and finalising what could have been settled a decade ago. The quickest way for it to happen would be for PP to get out of the way.

Joff Wild

Joff Wild posts on Political Betting as SouthamObserver. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpaJW

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