By Don Quijones, Spain & Mexico, editor at WOLF STREET.
When Catalonia’s pro-independence parties won a majority of seats in regional elections at the end of September, relations between Madrid and Barcelona reached their lowest point since the death of Spain’s dictator, Francisco Franco, in 1975. In the last few days they sank even lower.
On Thursday Catalonia’s elected premier, Artur Mas, was called to testify in Catalonia’s High Court (TSCJ) for his role in organizing a purely symbolic, non-binding referendum on national independence on Nov. 9, 2014. Mas has been charged with serious disobedience and other crimes for ignoring a court injunction against the unofficial vote, which the central government in Madrid considered illegal.
Mas was not alone as he strode to court along Passeig Lluis Companys, the Palm-lined boulevard named after the Catalan republican leader executed exactly 75 years ago to that very day (quelle coincidence!) by a Francoist firing squad. Mas was accompanied by a crowd of thousands of pro-independence supporters, including 400 town and city mayors and dozens of members of the regional executive.
For Catalonia’s blossoming separatist movement, it was the perfect PR coup. Once again, the world was briefly reminded about the region’s national aspirations and the central government’s increasingly desperate efforts to thwart them. For the ever-modest Mas it was a golden opportunity to cast himself as the personification of Catalonian statehood as well as restate his claim to remain as leader of the regional government, after last month’s parliamentary elections in Catalonia were won by his Junts pel Si coalition.
For a whole hour the nationalist leader refused to respond to the questions posed by prosecutors inside the Catalonia regional High Court (TSJC). “I don’t understand why I’m here providing explanations,” he told the judge “In any case I should give them in the [Catalan] parliament. The consultation was a political decision.”
If the court case is, as Mas and many other Catalans contend, a political show trial, then what it shows above all is the incredible obstinacy and ineptitude of the central government. Prime Minister Rajoy’s refusal to treat a political problem with political tools, such as, say, dialogue and negotiation, and instead use Spain’s already deeply compromised judicial system to repress and criminalize a purely peaceful pro-independence movement has done nothing but backfire.
Most importantly, it has shone a bright light on a region that until recently enjoyed scant international attention or recognition. Each day its struggle appears on the front pages of the New York Times, the Financial Times, Der Spiegel, and Le Monde, Catalonia inches a little closer to attaining nationhood, at least in the minds of global readers. That’s not to say it’s going to win the struggle — the odds still remain firmly stacked in Madrid’s favor — but rather that everything that Rajoy and his ministers have done so far to countenance Catalonia’s separatist ambitions has ended up doing the exact opposite.
As the former finance minister of Greece Yannis Varoufakis said in an interview on Thursday with Catalunya Radio, by banning a referendum on independence, it seems that Madrid actually seeks to strengthen Catalonia’s independence movement. Or as the people in Catalonia say: every time Rajoy or one of his ministers speaks, a thousand new separatists are born.
It makes perfect political sense. To stay in government, Rajoy’s People’s Party needs to convince enough of its traditional voters – by and large deeply conservative nationalists who bitterly oppose any form of compromise with Catalonia’s separatists – to vote for it in December’s general election, despite its dismal economic record and staggering corruption scandals.
Political considerations are all that matter. To keep its core voters happy Rajoy’s government will not give an inch in its battle against Catalonia. Neither, it seems, will Catalonia’s pro-independence movement. The increasingly influential anti-capitalist separatist party Popular Unity Candidacy has called for mass civil disobedience of the Madrid government. Even Artur Mas has suggested that if the High Court bars him from office, he may choose to disobey the ruling. “When dealing with Madrid one must either bow down or stand firm,” he said.
The Rajoy government has hit back with a warning that if Mas continues to refuse to recognize the authority of the High Court and obey the laws of Spain, it may have to suspend the powers of Catalonia’s regional government. At which point all bets are off. It would be the equivalent of Westminster neutering the Scottish parliament. “Surely they wouldn’t,” everybody says. Which is precisely what they said when Madrid first threatened to put Mas on trial.
The longer this conflict simmers, the more dangerous it becomes. The divisions are rising fast in a country still haunted by a deeply troubled past [read: Fear, Loathing and Collective Amnesia in Crisis-Ridden, Scandal-Hit Spain]. So long as the bitter cycle of action and reaction, poisoned rhetoric and recrimination, threat and counter-threat continues, the prospect of reconciliation between the two sides of this conflict recedes further and further into the distance.
The potential economic consequences could be grim. Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services cited rising political tensions between Madrid and Barcelona in its recent decision to cut its rating on Catalonia to double-B minus (so in “junk” territory), while not mentioning these political tensions at all in its decision to upgrade Madrid’s to BBB+). It also mentioned Catalonia’s weak budgetary performance and high debt load. Unfortunately, the region’s semi-non-existent government is too busy trying to build its own state from scratch to worry about such trifling matters. By Don Quijones, Raging Bull-Shit.
Spain’s economy is back on track – that’s the narrative peddled by the Rajoy government and those who need it to win December’s do-or-die elections, including big banks, corporate giants, and the Troika. They will do “whatever it takes” to keep the narrative intact. But not everybody’s buying it. Read… Six Nagging Facts about Spain’s “Recovery”