The crisis in Catalonia is being fed by pernicious myths on both sides

Victor Lapuente Giné*  - The Guardian

How is it that a country whose economic performance, human development and democratic integrity have improved so vastly over the past four decades is now dealing with one of Europe’s worst territorial and constitutional crises?

The answer isn’t the economy. Spain, and particularly Catalonia, is growing faster than most European countries. It isn’t a deep ethnolinguistic conflict either. The relationship between Catalan and Spanish speakers is exemplary.

Ideas are the problem. Two pernicious myths are at the root of the current stalemate. The first, shared by Catalan separatists and the global leftwing intelligentsia alike, is that Spain’s government has historically been highly authoritarian and centralist. The second, a commonplace among Spanish unionists and right-leaning thinkers worldwide, is that hawks handle such crises better than doves do.

The view of Spanish central government as an oppressor fuelled the Catalan separatist movement from the start. And this perspective has also permeated much of the international coverage of any conflict in Catalonia. But Spain was never the centralised and absolutist kingdom portrayed in, for instance, comparisons between the British and Spanish empires. Quite the contrary; as economic historians such as Regina Grafe have convincingly shown, Spain was a highly decentralised state where policies emerged as a result of bargaining between different factions.

From its inception Spain was a pluralist political endeavour. Rulers from tiny Christian states, although in constant competition with each other, granted large freedoms to the settlers of the territories reconquered from the Arabs. It is no coincidence that the first example of modern parliamentarism in the history of western Europe was the Cortes of León in 1188. Spanish cities and regions enjoyed self-governing capacities unknown in other countries. They exerted a veto over central government’s policies.

Both the successes and failures of modern Spain owe much to this pervasive legacy. On the one hand, the coexistence of different regional regulations and taxes made the creation of a unified economic market very difficult. On the other, territorial diversity encouraged the push and pull of the competition and cooperation that have driven the extraordinary progress of Spain ever since the restoration of democracy with the 1978 constitution.

The positive spillovers of these historic freedoms go beyond the economic sphere. Spaniards have a healthily sceptical view of power. This anti-elitism can be seen in the daily (and nightly) life of any town, where people from different social classes share conversations in bars and restaurants. It can also be seen in Spain’s political life. In the past, economic hardship promoted bottom-up libertarian movements, from the anarchists to the indignados, rather than far-right authoritarian ones. Likewise, Spain is an open country that has successfully integrated millions of immigrants without giving rise to a xenophobic party; it is one of the world’s most tolerant societies towards sexual minorities.

Spanish cities and regions have enjoyed self-governing capacities unknown in other countries

Yet instead of selling this triumph of diversity, the Spanish government has reacted to Catalan separatism with clumsily implemented aggression. As a result, Madrid has managed to appear both repressive and ineffective. Prime minister Mariano Rajoy could have allowed the Catalans to vote in a referendum that lacked basic democratic credentials and would have never been recognised by the international community. Indeed, this is what he did in 2014, when the separatists organised an illegal referendum. This time Rajoy chose not to turn a blind eye.

The decision looked sound from a cold, rational perspective. If a central government hesitates before a separatist threat, let alone offers concessions, that sends a signal of weakness. But we have now reached a heated, emotional moment. Sending thousands of police officers to close polling stations created opportunities for violence. The images of elderly women bleeding after trying to cast their votes on Sunday have naturally infuriated separatists and many other Spaniards besides. And they have prompted many Catalans who were initially opposed to the referendum to change sides.

Rajoy’s move could not have been more counterproductive. The political-bureaucratic elite that controls the ruling conservative Partido Popular (People’s party) has failed to understand that a modern state depends not on the monopoly of violence, but on the monopoly of legitimacy.

Two characteristics make the Catalan problem particularly difficult. First, Catalan society is so evenly divided that an independent Catalonia is as improbable as the disappearance of separatism from the political agenda. Second, secessionism has stronger support among the politically influential Catalan upper-middle classes than among disadvantaged socioeconomic groups.

Events in Catalonia have implications for Europe. It’s unlikely that Catalan separatism will propel similar secessionist challenges. No other separatist movement, apart from that of Scotland, has the popular and organisational support. Yet it’s likely that Spain’s internal turmoil will escalate, triggering an international crisis by forcing major diplomatic players to take sides. We are far from the incendiary secessionist tensions of former communist countries, from the Balkans to Ukraine. But we are moving in that direction.

