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Spain needs to listen to Catalonia if it is to avoid political crisis

Por: | 29 de septiembre de 2015

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Together for Yes leaders celebrate winning a majority of seats in September regional elections billed as a de-facto referendum on independence / DAVID RAMOS (GETTY)

Only 48 hours before Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum, and facing the strong possibility of a victory for separatists that would have ended more than 300 years of political union, the leaders of the United Kingdom’s three main political parties pledged to devolve extensive powers to Scotland if it stayed. On Sept. 18, the Scottish people narrowly voted against independence, and the United Kingdom remained intact.

In Spain, Catalonia’s growing push for greater autonomy has often resembled a person shouting into a void. Through a combination of ingrained unionist political thinking, cynical calculation ahead of general elections in December and political pigheadedness, the Spanish government has doggedly refused to offer any real alternative, instead trusting that a barrage of threats would help swing the vote their way. They were wrong.

Catalans turned out in record numbers in Sunday elections that will usher an openly secessionist government into power in the region with 16 percent of the population and the highest gross domestic product in Spain — accounting for almost a fifth of national GDP.

As a result of their miscalculation and failure to engage the problem over five years, Spain now faces a serious political crisis that could threaten its tentative economic recovery.

On Sunday evening, pro-independence parties heralded their absolute majority in seats — but not votes — as a mandate for proceeding with their 18-month roadmap toward a break with Spain.

“We have done this in the context of a hostile, negative campaign racked with lies. But despite all of this people have voted without fear because this was a historic opportunity,” said Raül Romeva, leader of the Together for Yes pro-independence bloc, in front of a euphoric crowd as the results trickled in on Sunday night. “No we will all build this country together. The dam has broken and there is no alternative.”

There are important differences between the UK and Spain: Catalonia’s vote is a regional election that became a quasi-referendum after pro-independence parties put aside differences to focus on the question of secession. Any break up of Spain is also considered illegal under the country’s 1978 constitution. But there is little getting away from the fact that Spain has not only sat back and watched as more than half of the Catalan electorate turned against it, it has, from the outset, actively exacerbated tensions.

Perhaps the best example of the Spanish government’s remorselessly negative, bullish stance was the final few days of the campaign leading up to this historic vote. With polls almost unanimous in predicting a victory for separatists, unionists forwent any last minute olive branch as in the U.K., preferring instead to unleash a volley of warnings for the Catalan people.

Spain’s central bank governor and ECB board member Luis Linde suggested that an independent Catalonia would be left outside of the eurozone and that it might even suffer a Greece-style run on banks as a result — only to clarify that a banking crisis was “highly improbable” two days later.

Primer Minister Mariano Rajoy, speaking in a radio interview on Onda Cero, warned Catalans that they would lose their Spanish and European citizenship if the region were to become independent — he was promptly corrected by the presenter citing an article of the Spanish constitution ensuring no Spaniard could be deprived of their citizenship should they wish to maintain it. Earlier in the campaign, he referred indirectly to the independence movement as a “virus.”

There are reasons for the national parties’ intransigence. Catalan independence is unpopular in Spain — 73 percent said it would be bad for the country in a July poll — and general elections are due by the end of the year. National unity has long obsessed Spain’s political elite, and any capitulation to the Catalan cause risks opening the door to other independence movements.

On the day of the Catalan elections, president of the Basque regional parliament Iñigo Urkullu said Spain should follow the United Kingdom’s example of allowing an mutually agreed and legal consultation on sovereignty. “Spain has a problem in Catalonia,” he told supporters in Vitoria. “And it has a problem in the Basque Country.”

Despite the resounding separatist parliamentary victory, the new Catalan government has many hurdles to jump before it’s aspirations for secession cease to be a mere hypothetical. Its efforts to establish state apparatus and hold an official referendum will certainly be deemed illegal by Spain’s constitutional court, and unionists will continue to challenge the legitimacy of the separatists’ mandate.

Madrid must act prudently if it is to avoid escalating tensions with Catalonia. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s right-wing government is currently rushing through legislation that will give the constitutional court the power to sanction elected officials with fines of up to 33,000 US dollars and suspension. For the time being, the government has ruled out an option floated over the summer of using the constitution to wrest control from the Catalan parliament.

