Secessionism in Catalonia: What Next?

Foisting direct rule on a community that favors regional autonomy seems appropriate if only in ensuring that Catalans continue imbibing from the bitter cup of grievance over disenfranchisement. The Catalan-instigated referendum on October 1st, though unconstitutional in nature and lacking in universal Catalan support, was nevertheless peacefully undertaken; the resort to force by Prime Minister Rajoy has only served to weaken his argument that Catalans are equally respected as Spaniards and has launched Spain into its deepest crisis of representation since the attempted coup in 1981. Whatever the legitimacy of separatism, each government not wishing to capitulate faces the same dilemma: violent suppression or bona fide negotiation. Spain’s imposition of direct rule, following Catalonia’s declaration of independence on October 10, seems to be aligned with the former course of action, which is thus far proving ineffectual; it is deepening divisions without restoring control. Mr Rajoy would be well advised to promptly opt for the latter: a renewed constitutional settlement that restores some power to Catalan voters is the most viable solution to Spain’s quagmire.

Secession would be disastrous for Spain, Catalonia, and Europe alike. An independent Catalonia would be affronted with financial, state-building, and welfare struggles, the degree of which the Catalan leadership seems to be, thus far, underappreciating. Spain would lose a critical contributor to its economy and would risk the subsequent loss of the Basque area. And news of secession might re-kindle separatist calls in northern Italy, Scotland, and Corsica.

A Stark Predicament

Statehood may appear feasible at present, but a functional Catalan governance unit will require much more than the mere trappings of sovereignty it currently displays- a flag and parliament, an independent police force, and some control over public resource provision; secession would probably see the Catalans lose their European Union citizenship and would necessitate, amongst others, the establishment of a Catalan central bank, air and border control, a cohesive defence force, expansive networks of infrastructure, a customs service, and new trade agreements. Spain too, stands to be adversely impacted with regards to its economy but also its legitimacy over the Basque. Catalonia accounts for a fifth of all Spanish industry, and more than a quarter of Spanish exports, despite representing about 16 per cent of the country’s population. A Catalonian exit would create a hole in Spain’s budget deficit, worsen its trade balance, and potentially increase its sovereign debt (if debt is reallocated on the basis of Catalonia’s population rather than its contribution to Spain’s GDP, or if a debt transfer arrangement fails to emerge, in the first place). The renewal of the Basque conflict is another potentiality that could be engendered; the Basque National Liberation Movement (ETA) may find its appetite for separatism rekindled by a Catalonian departure. Given its history of direct military conflict against the Spanish state (from Francoist to Constitutional Spain), such an imbroglio could quickly plunge the country into bloodshed. The fear of destabilization though, should not be constrained solely within the Spanish peninsula- amidst the mounting populist nationalism engulfing Europe, a Catalonian independence could act as a precedent, sufficiently powerful to dismember the continent into regions of micro-state aggression. Scotland, Madeira, Padania, Bavaria, and Corsica would constitute likely instigators.

The Mandate That Was Not
The rationale of Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan leader, is feeble on both financial and legal grounds but has gained traction following Mr. Rajoy’s violent suppression of the Catalan vote- a political disaster and more importantly, a violation of Western democratic law that inhibits states from using force against peaceful dissidents.The vision advanced by Mr. Puigdemont, is erroneously simplistic. Catalonia’s continued financial prosperity under independence is hardly a given: its secession is not bound with the provision of European Union membership and the EU is no longer as welcoming as it was in the immediate post Cold-war era. Lacking Spanish support, Catalonia may find itself rebuffed by the EU, as Brussels has recently made clear; regardless of whether such a potentiality develops, Spain’s decree, on October 6, that makes it easier for companies to leave Catalonia (to move their legal and tax base elsewhere without a shareholder’s meeting) constitutes a direct threat to Catalonia’s economy. Mr. Puigdemont’s legitimacy is equally questionable: setting aside the unconstitutionality of the referendum itself, its forced approval through the Catalan parliament was marked by a slight majority and the absence of proper discourse. When polled in July, only 40-45 per cent of Catalans sought independence. The 90 per cent vote to leave, deceptively overestimates separatist support because it fails to account for the Catalan Remainers who refused to participate in the referendum; what it really represents is 90 per cent of an unregistered turnout that is comfortably under half of Catalonia’s population. Such findings elucidate the controversy with which Mr. Puigdemont’s platform has been tinged; they do not however, invalidate the nationalist claim by Catalonians (nor do they eliminate Catalonia’s prospects for financial well-being). Even some who disagree with Mr. Puigdemont’s tactics, still find reason behind the Catalan claim to statehood. Catalonia could very well be conceived as a nation and its economy could withstand the tumult of separation.



A Zero-Sum Game?
Catalan secessionism is as old as Spain’s fear of separation. It catalytically contributed to the outbreak of the Spanish civil war in 1936, the conclusion of which was followed by Catalonia’s fierce cultural repression under Franco’s dictatorship- the community’s language was banned and many of its institutions repealed. It was only through the Spanish constitution of 1978 that a settlement was realized in the form of regional (Catalonian) autonomy; the new democratic constitution spurred regionalisation which culminated in Catalonia’s recognition as a distinct “nationality.”

What thwarted sustained peace is Catalonia’s use of its autonomy to advance nationalism (regardless of whether Catalonia was justified in doing so or not); autonomy (self-rule) is not mutually exclusive with central governance, but separatism is. Catalans justify this separatism (as do most separatist movements of such fervor) by alluding to a crisis of representation: the Spanish state, they claim, does not manage Catalonian grievances, neither appropriately nor timely. The government vehemently denies this, arguing that Catalans have enjoyed the same rights and degree of enfranchisement as any other group of Spaniards. The battle over the narrative of exploitation does not seem to have definitely been won by either camp. While is true that Catalans pay more taxes than they receive in return, it is also true that the inequities in Catalonia are as much a product of Spain’s taxation scheme as they are a function of the corrupt governance by some (though not all) Catalan politicians.

As comprehensible as Mr. Rajoy’s fears of dismemberment are, and as justifiable as is the Spanish public’s anger at the subversion of the constitution that is echoed by King Felipe in an atypical televised appearance, unity will not be restored by dispatching a riot police and by then dodging the confrontation all-together through the imposition of direct rule. Both measures target and punish Catalan citizens, on whom unity is partly, but critically contingent.

That said neither will the targeting of the Catalan leadership. The physical removal of pro-secessionist leaders could have worked prior to the government’s aggression of October 1st, but even under such a scenario, its effectiveness in deterring Catalan nationalist recruitment would have been short-term. The roots of Catalan separatism are too deep to be destroyed by a simple change in political structure: the constitutional crisis and nationalist calls would, in all likelihood, have persisted.

The most viable solution lies in bona fide negotiation: offering benefits to Catalans that Mr. Puigdemont is unable to procure and providing channels to resolve grievances of disenfranchisement. Greater autonomy would still be lucrative to many Catalans, particularly with regards to taxation; allowing them to collect and keep more of their own taxes, and granting them some recognition of “nationhood”, ranging from the greater protection of the Catalan language to the introduction of federalism in Spain (as was suggested by the Socialists) may stem the tide of separatism. For an agreed settlement to work however, irrespective of its particular nature, it has to include the option of a referendum on secession by a majority of Catalan voters. Mr. Rajoy’s best hope for securing such an accord in the near future is to call for imminent and transparent Catalan elections now. Restoration of power to Catalan voters, especially those currently on the fence, is thereby Spain’s best attempt at diffusing the crisis and attaining eventual reconciliation; it is perhaps befitting that such a provision of agency to Catalans should work in tandem with shrewd political strategy.