Oct 17, 2017

In Spain, a State Splinters and Two Nations Emerge

Chris McMahon looks at the events in Spain that could lead to a splintering of the region and the repercussions this could have on Catalonia, Spain and Europe as a whole.

Chris McMahonSenior Staff Writer

To anyone who has been exposed to the potent marketing of Spain’s tourism sector, the idea that the national identity of Spain is any more complicated than a uniform landscape of beaches, resorts, bullfights, flamenco dancers and tapas might be somewhat unfamiliar. That Spain is troubled by a complicated mixture of overlapping regional identities might not be apparent from the way in which many Irish people experience Spain. The observation that a large region of the country in Europe held an illegal referendum on its independence against the wishes of the central government on October 1st might likely come as a surprise.

Catalonia, of which the capital is Barcelona, is a prosperous region of about 7.5 million people. Though it has its own language, namely Catalan, the Spanish language is also widely spoken. Catalonia has a lot in common with Spain and its culture, but has nevertheless retained something of a distinct identity. In this respect, Catalonia is not unique. Another of the wealthier regions in the north of Spain, the Basque Country, also has a cultural identity that distinguishes it from the rest of Spain, arguably more so than Catalonia. It is largely due to a desire to accommodate these regions that Spain has moved towards a somewhat federal system, granting “autonomous communities” their own legislatures and government, with considerable control over their own affairs.

Recently, however, Catalonia’s government, the Generalitat, has made dramatic strides for independence. Since the start of this year, its administration has been preparing for a vote. Earlier this month, the Catalan parliament passed a law calling for a referendum on its independence. Now that Catalonians have voted in favour of independence, there is a strong possibility that the government will indeed unilaterally declare independence from Spain.


This action was immediately and vigorously opposed by the Spanish government in Madrid. Since March of this year, the minority administration of Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party has consistently brought every action of the Catalan government regarding the referendum before the courts. Everything from budgetary expenses, electoral rules and the laws authorising the referendum have been struck down by Spain’s Constitutional Court as incompatible with the Constitution. The Catalan government, made up of a coalition of pro-independence parties, most of which have merged under a brand of “Junts pel Sí” (Together for Yes), has ignored the rulings of the Spanish courts as well as directions from the central government. It has instead invoked international law, which it claims gives the Catalan people the right to determine their own futures, as well as their own mandate.

Since March of this year, the minority administration of Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party has consistently brought every action of the Catalan government regarding the referendum before the courts

“The president of the Generalitat decided to call elections to obtain a firm democratic mandate to follow the path demanded by the Catalan people”, Marc Tienda, spokesperson for the youth wing of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, a party that is part of the governing coalition in Catalonia, told The University Times in an email statement. “After the elections on the 27th of September 2015, the Parliament of Catalonia contained a pro-independence majority that allowed us to begin the process of secession”, he recalled. However, it is important to note that the current governing parliamentary majority received just under half of the votes cast at the last regional elections, and that recent polls have been conflicted as to whether or not the majority of Catalans are in favour of this referendum as it has been organised. Court rulings in hand, the central government has progressively adopted more severe measures to prevent the referendum taking place.

“We have no fear, we have no king!” came the rallying cry of Catalans this summer.

On numerous occasions, Rajoy has repeated to the Spanish press that “the referendum will not take place” and that political leaders and local governments in Catalonia must “follow the law”. Since August, the Spanish government has increased its oversight of the Catalan administration, demanding weekly details of its expenditure. Since the referendum campaign began, websites containing campaign information have been blocked. The Guardia Civil, the Spanish national police force, which doesn’t usually intervene in Catalonia considering the region has its own police, were deployed and physically prevented voters from entering polling stations and seized ballot boxes on October 1st. In mid-September, the Spanish police arrested 14 senior civil servants from the headquarters of the Generalitat. Shortly afterwards, the attorney general of the central government warned that the arrest of Catalonia’s Prime Minister, Carles Puigdemont, was still a possibility. Indeed, the political leaders of the referendum are all under investigation for crimes of disobedience and misappropriation of public money.

