Thoughts on Catalonia

My latest Critical Quarterly column was written in the immediate aftermath of the Catalonian independence referendum, and is available here.

7 replies on “Thoughts on Catalonia”

Certainly an interesting article.

As for rationality on behalf of the Spanish Govt, I don’t know. However, there may well be rationality on behalf of the PP. They’re already vastly unpopular in Catalunya, so there’s not a lot for them to lose there. And in the rest of Spain a “strong” response to moves for Catalan independence is likely to be a good vote-getter. Given the electoral balance in Spain at the moment, that may be an election winning move. And parties like to win elections.

In Catalunya itself, the drive for actual independence was considerably weaker while moves for autonomy within Spain were working. But once the PP blocked the Estatut, and particularly once they got into power, moves for Catalan independence gained considerable strength. It would take a heart of fudge not to be moved by a typical Rajoy speech telling (nationalist) Catalans that they had to learn to be more obedient. Add to that the widespread perception that Catalunya is getting fiscally screwed, and you have a lovely toxic cocktail of disrespect and exploitation.

As for the actual merits or demerits of independence over autonomy, that IS a topic where the European dimension adds considerable intellectual complication. “Subsidiarity” would imply that the power of regions should get stronger and that of nation states weaker, all within an overarching European framework. That’s not what’s happening, but it’s certainly a factor behind both Scottish and Catalan thinking. Personally, I have no opinion on the merits, or not, of Catalan independence. It’s the type of subject where feelings matter more than normally, and you have to be really involved to understand the feelings.

One thing though, that I still fear. The EU response to the violence and the subsequent imprisonment of (peaceful) political leaders seems to have been massively hypocritical, and widely seen as such. Hypocrisy is about THE most dangerous thing if you’re building a supra-national governance system. It’s possibly the most corrosive form of political corruption.

In any case, a topic worth watching. It won’t go away soon.

The Scotland case differs from Catalonia in this key respect. Under the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement Scotland was granted a right of secession, which the electorate decided not to exercise at the subsequent referendum. But they could do so in future. Ditto Northern Ireland under the terms of the 1998 Belfast Agreement. Brexit may encourage a different outcome next time. The unity of the United Kingdom has been rendered conditional by the free choice of parliament, which (re)writes the constitution.

The Spanish constitution does not grant a right of secession: the UK’s legislated constitution is now highly unusual in this regard. Mariano Rajoy may have played the PR poorly outside Spain but he stuck with the constitution and the interpretation of the courts. How could the EU have taken the side of the Catalan government? To what purpose?

Colm…there’s a difference between obeying a constitution and beating the crap out of people. Abortion is not, for instance, permitted by the constitution in Ireland. Yet the govt has permitted a perfectly civil debate on whether there should, or should not, be a change to the constitution. Similarly, the decision to grant a right of secession in the UK did not require Scots to have the crap beaten out of them. The government in Spain decided to beat the crap out of people. That wasn’t an accident. It was pre-planned, warned about in advance, and very deliberate.

And as for Europe, they did not have to take the side of the Catalan government at all. They had to take the side of European citizens standing peacefully with pieces of paper in their hands who had the crap beaten out of them. And if we don’t agree that protecting the human rights of peacefully assembled citizens is something Europe should see as one of its purposes, then we don’t agree on what Europe is for.

The referendum in Catalonia was unconstitutional and illegal. Beating the crap out of people was nuts. Better to let them have their pointless referendum and ignore it. But it was never open to the EU to side with an illegal declaration of secession. Spain is a member of the EU with a constitution and a functioning legal order.

Yep. The Spanish govt could have handily ignored the referendum, or at least policed it peacefully. Catalunya wouldn’t have gotten any international recognition anyway….not with that referendum at least….and the independence leaders very clearly had no plan for what do do after the referendum (a bit like the Brexiteers, perhaps).

I never suggested that the EU should side with the declaration of succession, but they SHOULD have pointed out the human rights issues around the police actions during the referendum and the subsequent jailing of peaceful politicians and leaders of civil organizations. And, as a final point, it’s becoming unclear whether Spain does have a functioning legal order. Certainly significant doubt about the independence of the judiciary in a variety of areas and this is one of them (corruption is the other big one).

Meantime, on Kevin’s article, there are certainly decent “economic” discussions. The reality of the fiscal “screwing” the Catalans perceive could probably be assessed. They believe it’s huge, beyond any “reasonable” regional transfers. Similarly, the merits (or not) of smaller states within the EU is an economic and political question that just isn’t going to go away. There are solid discussions on how much independent government capability an EU state really needs (less and less, presumably) that may reduce some of the fixed costs of having a state. And within the EU, there’s an opening for decent political debate on what an individual state is for, other than having a national football team.

Remember also, a huge driver behind the EU reaction to the potential Catalan secession was fear over the precedent it might set in other countries. This is a BAD reason. If the EU wants to hold on to the post-1945 borders as if they are sacred, it’s going to have a problem sooner or later. And the more it resists the idea the bigger the wave of change once one change happens.

One of the Germans told the Catalonians back in October that if they chose independence they would be excluded from the Euro. It was meant as a threat. It was more like a blessing.

Secession usually requires a turning point beyond which everything changes . The 1916 executions. Italian reunification which ended Savoy.

The Spaniards have come down hard. But Spain is in the Euro and the Euro is deflationary plus it doesn’t have a Central Bank. And neoliberalism is strangling demand while $6 tn a year in debt is issued globally. If Spain manages to get through the fall of neoliberalism intact it will be an impressive feat.

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