All of this feels unnecessary. But it is what happens when false narratives poison a relatively good democracy.

 

* Victor Lapuente Giné is an associate professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and a columnist for El País

 

 

Annex:

 

Puigdemont’s strategy proves fruitful in wake of chaotic Catalan independence vote

By GWYNNE DYER,  | The Hill Times

Catalan nationalist leader Carles Puigdemont got most of what he wanted out of the chaotic pseudo-referendum on Sunday: 761 people injured by the Spanish police trying to block it.

One or two martyrs dead for the cause of Catalan independence would have been even better, and no doubt the 761 injured include a fair number of sprained ankles and broken nails, but the pictures will do the job. Even the foreign media coverage bought the story that the brutal Spanish police were suppressing the popular will—so now Puigdemont will have an excuse for making a unilateral declaration of independence.

Puigdemont, the president of the Catalan regional government, is no stranger to histrionics. In the past he has compared Catalan separatists’ non-violent campaign for independence to the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 and even to the Vietnam War.

“Every day is a Vietnam,” Puigdemont said in a TV interview last year, which seems a bit over the top as American B-52s hardly ever bomb Barcelona. But that’s the sort of stuff that rallies the troops, and there is a minority of people in Catalonia who really want independence. There always has been, because Catalonia has had a hard time from some Spanish governments in the past.

It fought on the losing (Republican/Communist) side in the Spanish Civil War, and tens of thousands of Catalans died when General Francisco Franco’s fascists won the war. Franco punished Catalonia by banning the use of the Catalan language (which is quite close to Castilian Spanish, but different enough for people to care about the difference).

But today Catalonia is the richest region of Spain. The Catalan language enjoys equal status with Spanish and is used in the schools. The region’s wealth has attracted so many people from other parts of Spain over the years that 46 percent of the population now speaks mostly Spanish. (37 percent use mainly Catalan, and 12 percent say they use both equally.)

So why do so many Catalans want to break from Spain? Historical grievances dating from the Civil War and even before; resentment that so many Spanish-speakers have immigrated to Catalonia; resentment that they have to share some of their wealth with poorer parts of Spain (but this is Europe, where that is perfectly normal); and most of all what Sigmud Freud called “the narcissism of minor differences.”

Equally minor differences saw Norway break away from Sweden non-violently in 1904, and Slovakia peacefully secede from former Czechoslovakia in 1993, so pettiness in itself is no obstacle. Catalan separatists, however, faced two major obstacles: an independence referendum is illegal under the Spanish constitution—and if they did hold a proper referendum, they’d almost certainly lose.

The problem is all those Spanish-speaking people who don’t share the romantic nationalist dreams of many (but not all) Catalans. A poll in March showed 48.5% opposing independence and 44.3% in favour; by July it was 49.4% against independence, and only 41.1% for it. It’s not easy to disenfranchise all those “Spaniards” (most of whom were actually born in Catalonia), so a simple referendum won’t deliver the goods.

Puigdemont’s big idea probably occurred to him after a symbolic referendum in 2014 produced an 80 percent majority for independence—because it was illegal, and therefore only a third of the population (almost all Catalans) voted in it. What if he held another illegal referendum, but this time have the Catalan parliament, where his coalition has a narrow majority, declare it “legal and binding.”

Once again, most Spanish-speakers wouldn’t vote—but this time, he said, there will be no requirement of a minimum turn-out, and the regional parliament can declare independence “within 48 hours” if the vote goes in favour. Or, if the Spanish government intervenes to stop the vote, as is its right under the constitution, he could use that as a pretext for a unilateral declaration of independence.

It was win-win for Puigdemont, and lose-lose for the Spanish government. If Madrid didn’t intervene, Catalonia would declare independence on the strength of a referendum in which only a minority of the population, almost all Catalan-speakers, voted. If it did intervene to stop the referendum, it would be guilty of “thwarting democracy,” and the images of Catalan protesters being dragged away from polling booths would prove to the world how evil the Spanish government is.

Madrid went with the latter option, and now is seen across the world as an oppressor. Puigdemont, in a televised address Sunday evening, said: “With this day of hope and suffering, the citizens of Catalonia have won the right to an independent state in the form of a republic.” He also hinted that a unilateral declaration of independence was on the way.

Nice strategy. Shame about the mess. news@hilltimes.com

 

 

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