The policy of the Spanish government has been to threaten Catalonia and sow seeds of discord in its fragile coalition government. Now it’s reaping the spoils.
There increasingly appears to be no way forward and no way out of the constitutional spat between Madrid and Catalonia. Rather then addressing the crisis in a proactive manner (i.e. by negotiating with the Catalan government on equal terms), all Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his coterie of ministers and advisors have done is to shoot off one threat after another about the dire consequences Catalonia would face if it were to call a referendum.
For the last two years, Madrid’s only proactive policy has been to sow seeds of discord in Catalonia’s fragile coalition government. In the last week it finally reaped the spoils of its campaign. Without consulting any of his coalition partners, the leader of Catalonia’s regional government, Artur Mas, announced the cancellation of Catalonia’s non-binding referendum on national independence, which had been scheduled for November 9th.
Instead, he said, the government would hold a “symbolic” consultation – one which will basically involve thousands of wholly impartial pro-independence supporters collecting votes on the streets of Catalonia. There will be no voting register, no legal supervision and no control as to who votes and how many times. With no means to prevent ballot-box stuffing, deceased voting or voting with somebody else’s ID, the proposed pseudo-poll can be assigned virtually no legitimacy whatsoever. It is a farce that would risk doing more harm than good to the aspiring nation’s international reputation.
Naturally, Mas’s unilateral declaration has not been well received by his partners in government. At least two members of the four-party coalition, the Catalan Republican Left (now the strongest party in the polls) and Iniciativa, have called for Mas to cancel the mock referendum. They have also demanded that he call an immediate election – and not just any election, but a plebiscite-style one in which voters will be asked to vote for a party based purely on its stance on the independence issue. Once returned to parliament, the new government will call a vote on the issue. If the secessionists win an absolute majority, the parliament will unilaterally declare independence.
A Bottom Up Movement
Following the rejection of a genuine referendum on the question of national independence, Catalonia’s separatist forces are left with only one possible course of action: a unilateral declaration of independence. Most importantly, this new plan is fully endorsed by the driving force behind Catalonia’s independence movement, the two grassroots organizations Ómnium Cultural and the Catalan National Assembly.
It is these two civil movements that organised the million-man demonstrations on Catalonia’s national day, the Diada, on September 11, 2012, 2013 and 2014. And it is they – and they alone – that command the unwavering support and respect of pro-independence forces in Catalonia.
Without the explicit backing of these two movements, Artur Mas knows that his political career is dead in the water. The liberal party he leads, CDC, is already in its final death throes following recent revelations from Madrid that the party’s founder and Mas’s mentor, Jordi Pujol, had exploited his political position to enrich both himself and his family.
Back in 2012 The Economist’s Giles Tremmet presciently warned that by nailing his colors to Catalonia’s independence movement, Mas risked jumping on a tiger he could not fully control. Now the tiger, it seems, is in the process of unseating its rider.
As The Economist recently noted:
Mr Mas wants ERC to join him in a single list, in effect forming another coalition. If ERC instead insists on standing separately, an election might be a long time coming, because Mr Mas’s CDC would be hammered. It will lose the votes of moderates, who fear a damaging stand-off with Madrid, and of convinced separatists, who are shifting to ERC (DQ: ERC is by far the most radical of Catalonia’s pro-separatist parties; its leader Oriol Junqueras recently called the Madrid government an “unbearable mother-in-law”). But without holding an election, Mr Mas will be left leading a lame-duck government.
All of which is music to the ears of Rajoy’s government. As long as confusion, division and uncertainty reign in Catalonia, the problem of Catalan independence can be left to simmer in the background. While it does, Rajoy’s deeply unpopular, scandal-tainted government has a convenient internal enemy with which to distract the masses.
A Social Rupture
The problem with this approach is that it ignores one basic fact – namely that as the political divisions between Spain and Catalonia, and within Catalonia itself, continue to deepen, so too do the social and psychological divisions. Many friends and acquaintances of mine from Catalonia recently reported being on the receiving end of derision or insults during visits to other parts of Spain.
Likewise, many Spaniards are growing increasingly distrustful of Spain’s North Eastern province. A case in point:
A Spanish head hunter agency with which I have close contacts recently tried to attract a Madrid-based executive to work for a Barcelona-based company. After a period of just over a month, they had not received a single application, so they decided to conduct a survey of a fairly large sample of their Madrid-based clients. They asked them if they would be prepared to work in Barcelona, and if not, why not? Just under ninety percent of respondents said they would not move to Barcelona for work, regardless of the salary there were offered.
The two reasons most frequently cited were: a) they and their families would have to learn Catalan in order to survive in the city (a claim that has absolute no basis in reality – hundreds of thousands of Barcelona residents [myself included] do not speak Catalan but live perfectly happily here); and b) their children would have to speak Catalan at school (again, a claim that holds little weight given that Barcelona’s well-to-do tend to send their children to private, international schools where Spanish and other international languages such as English, French and German are given precedence).
Such wild misconceptions about the reality of life in Catalonia are increasingly common among Spaniards, and are testament to a growing psychological barrier between Spain and its North Eastern province. Boycotts abound of Catalan products (in particular its sparkling wine, Cava). Meanwhile, a bunker mentality is setting in among many Catalan communities, primarily as a result of the increasing hostility they (quite rightly) feel emanating from Madrid and Spain’s other provinces.
Opening Up Festering Wounds
Just last week Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, a former government spokesman for the governing Popular Party, shocked many Spaniards when he said that Artur Mas should be put up against a wall and shot. Given the historical context – Lluis Companys, the last Catalan leader to declare national independence (in 1934), had his life snuffed out by one of Franco’s firing squads – such threats merely strengthen Catalonia’s resolve to sever its ties with Madrid.
As I wrote a year ago in “Fear, Loathing and Collective Amnesia in Crisis-Ridden Spain,” ever since (and some would argue long before) its mid-20th Civil War, Spain has been a country deeply divided along geographic, political, social and cultural lines. The recent and ongoing financial crisis and the deeply divisive leadership (if you can call it that) of Rajoy’s administration have merely served to open up long-festering wounds.
As such, the only thing of which one can be certain in the coming months is uncertainty will continue to reign in Spain and Catalonia. And it there’s one thing the financial markets hate, it is uncertainty. By Don Quijones. An exclusive for Wolf Street.
And if independence came about? In the worst case scenario, financial chaos would ensue, in Madrid and in Catalonia. Read… Catalonia’s Choice: Chaotic Divorce or Loveless Marriage