FeatureO.O.P.S.Power and Crisis

Contextualizing Catalonia

Part One on Catalonia’s constitutional crisis

This piece is part of a two-part series. Part One is meant to contextualize Lucia Pradel’s essay on recent events in Catalonia.

1. The History of Catalonia

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a sense of national identity driven by the use of state power emerged throughout Spain. The process did not happen without a great deal of contention, however, due to the competitive presences of the Catalonia and Basque Country regions. Although having historically distinctive traits and cultures that distinguished the regions from one another, each territory was unified under the leadership of a solitary monarch and legal structure. Unconventionally, Spain’s institutionalization of nationalism became partially the basis for the spread of what one can call an ideological revolution. The central authoritarian leadership, which maintained supervision over the country as a whole, was subsequently challenged by the peripheral pursuits of freedom in each region. A sense of regional identity thrived in Catalonia and Basque Country, where movements for regional self-government were linked to democracy.

In the early- to mid-twentieth century, repeated regime changes instigated the devolution of power from a centralized government to localized authorities. The desire for a stabilized, democratic form of government prevailed in the late 1970s with the fall of General Franco. Spain is comprised of seventeen autonomous regions. The Spanish Constitution of 1978, states that the nation’s sovereignty inherently lies within the populace. Additionally, the document provides claims for supporting the individual development and political autonomy of the country’s different regions. During the early 1970s, the central government of Spain denied the representation of the Catalan language as an official language. After Franco’s death in 1975, the 1978 constitution officially recognized linguistic plurality, including Catalan as an official language of the state. The Catalan government enacted various nation-building policies throughout the 1980s, using state-owned television and education reform to establish a national identity distinct from the Spanish and exacerbate the Catalonian populace’s desires to secede.

2. The Current Economy of Catalonia

During the twentieth century, immigrants from all over Spain moved to the area to take advantage of its teeming economic opportunities, namely in the automotive engineering, tourism, and agricultural sectors. Because of this, the small area possesses a disproportionate amount of economic power in comparison to that of any other region in the European Union. Moreover, the region’s wealth has turned it into a driving force of the Spanish economy. Catalonians account for only 16 percent of Spain’s population, but they are responsible for 19 percent of the GDP. Divided opinions regarding Spain’s economic dependence upon the region and its political significance have intensified disputes between the Spanish and Catalan people.

Being the wealthiest region in all of Spain, Catalonia was pushed into murky waters as the result of the economic and political crises of the nation in 2008. The event led to abnormally high unemployment levels within the region and chipped away at any sense of trust that existed between Catalonia and the Spanish federal government. In addition to (and perhaps because of) Catalonia’s advanced economy, the region enjoys a strong self-regulated government, which was established in 2006 by the Catalan Statute, though not without contention. In 2010, a Constitutional Court ruling determined that certain articles of their leading governmental documents were unconstitutional. Specifically, the Catalan text sought to establish an autonomous judicial branch, amongst various other institutions of self-recognition as a separate nation from Spain. The region, as a result of its successful economic programs, desires to separate its wealth from that of the rest of the country. This is, in part, shown by the development of their tax collection system and the installation of a network abroad that engages in business transactions independent those of the centralized Spanish government.

Much of Catalonians’ desire to break away from Spain derives from the belief that their economic strength is being unfairly utilized and mismanaged for the rest of the country’s needs. Interestingly enough, the wishes of the wealthy are not so much at the forefront of the movement for secession, but rather it is the region’s middle-class that is advocating so forcefully for the cause; it should be noted, however, that the affluent do tend to fall on the anti-federation side of the debate. Some Catalan citizens are willing to accept that Spain’s wealthiest region is to be expected to carry more financial “weight” than that of poorer areas. On the other hand, however, many refuse to admit such responsibility and would rather disband from their affiliated states, which they consider “weaker.” Another common argument in favor of secession is that many Catalans would like to see the expansion of their region’s infrastructure and local endeavors, and being a part of the federation keeps them from spending money on such initiatives.

3. The Social Divide of the Secessionist Movement

In addition to the economic factors that sparked the debate between the Spanish government and Catalonia’s regional leaders, various internal and external issues for the area are relevant to the conversation about regional autonomy. Before the twenty-first century, there was no broad-based agreement, only conflicting opinions as to why Catalonia was dissatisfied with the central government. Catalan society was split into two distinct groups: the working class, who saw the region’s culture as prosperous and unnecessarily bounded to Spain, and the middle- and upper-classes, who acknowledged Catalonia’s economic success but nonetheless identified as Spanish.

In 2010, the Spanish Constitutional Court approved a ban of the Catalan Statute after the results of a referendum that sought the finalization of the separation of the region as an autonomous territory. At the time of the inhibition, El Partido Popular (PP, translated as The Popular Party), the center-right party, opposed the independence of Catalonia. Similarly, the leading center-left Spanish Socialist party (PSOE), although serving as political opposites to the PP, also disagreed with the region’s attempt at independence. A year later, the PP was victorious in the elections of 2011 indicating no change to the political predispositions of the Spanish population.

