The Spanish-Catalonian Crisis: What's Happening and Why it Matters
The third political earthquake to shake the West after Brexit and Trump? A close look at the context allows us to appreciate the frustrations of both sides.
If you followed the news starting two months ago, you would have read about the attempted independence referendum in Catalonia and the police v. citizen riots that ensued. The international community swiftly condemned the state violence at work in Barcelona, yet European governments, as well as the EU as a whole, were either siding with the Madrid government or offering no comments. Massive demonstrations followed all over the region and the country — the members of the Catalonian regional government were either arrested for sedition or fled to Brussels, where Carles Puidgemont, its leader, is in self-imposed exile today. The Madrid national government has called for local elections to be held on the 21st of December and thus democracy is meant to restore order. For many unionists (non-separatists) this seems to bring an end to the Catalan efforts, or procès, of independence. So, is that all? A country-specific rogue regional government takes control, martial law is established and local elections are called to form a new government and stabilise the situation? So much more has happened and is to come.
There are so many simultaneous narratives that it becomes difficult to plot them all — there is, first and foremost, ‘a people deciding on their destiny’ but being crushed by the state, as well as ‘a state defending its unity under lawful, constitutional measures.’ These are both highly contentious as the referendum was not held transparently and in fair circumstances. The Madrid government did not allow for the referendum, as the UK government had allowed for the Scottish and Brexit referendums, for good or ill. This means that statistics on public support for independence have been skewed, whenever they weren't a very uncomfortable 50:50.
Yet, more broadly, this crisis operates on a higher level. Commentators have seen the Catalonian Crisis as the third recent political earthquake after the 2016 US elections and the Brexit shock: a sudden break with the system that was surprisingly backed by elements of mainstream politics. After all, the independent Catalan government constituted a range of opinion from far-left to centre and right of the political spectrum. On the other hand, separatists hold a common narrative of Catalonia having been, for centuries, culturally and socially separate from Spain, seizing this opportunity to finally become sovereign in its own right. Conjuring the past like this can be misleading, especially in times of foreign investment and globalism blurring the notion of actual sovereignty. It is important to consider the recent context in order to offer explanations and reach conclusions.
The past seven years in Spain have represented a period of centre-right government applying draconian austerity measures, increasing the rampant unemployment (at times a crippling 50% youth unemployment) as overseen by a former Goldman Sachs employee turned Minister of economics. The unfair set of circumstances that went unchecked around the world — laissez faire capitalism, neoliberalism prognosticated by Wall Street — was in Spain splattered with corruption scandals throughout regional governments, the monarchy and, notoriously, the governing centre-right ‘PP’ party. Upon the heavily media-reported scandals, none of the party leaders stepped down whilst evidence of money laundering was being destroyed in party headquarters hours before the police could access their computers. The party is still in charge and unchecked.
Furthermore, the history of post-fascist Spain offers a murkier context. The dying wish of Franco was to restore the monarchy, a restoration which Spaniards are still living under, largely unquestioned. The regional partition of the country during the transition to democracy meant that some regions were given different taxation status based on historical privileges, and based on the powers of persuasion of regional representatives at the table during the drawing up of modern Spain. In this instance, the Basque Country was given greater taxation autonomy than Catalonia, a fact that has been felt bitterly during times of austerity, when the wealthier regions were seen to be supporting, and thus dragged down by, the poorer regions of Extremadura and Andalusia. It is obvious that the greater part of Catalonia’s discomfort is not with Spain as such but with the more recent circumstances the country has been embroiled in.
For these reasons, it is important to turn to how contemporary Spain can be re-drawn and re-thought to avoid the secession of the regions that are fundamental to the country. We need to raise the discourse around Constitutional reform — the German or American federal models could appease the discomfort around regional differences. It is essential to bring about to the end of a fascist-imposed monarchy in Spain, as public opinion in regions such as Catalonia and the Basque Country of the crown has been historically low. Furthermore, Madrid ought to relinquish its chief role in the country in favour of sharing power with Seville and Barcelona. The latter has been playing second fiddle to Madrid since democratic Spain was drafted, which has angered the region for decades. Splitting the houses of parliament between the cities could help create a model for more equal distribution of political powers.
The ongoing Spanish-Catalonian crisis shows that a greater force has to manoeuvre to prevent the political upheavals that are shaking decades of political stability in Europe and North America. It is important to consider how Spain can change for the benefit of all Spaniards, including and especially Catalonians, rather than espousing for a messy, irreversible split. This is a goal that can work through multi-partisan cooperation. However, if the centre-right governing party does not coordinate a national response to the crisis, and continues to use state-sanctioned violence, a secession in the near future can be a likely and proper response. The results of local elections on the 21st of December might provide a key to this prospect whilst tensions continue to bubble under the surface.