Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia

Monday, 24 february 2014 | Patrick Roca


Time is against Madrid on the Catalan question (Patrick Roca)

The following article is a translation and adaptation of the French version published on our website on January 30th 2014  by the same author: "Catalogne : peut-on gouverner contre 80% des citoyens ?

By Patrick Roca

"Why do Catalans insist on demanding independence, while Spain is one of the most decentralized countries in the world?” This was one of the main arguments put forward by Mr. Margallo, Spanish Minister for Foreign Affairs, in a recent internal communication sent to all Spanish ambassadors. Mr. Margallo is a leading figure in the offensive of Mariano Rajoy’s government against the rising pro-independence Catalan movement. The fact that this role is played by Madrid’s Minister for Foreign Affairs may seem a Freudian slip, but it probably just reveals that the Catalan question has long ceased to be a Spanish internal affair.

Mr. Margallo is one of Mariano Rajoy’s most intelligent ministers: the idea that Catalonia currently enjoys a very high degree of autonomy is indeed quite widely accepted abroad. However, a deeper understanding of the political and legal reality of the Spanish State shows that Spain’s "unique" decentralization system is quite deceiving. Indeed, 75 % of Catalans have been unhappy with their level of autonomy long before the crisis started.

This dissatisfaction can easily be explained. A vast majority of Catalans see themselves as a nation. But this nation lacks political or legal guarantees, preventing the Spanish state from imposing its will in all fields of competence or from dealing with Catalonia in a discriminatory manner. The fact that Madrid refuses to negotiate with Catalonia or to accept a Scottish-style referendum should not come as a surprise: what is rejected by Spain’s central government is not only independence, it is the very notion of having to make a pact between equals with Catalonia, without imposing its will. But the longer the present crisis goes on, the more obvious it becomes to external observers that Catalonia indeed is a distinct political society.

A political system that ignores plurinationality

The crux of the Catalan political question is that, although the Spanish Constitution recognizes the existence of minority "nationalities" within the State, it does not provide for any mechanism to protect these against the will of the majority. The political majority is thus free to impose its policies even when they are perceived as "hostile" by the minorities.

It is often said that the problem with Belgium is the coexistence within one state of two "democracies," two different political societies, Flanders and French-speaking Belgium, with different political parties, which tends to block the proper functioning of the federal state. The same is true for Catalonia and Spain.

Only 7% of Catalans feel only or mostly Spanish, and this figure is steadily declining. As a result, Spain’s “national” parties (PP and PSOE) account for less than 30% of the Catalan MP’s. Catalans have been voting mostly for Catalan parties for more than a century now, at least when they were able to vote, that is if we exclude (long) periods of dictatorships. These dictatorships were in part motivated by the fear of a Catalan secession. Indeed, Madrid also tends to see Catalonia as an unreliable and quasi foreign province. It is therefore quite logical that Spain never had Catalan Prime Ministers, except for two years in the 1870’s. When the Spanish company Endesa was about to be bought by the Catalan Gas Natural, the reaction of the President of the Regional Government of Madrid was to warn that Endesa should not “leave the national territory.” Catalonia is seen as a province still to be hispanicised: to justify the imposition of Spanish as a language of instruction, the current Spanish Minister of Education even stated that "it is in our interest to hispanicise Catalan children."

This duality of Spain and Belgium is not new. It has dominated the domestic political debate since the 19th century. It is the result of a double weakness: unlike Ireland or Norway, Catalonia and Flanders were not strong enough to break away, but Spain and French-speaking Belgium also proved unable to assimilate these regions.

However, there are a few radical differences between Spain and Belgium. In Belgium both national communities more or less have the same demographic and political weight (60% Flemings and 40% Francophones). Forming a government therefore requires a "compromise" between the two language groups (which sometimes does not go without difficulties). Furthermore, from a legal point of view, the present Belgian Constitution also lays down a series of mechanisms to ensure that one community cannot impose its will on the other one. According to some analysts, this system results in the recurring paralysis and inefficiency of the Belgian State. But the situation is not much better for Catalonia, which accounts for only 15 % of the Spanish population and lacks the legal or political tools to decisively influence decisions taken by Madrid which directly affect it. Being a part of Spain means much more than just paralysis or inefficiency for Catalonia: it means a constant invasion of the areas under its jurisdiction and a planned economic strangulation.

Incomplete decentralization

Let’s first have a look at the invasion of areas under Catalan jurisdiction. The Government of Mariano Rajoy claims that Spain is one of the most decentralized states in Europe, but this is rather doubtful from a legal point of view. None of the Catalan areas of competence are exclusive under Spanish constitutional law. Even in the areas of culture and education, the central government retains the competence to set basic rules, often in an extensive way, which means that the Catalan government tends to operate as a mere decentralized administration. This is in blatant contrast with Belgium, where communities have complete jurisdiction over language, culture and education.

