The train wreck in Catalonia, which seems to be getting more complicated by the day, has been years in the making. Finding a solution is particularly difficult because the two sides speak different languages. And I’m not talking about Catalan and Castilian.
Madrid communicates using the police force and the laws in effect. Barcelona speaks using the legitimacy of the polls, the popular will, representation and symbols. President Carles Puigdemont is playing on ambiguity and staged a declaration of independence that never actually occurred. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy sendt thousands of police to seize ballot boxes and close polling stations. These are two “languages” that can scarcely understand each other. Two parallel worlds.
With the power of the state in its corner, the Rajoy government is shoring up its position with repression and arrests: for instance, the arrests of the “two Jordis” (Sànchez and Cuixart), leaders of civic organizations supporting independence that several times since 2010 have managed to mobilize millions of people. In 2010, the People’s Party appealed to the Constitutional Court against the proposal for an Estatut d’Autonomia (Autonomous status) already approved by the Catalan Parliament, the Spanish Congress of Deputies and by a referendum in Catalonia. That was a wound that instead of healing has become worse with time, with the strong political and economic crisis that hit Spain in the meantime.
The strategy chosen by Rajoy is doomed to failure. Today, Catalonia is closer to independence than it was a month ago, and much closer than seven years ago. Since then, the percentage of supporters of independence in Catalonia has doubled, up to half of the population. The Spanish government does not seem to realize that the fuel for the conflict (and its solution!) lies in Catalan public opinion. The methods of repression recall, in the memory of Catalan citizens (and many Spaniards as well), scenes experienced during the long dictatorship of General Franco. And this pushes the majority of the Catalan population ever further away from the country under Rajoy.
And a phenomenon is gathering steam to which few have paid enough attention: the non-nationalist separatists. A growing proportion of the Catalan independence movement is represented by citizens who do not particularly feel that there is a distinct Catalan people or a Catalan nation. They simply want to become independent from what Spain, in their view, stands for: a set of values from long-gone eras, an incomplete transition, a low-quality democracy. These feelings have become more acute with the PP in charge of the government. Now, with the suppression of the vote on Oct. 1, and then with the two Jordis in prison and threats to dissolve the autonomy of Catalonia, the ranks of the non-nationalist separatists will only grow.
For his part, Puigdemont is not devoting sufficient effort toward dialogue with the Spanish public. But the solution of the conflict will require it. Sixty-two percent of Spaniards outside Catalonia are against negotiating a legal referendum on independence in Catalonia. The separatists’ plan of action must take into account that its objectives can only be realized through a negotiated solution, for which public opinion in the rest of Spain is a key element. In 1932, Ortega y Gasset stated that the Catalan question is “a problem which cannot be solved, it can only be put up with.” Today as well, a solution to this conflict is hard to imagine. Those who feel they are separatists will not cease to do so (and to vote to this effect) because of the repression — just the opposite. And those who believe that the unity of Spain is sacred and that we should not talk about a referendum for self-determination are unlikely to change their view in the face of unilateral decisions by the Catalan Generalitat — just the opposite.
There is an additional element of tension looming on the immediate horizon. Next week, Rajoy is threatening to invoke Article 155 of the Constitution, with direct federal rule. Worldwide there are few precedents for the application of such a mechanism: only in the Weimar Republic (which did not end very well) and, around the middle of the last century, in the United States, to force the Southern states to apply the decision of the Supreme Court and abolish racial segregation in schools. Direct federal rule can serve, in specific cases, to ensure the application of a law in a certain part of the country, but it is unlikely to resolve the current situation. On the contrary, it threatens to undermine constitutional stability in Spain all by itself.
Because of all this, the only way to defuse this conflict is dialogue between the two parties. But even dialogue becomes a kind of utopia when the interpretations made by each side about the “enemy” do not align with reality. In Catalonia, most separatists do not have an adequate estimation of the strength of the state and of the fear that the prospect of a territorial break raises in the majority of Spaniards. After all, we must not overlook the fact that the sociology of Spain is not the same as that of Canada or the United Kingdom. In turn, those in Madrid still do not understand that the path of repression can only give more fuel to the separatist drive and seem to put their trust in a response fit for the past century. The views of each side about the “enemy” seem to run on parallel tracks.
Josep Lobera is professor of sociology at the Universidad Autónoma in Madrid.
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