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The Challenge of the Catalan Independence Movement in Spain

An interview with Enric Juliana

In recent years, Catalan politics has experienced the rise of a pro-independence political alliance across the ideological spectrum. Several factors have contributed to this development: a general social discomfort with the economic crisis of 2008, numerous corruption cases of top governmental officials at both national and regional levels, the failure of a bipartisan agreement on the reform of the autonomy’s statue in 2006, and, finally, the unsatisfactory federalist design of the Spanish constitution of 1978. In the wake of the Catalan independence referendum that took place on October 1, 2017, which was declared illegal by the Constitutional Court, the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy applied Article 155, the constitution’s ‘nuclear option’, which allowed the Spanish government to take over all the functions of the regional government in Catalonia. If the 2011 protest cycle of 15-M indignados movement made the crisis of legitimacy of the Spanish democratic consensus visible, the Catalan independence movement places the Spanish state at a high point of existential threat. There is no doubt that in both the intermediate and long term, the ‘Catalan Question’ will fundamentally redefine the Spanish political landscape as well as the future of the European zone.

In the following interview, I discuss the challenge of the Catalan independence movement with Enric Juliana, adjunct director of the Spanish newspaper, La Vanguardia, and author of several books that explore the transformation of Spanish politics in the wake of the economic and territorial crisis of the last two decades.

1. Mr. Juliana, allow me to thank you for taking the time to speak with me about the political situation in Catalonia. For those that have been reading your columns in La Vanguardia after the unilateral referendum took effect onOctober 1st, 2017, it becomes evident that the former President of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont hesitated in declaring the “unilateral declaration of independence”. He then backtracked, pressing on the legitimacy of the electoral results, leading the Spanish PM Rajoy to proceed with the application of Article 155 of the Constitution, which effectively dissolved the administrative functions of the regional government. In your view, do you think that Puigdemont had an option to avoid the application of Article 155 in response to the unilateral declaration? Are there competing opinions in the Catalan political class when it comes to the decision-making process?

First, I would argue that the Catalan pro-independence political elite did not have real intentions to declare Catalan independence, which would have entailed the mobilization of the people to defend the new state in the streets. They were aware of the risks this carried, and I do not doubt that they assessed the felonious costs of such decision. The Catalan political elite hoped to enter into conversation with the Spanish government after October 1st, perhaps with institutional support of the European zone, as well as the Vatican. But this institutional mediation was never achieved, and the Spanish government rejected any possible dialogue between the two parts. This situation only allowed two possibilities: on the one hand, to call for new elections in order to avoid State intervention and to electorally reaffirm the legitimacy of the independentist agenda; on the other, to proceed with a “light” declaration of independence that would appeal to the independentist base while avoiding public unrest. They opted for the second option due to a lack of political courage.

2. The current Catalan political independence movement had its peak moment during the cycle of mass mobilization following the economic crisis of 2008, and at times it has been understood as an expression of the decay of the democratic regime established in 1978, which consolidated the Spanish constitutional framework after the death of dictator Francisco Franco. However, the constitutional framework lacked basic tenants of federalism (equal distribution among regional autonomies, state-local relations, fiscal readjustments, commerce limitations, etc.). Do you agree that the only possible path to solve the tension between Madrid and Catalonia is through a reform of the limits of the constitution of 1978? In your view, to what extent is federalism still a viable option to advance a new social contract in Spain?

The Catalan crisis is generating animosity in Spanish public opinion to the regional autonomies. I do not see the possibility of either a constituent process, or federal reform of the constitution on the horizon. Presently, the most probable scenario, according to the most recent polls, is the formation of a new parliamentary majority combining the center-right Popular Party (PP) and the anti-independence right-wing party Ciudadanos that, through a new centralizing political agenda, could keep the current push of the territorial autonomies at bay. What emerges from the Catalan crisis is a slight turn to the right in Spanish politics. The Catalan pro-independence forces made a significant mistake: they have intervened in the national Spanish political scene with the pretension of being outside of it. The Catalan elite have awakened the defensive instincts of the Spanish majority by effectively affirming that ‘we no longer care what happens to Spain, since none of it will contribute to our independence’. This is tremendously irresponsible.