Since the Partido Popular came to power in Madrid in 2011, this trend has accelerated and many legislative acts passed since then have tended to recentralize the Spanish State. The PP holds less than 15 % of the seats in the Catalan Parliament, but its absolute majority in the Spanish Parliament allows it to impose its will through the central government, even in areas under Catalan jurisdiction. One of the most controversial projects is the Spanish law making Spanish a language of instruction, therefore contradicting a Catalan law voted by 80% of the Catalan MP’s which provides that Catalan is the language of instruction.

One of the reasons behind this complex structure of shared powers may very well be the existence of two political societies in Spain. Madrid does not fully trust Catalan politicians, who mostly belong to Catalan and not Spanish parties and are thus not tied by party discipline. As a result, it feels that the central government should not give full-fledged powers to the regions in any area. It is also because of this feared loss of control that the judiciary has remained centralized in Spain, with only a small proportion of the judges in Catalonia being Catalan.

Economic strangulation

Is it correct to talk of an “economic strangulation” of Catalonia by the Spanish government, while Catalonia is competent to levy directly about half of its taxes, something Flanders or Wallonia cannot do? On paper, Spain’s tax system seems more decentralized than Belgium’s. But the 50% of taxes directly levied by Madrid are only partially spent in Catalonia. Therefore, it is estimated that more than 8% of the Catalan GDP is transferred each year to other regions. This level of transfers is unrivalled in Europe. It is about twice as high as the transfers between Flanders and Wallonia. This figure was confirmed in 2008 with the publication of "tax balances" by the Spanish Ministry of Finance. This produced an outcry in Catalonia, especially when compared to the low level of investments of the central government in the region, and the Ministry has carefully avoided to publish this report ever since.

These transfers would be acceptable if they were made in the name of solidarity with poorer regions and if they didn’t threaten the economic future of Catalonia. But this is rather controversial: it has been argued that the magnitude of the tax transfers is rather indicative of a planned economic strangulation of Catalonia for political reasons.

Catalonia is a relatively rich region: it is a net contributor to the EU and its GDP per capita before taxes is comparable to that of Northern European countries. But after taxes and after transfers, the Catalan GDP per capita is inferior to that of several Spanish regions: in other words, some regions helped by Catalan solidarity eventually become richer than the region helping them. This level of transfers is also structural because it is partly linked to political clientelism: Catalonia has a specific political identity and it votes less and less for the two big Spanish “national” parties. These prefer to invest in their electoral strongholds. This is, once again, a major Spanish political dysfunction rooted in the de facto existence of two distinct political societies.

Ultimately, to guarantee a proper level of public services, the Catalan government has to raise taxes and to borrow money. The economic strangulation thus leads to the paradox that a region with a GDP per capita and level of taxation comparable to that of northern Europe ends up having Southern European standards for public services and a public debt exceeding that of most other Spanish regions. But this economic strangulation helps to achieve a significant political goal: the dependence of Catalonia vis-à-vis the Spanish State, which can then attach conditions to its financial support.

Assimilating or reforming the Spanish State?

Since the early 2000s, almost all Catalan parties share the view that regional powers are fragile, which threatens the future of Catalonia as a distinct nation with its own language and culture, and that the tax treatment by Madrid is discriminatory, which in turn threatens the economic future and well-being of its inhabitants.

Three options were available to remedy this situation. Two of them were largely considered to be ineffective, while the third one was torpedoed by a controversial judgment of the Spanish Constitutional Court.

The first solution was to co-operate with Spanish political parties, while retaining the nature of Catalonia as a distinct political society. This was the strategy followed by the former Catalan President Jordi Pujol during most of the 90’s. He managed to influence Spanish politics and to obtain the devolution of more powers to Catalonia. The political price, however, was huge: concessions to Catalonia were seen by many Spaniards as undue “privileges,” and the first surge of “catalanophobic” campaigns was experienced in some influential Spanish media, especially targeting the language. This is also why Spanish parties tended to avoid having to pay any political price for this collaboration.