4. Referendum of October 1, 2017

As of late, several events have generated much debate and elevated tensions between those in favor of and those against independence. During June 2017, President of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont called for an independence referendum to be set up for October. This referendum was declared illegal on September 7, 2017 by the Constitutional Court because, based on the Spanish Constitution of 1978, it was deemed as threatening to the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation.” However, on October 1 the unofficial referendum did take place in the Catalan region. Immediately before the voting day, national police invaded the streets to prevent the referendum from happening. Independentists blame the presence of the police as the cause for the low 42 percent voter turnout. It was reported by Catalan officials that there were around 844 injured. The use of police force during this intervention was stated by many to be excessively violent, further fueling the tensions between Madrid and Catalonia.

The most frustrating part about this referendum is that there were no conclusive findings about the issue. It was reported that the vote favoring independence was of about 90 percent. However, because the turnout in itself was low, the results still did not show a fair perspective of the issue. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy quickly commented on the referendum, stating that “it has only served to cause serious harm to coexistence.” He continued by stating that he would not “close any door” to dialogue, but only that which is “always within the law and always within the frame of democracy.” After the referendum a long waiting period began, and on October 10 Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan leader gave a speech that left the people even more puzzled. He once again stated that Catalonia should be an “independent state in the shape of a republic,” which appeared to be a partial declaration of independence. Puigdemont did not abandon the secessionist goal, but he did partially retract his comments and instead proposed to “undertake a dialogue.” As a result, the issue was further prolonged, leaving many feeling disheartened.

5. Secret Vote October 27 and enactment of Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution:

The situation escalated on October 27 when a secret ballot took place in the Catalan parliament. The parliament approved the proposal of independence by the parties Junts pel Si (Together for Yes) and the CUP (Popular Unity Candidacy). There were 70 votes in favor. However, due to the lack of legal basis for this ballot, the opposition did not show up. The declaration was clearer than what had been discussed previously on October 10; parliament approved “a Catalan republic as an independent, sovereign, democratic and social state.” This was problematic because instead of proposing an election approved by Madrid, which would have been the legal step, direct independence was declared, which threatened the unity of Spain, completely going against the constitution. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy responded to this action by enacting Article 155, which states:

  1. If a Self-governing Community does not fulfill the obligations imposed upon it by the Constitution or other laws, or acts in a way that is seriously prejudicial to the general interest of Spain, the Government, after having lodged a complaint with the President of the Self-governing Community and failed to receive satisfaction therefore, may, following approval granted by the overall majority of the Senate, take all measures necessary to compel the Community to meet said obligations, or to protect the above mentioned general interest.
  2. With a view to implementing the measures provided for in the foregoing paragraph, the Government may issue instructions to all the authorities of the Self-governing Communities.

In the aftermath of the ensuing constitutional crisis, Catalonia’s parliament was dissolved and its president and vice president, Carles Puigdemont and Oriol Junqueras, stepped down. Prime Minister Rajoy quickly called for new elections to take place on December 21 and these actions pushed the country’s political controversy to a place never seen before. After the Catalan parliament voted for independence Rajoy made the following comments about the enactment of Article 155: “We never, ever wanted to get to this solution. Nor do we think that it would be good to prolong this exceptional [state of affairs]. But as we have always said, this is not about suspending autonomy but about restoring it.” Informal embassies set up by Catalonia in places like Denmark and Morocco were dismantled. Furthermore, Madrid received international support from the EU, UK, Germany and the US saying they would not recognize Catalonia as an independent state. Later, the EU would declare that this issue is an “internal issue,” one that they hope will be resolved through dialogue. A powerful consequence of this situation was a pro-unity march that occurred in Barcelona only two days after the illegal declaration of independence. The slogan of the march read “We are all Catalonia,” which for once shed light on unity rather than separatism.

6. Carles Puigdemont

After being officially removed from his post, the President of the Generalitat of Catalonia Puigdemont made various declarations saying that Catalans must continue to resist “repression and threats, without ever abandoning, at any time, civic and peaceful conduct.” Spanish state prosecutors declared that the Catalan leader and other Catalan members of parliament would receive “charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds” that “carry maximum jail terms of 30, 15 and six years respectively.” Carles Puigdemont left Spain October 30 and is currently residing in Brussels. As he put it, the purpose of his exile to Brussels is to make the Catalan conflict an issue that is taken up by the European Union. The attempt to internationalize the conflict subsided when the Spanish court dropped the international arrest warrant for Puigdemont. Brussels has clearly displayed reluctance to deal with the conflict. The judge that dropped the charges insisted this was only to ensure that Puigdemont does not get charged with lesser crimes than those who had stayed behind in Spain. The situation has continued to develop and the recent elections of December 21 have shown how ingrained the separatist sentiment is within Catalan society.

Skyler Maassen is a B.A. student in Environmental and Urban Studies at Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson.

Lucia Pradel is a B.A. student in Humanities, the Arts, and Social Thought, concentrating in Ethics and Politics, at Bard College Berlin.

Leng Wah Sing is a B.A. student in Economics, Politics, and Social Thought at Bard College Berlin.

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