Tuesday, 3 september 2013
A progress report on the Catalan road to independence
News reports coming from Spain in the recent months have tended to focus on the continuing effects of the crisis there – mounting debt, sky-high unemployment and few or no signs of economic recovery. Serious corruption scandals, involving most notably the royal family and the upper echelons of the ruling party, have also made the headlines. To top it all off, we've even seen a latter-day comeback of the old chestnut – Gibraltar – which every Spanish government will fall back on whenever it needs to distract its subjects' attention from their problems and from its inability to solve them.
The political situation in Catalonia, on the other hand, has been generally absent from those accounts. Only a year ago, all major international media carried the story of one and a half million people demonstrating in Barcelona, and many editorialized on the apparently unstoppable Catalan bid for independence – of which little has been heard since. One could be tempted to conclude that the momentum has been lost and that, after that initial burst of enthusiasm, the dream of national freedom has simply faded away.
There are many reasons why the Catalan political project shouldn't be written off. For one thing, the people have been signaling their resolve at every possible turn. All opinion polls, including the presumably biased ones conducted by official Spanish institutions or at the request of normally unsympathetic media, show that support for the Catalans' right to decide their own future remains at around 80 per cent. This tendency is confirmed on the ground by the proliferation of grassroots activities – every day of every week somewhere in Catalonia a book presentation, a public rally, a town hall meeting or a social gathering of some kind become an occasion to discuss the pros and cons of independence.
And while the people are taking every opportunity to voice their desire for change, their political representatives are working to provide them with a formal channel to express those views. In November 2012, a new administration was voted in with a mandate to ask Catalans in a referendum what kind of political arrangement they want for their country. For that it can count on a large measure of parliamentary support. Beyond their natural disagreements, groupings as disparate as the Christian Democrats and the Green Left, and others in-between, are united in that demand. As things now stand, those aligned with the Spanish position of rejecting a public ballot on the issue hold just over one fifth of parliamentary seats, while almost two thirds are decidedly in favor of seeking the people's opinion.
On the strength of those numbers, Catalan President Artur Mas is more than justified to stick to the road map that the ruling coalition and its backers have drawn up for the present administration. Back in January, Parliament adopted by close to a two-thirds majority a formal declaration of sovereignty reaffirming the Catalans' collective rights as a nation. Needless to say, this was immediately challenged by the Spanish government and the matter is now before the constitutional court in Madrid. Knowing where the high magistrates' loyalties lie, there can be little doubt about their eventual ruling, and in any case few people are holding their breath.
In a more practical vein, a process has been set in motion to create an independent tax authority responsible for managing all fiscal revenues collected in Catalonia. The survival of the Catalan economic and social model requires control over public funds which are now appropriated by the Spanish government and used in ways that serve its own purposes rather than the needs of the society where the wealth was generated in the first place. A group of experts was established in January to explore the legal and practical issues involved and to recommend viable options. Their report is expected by the end of the year.
In February, another panel of eminent persons, the so-called Advisory Council for the National Transition, was convened. Its members, all of them highly respected academic experts in different fields, were tasked to map out a process leading to full sovereignty, including the shape of a future Catalan polity and the steps required in the interim period. The first of several reports that will be forthcoming is out now, justifying the need to ask Catalans about the kind of links they wish to have with Spain, identifying legal options to make a referendum possible and suggesting other practical actions in a variety of areas.
Outside the official sphere, the uncomfortable relation with Spain is also the subject of an ongoing debate in Catalan society. For a long time now, and from various perspectives, private individuals, civil-society groups, academic institutions, professional associations, trade unions and employers' organizations have all been sitting down to weigh the uncertainties of an independent future against the grim certainties of today's political dead end.
Thus, a strong case is gradually being made to support the Catalan position. Armed with these arguments, and relying on a firm political and popular backing, President Artur Mas has also been able to make good on his pledge to formally convey to Spanish President Mariano Rajoy the Catalans' demand of a plebiscite. On July 26 an official letter was sent requesting the Spanish government's cooperation to find within the existing legal framework a formula for allowing a referendum on whether Catalonia should remain a part of Spain or become an independent country.
While the Catalan side keeps piling up reasons, no one in Spain seems even ready to consider any overture that could unblock the situation. Mr. Rajoy's government hasn't budged from the frustrating line of invoking the Spanish constitution – or a partial reading of it – to stonewall all proposals coming from Catalonia, no matter how legitimate or how respectfully put across. At the same time, it is pursuing a hostile strategy towards Catalonia – using its control of public funds to sustain a crippling financial stranglehold on the Catalan administration; launching a recentralizing drive under the pretext of streamlining the administration; adopting laws and regulations encroaching on areas that fall under the powers devolved to the regions; escalating the familiar campaign against Catalan symbols and cultural expressions; and condoning, if not encouraging, a dangerous climate of hate against Catalans all over Spain, including in the social networks and the mainstream media.
This strategy of stalling on the key political issue while stepping up pressure on Catalonia on all other fronts can be self-defeating, in that it might bring the situation to a point of no return and force a unilateral move on the Catalan side. Catalans have made it very clear that they wish to be heard. Their representatives are determined to uphold the people's right to have a vote, and to make it happen one way or another. Respected international voices are also asking why and in the name of what a supposedly enlightened and advanced Western state can oppose such a basic act of democracy as letting the people speak. One can only hope that the Spanish political establishment will finally acknowledge the reality and the urgency of the Catalan issue and make an honest effort to find an agreed solution. The first indispensable step, if only as a sign of good will, would be a commonly acceptable plan for holding a referendum in Catalonia.
In the meantime, the Catalan process is steadily moving forward. It is mostly a quiet struggle, waged with rational arguments, an open dialogue and realistic proposals. This is why it may go unnoticed until on a special occasion – the Catalan National Day, September 11, is just around the corner – some massive act of affirmation comes as a reminder that the dream is very much alive. So don't take your eyes off Catalonia just yet. The people there are dead set on building a better future for their nation.