The tension surrounding this referendum was perhaps most clear before now, when Barcelona found itself at the centre of the world media’s attention following the terrorist attacks on Las Ramblas on August 17th. As with so many other similar attacks around the world, there were attempts to avoid politicising the issue, but subtle messages about the looming prospect of the referendum abounded in the condolences of public figures. Soon after the attack, the King of Spain, Felipe VI, tweeted that “all of Spain is Barcelona”. A kind expression of solidarity perhaps, but the context of the struggle between central and regional government gives something of an edge to his words. The day after the attack, Rajoy and Puigdemont, the leaders of the two clashing administrations, gave a joint press conference. Rajoy’s speech was notable in its repetition of the word “unity”, which is loaded with political meaning in the debate on the Catalan question. When Puigdemont spoke, he indicated that he would make his remarks first in Catalan, and then in Spanish. Watching this broadcast live on social media, the tirade of furious comments from Spanish citizens was striking. Obscenities were levelled at Puigdemont over his choice of language, as though it was a petty attempt to lobby for nationalist goals in a time of crisis. Such criticism was also directed at the Catalan Minister for the Interior, who, when reporting the death toll of the attack, stated that among those who died were “two Catalans and two Spanish nationals”, the distinction between the two being abhorrent to many in Spain. Some days later, at a march for the victims of the attacks at which the King, Queen, Rajoy and many members of the government were present, protesters carried signs with slogans straddling the topics of both terrorism and Catalan nationalism: “We have no fear, we have no king!”, “Out with the Bourbon (monarch)!”

What is strange about this tension, and indeed, about this referendum, is that despite the rhetoric on both sides that the other is behaving in an unprecedented manner. There is a sense that we have been here before. In November 2014, there was another vote on Catalan independence. The ballot paper asked Catalan voters two questions: do you want Catalonia to become a State? And if yes, do you want that State to be independent? More than 80 per cent of those who voted said yes to both these questions. However, the turnout was very low for a question of such importance, averaging between 37 and 41 per cent of the population. But how was this referendum different? “This approaching referendum is similar to the last in a sense”, Josu de Miguel Bárcena, Professor of Constitutional Law at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, told the The University Times in an email statement prior to the referendum. “[T]he law of the regional parliament that called for it has been suspended by the Constitutional Court, just as in 2014.”

“The referendum of the 1st of October is different because the separatists have stated that if the ‘yes’ side wins, they will unilaterally declare independence”, de Miguel Bárcena continued. “Because of this, the central government has proposed to prevent it taking place given that it is such a clear coup d’état against the Constitution and European Law.” Professor of Comparative Politics and Spanish Politics at the Complutense University of Madrid, Jaime Ferri Durá, told The University Times that he agrees that “the vote in 2014 was not legal either”, but the difference was that “it did not attract the attention of the political class”, who “did not give it any legal value”. After the “consultation” was branded unconstitutional by the Spanish Constitutional Court, the Catalan government gave it the new, less-menacing title of “participation process”. Although this too was suspended pending review by the courts, the vote took place anyway. While the Spanish authorities appeared to take a more lenient stance on a vote that posed a much lesser threat to their constitutional sensibilities, the repercussions of that vote can still be felt today. In September, the former Catalan Prime Minister who organised the 2014 vote, Artur Mas, along with other political leaders, was held liable for €5.5 million that the courts deemed to be illegally spent on an impermissible referendum.

However, the process that led to the referendum on October 1st goes back even further than this. In 2006, the Catalan parliament and the Catalan people in referendum, approved significant amendments to the region’s “Statute of Autonomy”, which grants certain powers of self-government. While these amendments were approved by the socialist governing majority in Madrid at the time, the opposition brought a complaint to the Constitutional Court. After four years of deliberation, the Court’s verdict was that the amended statutes were unconstitutional, in particular because the text identified Catalonia as a nation with its own powers of self-determination. This consistent denial by Spanish constitutional law of the possibility of a Catalan nation has been a driving force behind the independence campaign. “The Catalans feel very outraged at the Constitutional Court”, Durá said. “The government of Catalonia has always called on the government of the Spanish state for dialogue and agreements but there has never been a desire in Spain to negotiate”, Tienda said.“Having arrived at this impasse, only then did the Generalitat call the referendum.”

