Spain faces its worst constitutional crisis since the failed 1981 coup d’état, driven by Brexit-style populism
A romantic framing of foreign crises where self-determination is involved is a common trap. The imagery of “oppressors” vs “freedom fighters” is appealing and, to their credit, the leaders of Catalonia have been successful in promoting their agenda abroad in just such terms – sometimes going as far as referencing Nelson Mandela’s struggle against apartheid.
Combined with the soft power appeal of cosmopolitan Barcelona, there is much confusion abroad on the nature of the current crisis in Catalonia, and myths and stereotypes abound – helped by the likes of Assange and similar figures.
This article seeks to test some of these myths, in order to shed light not only on the Catalonian referendum debate but on the wider issues for pluralistic democracies and the rule of law. The dynamics in the Catalan debate are similar to those at play in other European countries in the age of populism and are therefore of fundamental importance for the future of Europe as a whole.
Myth One: A legitimate and democratic referendum process unjustly constrained by the Spanish state
The first myth is that the planned referendum would be a legitimate democratic process, approved by the Catalan Parliament and unfairly banned by the Spanish state.
Yet the way the secession laws (“disconnection laws”) – that is, one law allowing for a referendum on independence and another on the “Legal Transition” (providing for the elements of an independent Catalan Republic) – were passed on September 6 was shockingly undemocratic.
The pro-independence bloc, which enjoys a wafer-thin majority, rode roughshod over Catalonia’s parliamentary rules and the rights of opposition MPs. The two pieces of legislation were rushed through in a late-night session against the warnings of the legal attorneys of the Catalan Parliament and ignoring the request of opposition MPs for an opinion of the Council of Statutory Guarantees, to which they are entitled under Catalan law.
As a result the opposition bloc (made up of Socialists, liberal Ciudadanos, the People's Party and some members of the leftist Catalunya Sí Que Es Pot) left the session in protest and took no part in the vote. The Spanish Constitutional Court suspended the legislation, but the ruling forces in Catalonia have vowed to ignore its rulings, and pushed forward nonetheless. Indeed, they have announced that they will declare independence whether the Spanish Government allows for such a vote or not, effectively making the referendum a plebiscite on a decision already taken by a ruling majority.
All of this amounts to a clear violation of the rules set forth by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which requires, amongst other conditions, an equal opportunity process, a neutral administration, and legislation of at least statutory rank passed at least one year in advance of a referendum. The EU invests millions of euros in strengthening parliamentary democracy in acceding or partner countries in order to avoid exactly the same abuse witnessed in the Catalan Parliament earlier this month. Yet it resorts to naming and shaming, and withdraws assistance, when these standards are so grossly breached in Europe itself.
Myth Two: “Post-Franco” Spain clamping down on “democratic Catalonia”
Madrid’s conservative government is a popular and easy target for virtue-signalling commentators who lack the nerve to take on the real contemporary Francos in Russia or Venezuela. But Spain is no USSR-like Goliath, nor is the Catalan government of Carles Puigdemont a pious, defenceless David.
Modern Spain is a pluralistic democracy which ranks high on all recognized standards. Rajoy’s Government, in minority, is subject to many checks and balances, and the PM himself has recently had to testify both in court and in Parliament for a case of massive corruption engulfing his party. Key Spanish cities, Madrid and Barcelona are run by Podemos backed leftist coalitions, and power sharing arrangements are the rule at the regional level. Indeed, Catalonia enjoys wide powers of self-government far and above other similarly independent minded regions in Europe, precisely on the basis of the Constitution and Statute, voted for by the Catalan people in 2006, which the ruling majority have now decided to unilaterally repeal.
Undoubtedly, as with any other Western democracy, Spanish governance is subject to tensions. Its need for reinvigorating and institutional reform is one of the driving forces explaining our troubled politics. But the assertion that there is any veiled Francoism at work is absurd.
Rather than a David vs Goliath struggle, the Catalan issue is a complex clash of democratic legitimacies: the current majority in the Catalan Parliament vs the majority in the Spanish Parliament. Many Catalans (though not a majority according to most polls) want outright independence, but many Spaniards want a say in the future of their country too. And while the Madrid authorities’ mostly legalistic approach has been met with strong criticisms (sometimes justifiably so), it rests on an impeccably democratic claim: Rajoy has no mandate to allow for a vote of self-determination in Catalonia without substantial reform of the Spanish constitution first – and this requires support from Spaniards.
By the same token, the pro-independence bloc, representing around 45% of the Catalan electorate, can indeed push for independence, but its current methods show contempt for the views and rights of other Catalans. The picture of a semi empty Catalan Parliament testifies that this is more than just the “Madrid vs Catalonia” angle.
In this respect, some aspects of the politics now smothering Catalonia sadly mimic the sectarianism and divisiveness of Spain’s worst past. Hiding undemocratic intent under a democratic façade, the ruling forces in Catalonia are closer to the illiberal, majoritarian politics embodied by Poland’s PiS than to the righteous struggle of the Baltics unshackling themselves from the USSR (their preferred comparison).
This is coupled with a racist discourse towards other Spaniards, sometimes endorsed at the higher levels of Catalan power, reminiscent of Italy’s Lega Nord. Such a one-sided Republic would fail to meet the thresholds set by the Statute of the Council of Europe, which insists on pluralistic democracies based on the rule of law and equal rights. One of the driving forces behind street protests and the overall pro-independence drive in general is the anti-EU and anti-NATO leftist party, CUP, which burns EU, Spanish and French flags in its rallies and is behind a wave of intimidation against Catalan mayors and councillors who oppose this vote.