But the government’s unwillingness to talk will only send the message that any change to the status quo is impossible while Catalonia remains within Spain and further polarize the debate.

The Together for Yes pro-independence bloc won 62 seats, six short of an absolute majority in parliament. This means the leftist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) party will be able to play kingmaker. The first casualty of which may be acting president of the Catalan regional parliament and international face of the Catalan movement, Artur Mas. The CUP have suggested they will oppose Mas’ investiture as premier on the grounds of their opposition to his center-right party’s pro-austerity politics.

According to Nick Greenwood, political analyst at Madrid-based Financial consultancy AFI, even if Mas is able to remain president he would likely be a “prisoner to the hard left” and be restricted in his ability to negotiate a compromise with the government. A hypothetical forced exit is a huge risk for all involved — indeed, Mas went so far as to say it would amount to a “joint suicide” in the runup to elections. If, in this scenario, a hostile Spanish government made good on its threats, Catalonia would be left isolated internationally and stymied economically, while an acrimonious breakup could see the region forego its share of the national debt — estimated at one third of the total — and leave Spain struggling to pay its creditors.

There is next to no chance of meaningful dialogue before the elections. Despite what Rajoy seems to believe, reconciliation will not and never can begin with bringing charges against those responsible for holding last year’s ultimately symbolic referendum.

As the dust settles on these historic elections, unionist parties have been unanimous in calling the pro-independence faction’s attempt at an unofficial referendum on independence a failure for falling just shy of 50 percent of the vote. But this is selective reading of results and follows in the footsteps of years of ignoring the problem in Catalonia and hoping it will go away, when the opposite is happening.

The most revealing statistic of these watershed elections is not that the “Yes” vote failed to win 50 percent, it’s that 60 percent of the electorate wants a referendum, at the very least — and it’s time for the Spanish government to pay attention.

As the Together for Yes candidates left the stage on Sunday, euphoric independence supporters waved flags, danced, sang and celebrated what they considered a historic step towards leaving Spain. There is still a long way to go, but separatists have the initiative for the moment and, if the campaign’s choice of walk-off music is anything to go by — Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” — Madrid will be forced to listen soon.

Hay 1 Comentarios

Spain might have a problem in Catalonia, but Catalonia has a bigger problem within itself. Any person attempting to paint Catalonia or Spain as unanimously compressed entities can't see very well outside their own heads as it was demonstrated by more than 50% of Catalans voting last Sunday.

Catalonia's push for greater autonomy sacrifices in the privileged altar the solidarity and equality of all citizens, to put it in layperson's terms; nationalists want a national football team but Barca playing in the Spanish League. Please excuse the silly example but it can be extrapolated to other areas including the lucrative Spanish market or trying to keep multinational companies that are based in Barcelona Spain, not Catalonia per se.

The following is an extract of a comment in the FT by someone called Romulo "President Artur Mas and a sizeable part of the population of the Spanish provinces of Catalonia have had their wish; a full-blown, official, legal and scrutinised plebiscite on whether to push ahead for independence.
As the last votes trickled in last night it was clear that the pro-independence camp had lost, with just 47.8% of the vote. This, despite the very careful timing, starting with a pro-independence festival and ending on a weekend guaranteed to find many anti-secessionists away from home; despite 5 years of intensive separatist propaganda in all publicly-owned or subsidised TVs, Radios, e-zines and Press; despite some of the most blatant lies ever offered to a gullible public.
Last night in Barcelona you couldn’t hear even a dog bark; streets that should have been full of madly-cheering flag-waving, horn-tooting, firecracking, champagne-swigging, sardana-dancing independentists were eerily silent, similar to when Barcelona Football Club went down to a crushing 5-0 defeat in the European finals some years back. You could have heard a pin drop.
Artur Mas and some of his list put on a brave face and screamed that they had achieved victory, but all over Catalonia secessionists switched off their televisions and went to bed, the Cava untouched in the wine cooler."

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Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of Andalucia.com and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at korenhelbig.com.

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area perelloplus.com. @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Spain-Holiday.com. Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check: www.lookingfordrama.com.

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