Despite the result of the referendum, Puigdemont put the declaration of independence from Spain on hold for several weeks to discuss the move with Spain. In response to this, the government of Spain has given Puigdemont an ultimatum, stating that unless Puigdemont retracts his declaration of independence the provisional government of Catalonia will be taken away. This ultimatum was expected to be answered on Monday, October 16th. However, Puigdemont failed to clarify whether he would retract the declaration or not. The Spanish government responded that it was disappointed with the response given, stating that Puigdemont had until Thursday, October 19th to rescind his government’s declaration of independence.

This consistent denial by Spanish constitutional law of the possibility of a Catalan nation has been a driving force behind the independence campaign

Difficulties in negotiation aside, there is a perception in Spain that Catalonia wants to secede because it feels that “Spain robs us”. Catalonia represents only 16 per cent of the population but makes up 20 per cent of the GDP of the country, meaning that it might have more money to spare if it was not contributing to the Spanish exchequer. Whether or not Catalonia would actually be better off is a very contestable point. However, political science research by Steven Burg suggests that this is not at the core of the concerns of those in favour of independence. His surveys indicate that the most significant factor in predicting whether a voter will be in favour of Catalan independence is not a perception of economic grievance, but rather a belief in a distinctive Catalan identity. He concludes that if this is the driving force behind the push for independence, the Spanish state would be well-advised to give some form of acknowledgement to the nationhood of Catalonia.

The standoff between the Spanish and Catalan governments has acquired something of an international dimension in recent weeks. The context of this dispute within the EU poses some interesting questions. Euroscepticism has failed to gather significant support in both Catalonia and Spain as a whole, and thus a key part of the challenge facing the Catalan government and its push for independence is ensuring that a self-governing Catalan state would remain a part of the EU. Carles Puigdemont has repeatedly pointed to the fact that there is nothing in the EU treaties that envisages a situation where part of a member state secedes from that member state. Thus, he maintains that anything is possible. Catalonia could have a seamless transition from being a part of a member state to being a member state in its own right. This in direct contrast with the position of the European institutions themselves. “The European Commission has indicated on numerous occasions that Catalonia rejoining the EU after its independence would not be automatic, as the Catalan separatists believe”, de Miguel Bárcena said. “If the Generalitat makes a unilateral declaration of independence, as it has committed to do if it receives the necessary support in the referendum, it seems even less likely that they would be successful in obtaining EU membership. All new states becoming members of the EU have to be approved by every other member state”, Raj Chari, Professor in Political Science at Trinity College Dublin, told The University Times. It may be difficult to obtain this consent, as the Spanish government would likely veto Catalonia’s application. Moreover, Prof Chari explained that Catalonia’s membership could also be opposed by other states: “Other member states saying yes to Catalonia means that they have to say yes to other nationalist movements in their own countries.”

Even if Catalonia succeeded in obtaining the consent of all EU member states, there would likely be a transitional period. “Reapplying to join the EU takes a long time”, Chari told The University Times. “If you look at before Spain itself joined the EU in 1986, for example, that application process began in the 1970s.” Any hope of a smooth transition would require a much more consensual process than the present adversarial one. The European institutions themselves have played a limited role in this dispute, though there has been a noticeable shift in their rhetoric on the issue. Going beyond the technical details of Catalonia’s reentry into the EU, the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, has recently said that “any action against the Spanish Constitution is an act against the EU”. In light of this, it is somewhat strange that there have been calls for greater intervention from European institutions in the dispute. Only three days before the referendum, the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, in an op-ed in the Guardian, wrote about her duty “to call on the European commission to open a space for mediation between the Spanish and Catalan governments to find a negotiated and democratic solution to the conflict”. Colau is a member of a Catalan party allied with the national party Podemos that has adopted a more nuanced stance on the referendum, supporting the vote itself but ultimately hoping that Catalonia remains in Spain.