This worrying turn of events was vividly illustrated by the recent impassioned speech by Joan Coscubiela, spokesperson for CSQP and member of the trade union fabric. Mr Coscubiela warned against the “abuse” of the majority, their “trampling” on democratic rights and the degradation of Catalan institutions, before leaving the Catalan assembly.
Myth Three: Serbia vs Kosovo comparison
The precedent of Kosovo has also been spearheaded by the Catalan government to buttress their claims of persecution. Thankfully for both Catalonia (a rich region) and the rest of Spain, the comparison with Milosevic’s Serbia and Yugoslavia in general does not hold: there has been no violent campaign of ethnic cleansing, no systematic discrimination leading to mass outflows of refugees, and not one previous international condemnation of Spain’s treatment of its Catalans.
Alas, in some respects the ruling forces in Catalonia do resemble some clans in the Balkans. See for example their recklessness in pushing forward their pet projects, their use of nationalism to distract from structural problems, and the rise of territorial ambitions to their neighbouring Spanish regions based on language and kinship ties.
The competing cleavages around Catalonia
Spain faces its worst constitutional crisis since the failed 1981 coup d’état. This is being driven by Brexit-style populism, evident in the repetition of hollow but powerful slogans (“Let the Catalans Vote” echoeing Brexit’s “Take back control”). In a context of dire austerity measures (imposed by the then-Catalan government of moderate nationalists) and discontent with the Constitutional Court’s clipping in 2010 of parts of the Statute (upon a constitutional appeal by Rajoy’s party, then in opposition), “Spain” provided a convenient scapegoat, skyrocketing an otherwise minority wish for independence.
Brexit politics is also present in the stigmatizing of “enemies of the people”, including judges, who dissent with this line or who simply abide by their public obligations. Also evident is Trump-esque post-truth campaigning, denying facts and twisting the truth, including misrepresenting statements from EU institutions and foreign ministries. These forces have combined to trounce moderate Catalan nationalists, who are crucial in Spain’s governance, affected by massive corruption scandals.
The crisis in and around Catalonia may be ushering in a new broader cleavage in Spain. On one side are the proponents of “popular democracy” (which now includes the pro-independence bloc, Podemos and other forces), who emphasize street, insurrection-style politics and “the will of the people”; and on the other are the defenders of rule of law-based democracy (which combines PP, PSOE, Ciudadanos, and many Catalans who favour a legal referendum), who stress constitutional order and institutions.
The former label Rajoy’s government measures and judicial actions as repression. The latter denounce authoritarianism in Catalonia and even refer to a coup d’état at the Catalan Parliament. This cleavage will probably define the politics of the country for years to come.
A Scottish option?
Some suggest a sort of Quebec- or Scotland-style arrangement for an agreed self-determination referendum, with due guarantees. This would require a fundamental reform of the 1978 Spanish Constitution, for which there is no political consensus.
According to the Spanish Constitution, sovereignty rests with the whole of the Spanish people. One may like this or not, but it is not undemocratic and it is line with similar provisions in most Western democracies. The draft Catalan Constitution does not, of course, provide for self-determination within its borders.
Ideally, a substantial reform of the Spanish Constitution, including a further strengthening of Catalonia’s self-rule, including an explicit recognition of their character as a Nation, could be entertained. It would require elections, qualified majorities and a nation-wide referendum, perhaps followed by a specific referendum in Catalonia.
This best case scenario option could be in the making in the mid-term and help bring some “tactical independentists” (those who support independence to extract more concessions from Madrid) back into the constitutional system and stem the independence impetus, which is precisely what the current movement in Catalonia fears. Both the Spanish Government and PSOE have announced in different occasions more home rule – provided the Catalan Government returns to the constitutional order. Yet roughly 30% of Catalans already feel disconnected from Spain, and building bridges with this segment would be extremely challenging, if not impossible. Further, while many Spaniards back different forms of settlement with Catalonia, possibly including a legal referendum, there is also growing weariness with the scapegoating of Spain and with the constant focus on the preferences of part of the Catalan electorate over other more pressing problems for the country as a whole.
This is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation for the Spanish government: it cannot overreact, for it will lead to further backlash in Catalonia, but it cannot stand idle either, for democratic constitutional order in Catalonia is imperilled. Recent arrests of second rank officials of the Catalan Government, ordered by a judge of the High Court of Justice in Catalonia, on charges of abetting unlawful acts, have further inflamed the independentists, who control the streets, and other sectors too. Things will probably deteriorate, strengthening the martyrdom syndrome that they thrive on.
But one can only wonder how France would have reacted should the Council of the Territorial Collectivity of Corsica have started unilateral secession and announced the seizure of French assets. Or were the government of Bayern, in Germany, on claims of frustration with “feeding” the Laender in Eastern Germany, to have repealed the German constitution and disobeyed the authority of the Bundesverfassungsgericht.
To wit, this crisis represents a colossal failure of the Spanish democratic polity as a whole. Our leaders (including the new parties) have proved unable to craft a way out of the current impasse, unlike at other critical periods of the country’s constitutional history where statesmanship was present. Having grown up in the Basque Country during the years of ETA’s murderous rampage, I see some unsettling similarities in today’s hate speech, stigmatizing of dissent, and the shaping of polarized political blocs in Catalonia, polarizing politics which now threaten to spread to the rest of the country.
The authorities in Madrid were thus wrong in framing this crisis as an internal matter. It goes beyond the Catalan question and has a wider European relevance. It is therefore in Europe’s interest to put old myths to rest and to grasp what this is really about.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.