3. For those looking at the political situation in Spain from afar, the central image associated with the independence process is mass street protest. In fact, mobilizations have continuously occurred for years with enormous success and impressive galvanic capacity, bringing all kinds of people together against the Spanish state. This drive towards ‘total mobilization’, to recall Ernst Jünger’s formulation, has become a social habit of many in Catalonia. But has it been co-opted by Catalan elites? To what extent do these mobilizations coincide with the cycle of protests that took place across the Spanish territories voicing popular demands and dissent against the political status quo?

The pro-independence mobilizations express diverse goals. In the first place, this is a movement of two directions: from top to bottom and from bottom to top. The Catalan protests have been led by a highly disciplined and organized middle class that is completely self-conscious about its political role (let us recall that there has not been a single broken window in the course of the protests over the last five years). They are also a response to the social action of the 15-M indignados movement, which had a large presence in Barcelona. The pro-independence movement camouflages the 15-M movement, but also offers an alternative discourse: you no longer need to attack the Generalitat (the Catalan government), since the real struggle is against the Spanish state.

4. Let me turn now to progressive forces in Spain. In the last while, we have seen a relative descent of the progressive party Podemos; it had the lowest voting outcome in the Catalan regional election in December 2017. In your view, how should we interpret the decline of Podemos after the Catalan elections? Is their retreat in the polls an effect of their defective political position or style of leadership (populist charismatic leadership combined with an ‘all or nothing’ political strategy based on the theory of hegemony)?

I do not believe that Podemos is in crisis. It is true that the party has lost four points after reaching their ceiling during the December 21, 2015 elections. I think it could regain those votes, displacing the leading role of the social democratic party (PSOE) on the national scene. In the best of cases, it would be difficult for Podemos to overcome the 20% deficit during the next electoral cycle. Podemos has provided Spanish society with a new political grammar but it seems that Spanish society does not want to give it full political power – at least not for now. Podemos could have become the Spanish Five Star Movement (in line with Íñigo Errejón’s theory of transversality), but what prevails is the Marxist line that favors an idea of Podemos as the party of the Spanish New Left. Recall that the social democratic leader Pedro Sánchez drew on Podemos’ rhetoric in order to win the party leadership. Now, however, the party is hesitating between moving to the center of the political spectrum or following the path of Podemos. If social inequalities keep rising, and Spain demonstrates that it cannot consolidate new equilibriums between the center and the margins, we could well see a new phase of Podemos striving for first place in the country. This will most likely require a new leader, either Irene Montero or Íñigo Errejón.

5. In your most recent book Waiting for the Robots (Esperando a los robots, 2017), you remind us that Spain was one of the few countries in Europe that did not have a single politician on the national political scene that openly supported the candidacy of Donald J. Trump during the 2016 election. In fact, I think it is fair to say that Spain lacks far-right political parties, such as the ones that have emerged with force in France, Italy, or Eastern Europe. However, it is also true that in the most recent regional elections in Catalonia, the major winner was the right-wing party Ciudadanos, an organization that has its origins in Catalonia and that is feverishly anti-independentist. Do you think that it here we can pinpoint a metamorphosis of the right in Spain? Is the future of Catalan politics a slow drift to the right of the political spectrum?

Indeed, there were two countries immune to the morbid attraction that Donald J. Trump exerted on the European right: Spain and Portugal. We must remember that these are two countries that had the longest dictatorships in Europe. I think that far-right movements generate a fervent rejection in Spain, at least for now. In this sense, Ciudadanos is an effort to modernize the Spanish right, combining elements of liberalism, centralization, and limits to the Catholic tradition. But Catalonia is not as leftist as it appears. There is a clear rise in nationalism with leftist offshoots. Within this force there are multiple conservative drives. The Catalan democratic political tradition has, until now, suppressed all strands of nationalist, reactionary, and xenophobic rhetoric, which are at the core of Italy’s Lega Nord. But we shouldn’t think that this would not occur in the future.

Gerardo Muñoz is a doctoral candidate in Hispanic Studies at Princeton University, working on political theory, crisis of sovereignty in Latin America, and populism. He is also a member of the academic collective Infrapolitical Deconstruction . He tweets at @gerardomunoz87.

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