The idea of a region seceding from the state to which it pertains by popular vote is not unfamiliar to those who are keeping an eye on Western democracies. It was only 2014 when a similar referendum took place in Scotland, with a majority of 55 per cent rejecting the prospect of independence. Scotland’s example might be a source of great comfort to the Spanish government. The UK government was able not only to magnanimously offer the power of one of their regions to determine their own future, but to see them actively choose continued unity. Such a referendum probably reinforced the territorial integrity of the UK, rather than undermining it.

The idea of a region seceding from the state to which it pertains by popular vote is not unfamiliar to those who are keeping an eye on Western democracies

If one casts aside fruitless arguments about how different the Catalans are to the Spanish compared to how the Scots differ from the typical Briton, there are important reasons why the Spanish case is very different and far more complex. In Westminster, the government of the day was able to confer special powers on the Scottish Parliament to legislate for the holding of the referendum, moulding a relatively flexible and unwritten constitution to match political convenience. Spain, however, has a constitution that seems to prohibit the possibility of the proposed referendum. The Constitutional Court of the country has repeatedly emphasised, with each passing law and budget allocation devoted to the referendum, that sovereign power resides in the Spanish people as a collective entity, and that this idea is “the basis of our legal order”.

The prospect of allowing only a subset of the sovereign Spanish people, that is, the citizens of Catalonia, to make a decision on an issue as important as the territory of the Spanish state is, in the words of that Court, “a denial of national sovereignty”. De Miguel Bárcena allowed that “a reform of the Constitution is possible, as the Spanish Constitution of 1978 imposes no limits on the content of reform”. However, he explained, “to do so one would have to use article 168 which requires very large parliamentary majorities and a referendum to the Spanish people”. While he regarded such a process as “logical”, he said that “it would involve the ceding of sovereignty by the sovereign Spanish people to the Catalan people”. Still more troubling is the assessment of the legal academic, Santiago Muñoz Machado, that the Spanish Constitution is so firmly grounded in the idea of territorial unity that any prospect of a legal referendum of this type might require a total reform of the Constitution and the basic values it represents. Gathering the political will to move a simple majority in Parliament, as was needed in Britain, is one thing. Gathering widespread support for an overhaul of the legal system to benefit one region is another thing entirely.

Durá nevertheless claims that examples of independence referendums, in Scotland as well as Quebec, can be instructive to Spain and that a similar “political solution” is needed: “In Quebec and Scotland, when they were given the choice to leave, they said no.” He argues that “the only way out of this is to have a referendum with guarantees, because a majority in Catalonia want a referendum but probably do not want to leave, which is something of a paradox”. He argues that it is not the referendum itself that is unconstitutional, but the process of secession. Therefore, a referendum can be held that will probably not pass, but if it does, the Constitution can then be amended. While this proposal would require a significant change in the outlook of the governing Popular Party in Madrid, it may be the last option available to a country trying to mollify the grievances of its regions. If the problem lies in how Spain perceives the Catalan people and their culture, the remaining solutions are few. Further regional autonomy would probably be difficult, as de Miguel Bárcena observes: “[T]he degree of autonomy afforded to Catalonia is already so great, if the state were to cede any more, it would turn our country into a kind of federation that would probably be dysfunctional.”

A referendum held with the consent of the central government could have the potential to validate Catalan nationalism, and emphasise the Catalan people’s right to self-determination. At the same time, it could give the rest of Spain, and the significant numbers of Catalans who do not want to secede, a more structured and less bullish platform from which they can meaningfully make the case for national unity. The desire of many Catalans to form their own state is a legitimate one, and the Spanish government cannot realistically hope to completely sweep the problem away by emphasising the illegality of this referendum. While some of the main parties have called for constructive dialogue, it is not entirely clear what exactly this might entail, and few concrete proposals are under discussion. Podemos, the only nationwide party that supported the referendum in principle, though hoping that Catalonia would opt to stay, was effectively ruled out of any possible coalition by the other parties, due at least in part to its stance on the issue. That said, the fact that the build-up to the referendum has focused more on its legal status than the question being put to Catalan people is questionable. It is perhaps because the many Catalans who oppose independence will likely refuse to vote in a referendum that they regard as illegal. If both sides persist down their own, diametrically opposed paths, the result is unlikely to be a good one, for Spain or Catalonia.

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