A second solution would have been “dissolution,” or assimilation: integration within the Spanish parties in order to decisively influence the politics in Madrid. This strategy was mostly followed by the Catalan Socialists. It has not been regarded as a success by Catalan voters, to say the least, as this party has experienced a rapid electoral decline since 1999, shrinking from 58 to 20 MP’s. It is a fact that tax transfers have remained constant and that very little progress has been made in the recognition of the plurinationality of the State, irrespective of the number of Catalan Socialist Ministers in Madrid. Integration within Spanish parties was also not manageable on the right side of the Spanish political spectrum: the PP integrates some Spanish nationalist features into its program, which in turn made stable cooperation with Catalan centre-right parties awkward. Furthermore, regional governments led by the PP in other Spanish regions with a specific language and culture, such as Valencia, Galicia and the Balearic Islands, did little to modify the level of tax transfers and objectively have had a negative impact on the protection of the local language and culture, a highly sensitive issue in Catalonia.

Spanish refusal of proposed reforms

The solution that was chosen after 2003 was thus to reform the Catalan Statute of Autonomy in order to integrate some Belgian-style mechanisms of protection. The new Statute secured Catalan powers by limiting the possibilities of invasion of jurisdiction; it laid down the principle of "ordinality" (after transfers, Catalonia cannot become poorer per capita than the regions receiving transfers); it recognized Catalonia as a nation within Spain; and it gave equal standing to Catalan and Spanish in Catalonia. These changes would have made it possible for both political societies to co-exist within one State, as it provided some basic protection of the minority against the political will of the majority in some crucial aspects.

The new Statute of Autonomy was voted in 2006 by the Catalan and Spanish Parliaments and it was widely ratified by the Catalan people in a referendum. The PP, although a minority at the time, both in the Catalan as in the Spanish Parliament, launched a campaign against the new Statute, which was seen by many as "catalanophobic." Most importantly, it managed to obtain through legal and political manoeuvres what it could not obtain democratically in Parliament. The Spanish Constitutional Court is largely politicized and dominated by the PP and the PSOE, without guaranteeing equal representation for Catalans in matters affecting them, contrary to what happens in Belgium. After manoeuvring and changing the composition of the Court to its favour, the PP had the key points of the Catalan Statute declared unconstitutional in an important ruling in June 2010: Catalans were left with no protection against the invasions of jurisdiction, no principle of ordinality, no recognition as a nation and no equal standing of Catalan and Spanish.

Surge of the independence movement and the Spanish refusal to negotiate

The economic crisis, which has been felt harshly in Spain since 2010, has amplified the Catalan reaction, but the chronology of events clearly shows that the roots of the political crisis go much deeper. The failed Statute reform marks a turning point in Catalan politics, as it evidences that Spain cannot be reformed to ensure the survival of the Catalan nation as a distinct political society. Like many former supporters of greater autonomy within Spain, the former Catalan President Jordi Pujol, symbol of the co-operation strategy between Madrid and Barcelona, expressed the view that independence is a matter of political survival and the only solution to the current political deadlock. Support for a referendum on independence has now reached 80%. In such a referendum, the “yes” vote has been leading for two years in all the polls, with 45% to 55% of the votes, vs. 25% to 35% going to the “no” vote. Catalan political parties cannot step back on this issue, because the independence momentum mainly comes from the citizens, organized in apolitical platforms such as the Catalan National Assembly, which manages to mobilize between 1 and 2 million people each year in demonstrations for independence. Hence the recent convening of a referendum scheduled for 9 November 2014, following an agreement involving 65% of the Catalan MP’s.

For now, contrary to what is happening in Scotland and what happened in Quebec, Spain is fighting tooth and nail against the idea of a Catalan vote. This opposition is surprising from a democratic point of view, but it is also logical. What Madrid opposes is the very recognition of Catalonia as a political subject. Even in case of a result against independence, holding such a referendum means recognizing that Catalonia is a distinct political society, and that the major policy issues affecting it should be dealt with through a pact of equals between Madrid and Barcelona, not merely through imposition.

Is refusing a referendum a viable strategy to maintain the status quo in Spain and to prevent Catalans from deciding on their collective future? Mr. Rajoy is known for his reluctance to address problems: he rather resists and waits until problems solve themselves. This is what he did in the midst of the financial crisis in Spain in 2012. But it is debatable whether this is a wise strategy in this case. As the crisis lingers, Madrid’s refusal of any political move will be less and less understood abroad. International media coverage is also doing more than all campaigns of the last 30 years to position Catalonia with Scotland and Quebec on the short list of nations without a State. In Catalonia, the pro-independence movement and the civil society as a whole are all the more united by the lack of any credible alternative to independence, as the status quo is rejected by 75% of Catalan citizens.

Time does not seem to be on Mr. Rajoy's side here. Madrid can impede a referendum, but it cannot deprive Catalans of their right to vote. With European, Spanish and Catalan elections to be held in 2014, 2015 and 2016 respectively, Catalans will already be given many opportunities to express their views on independence. If they keep voting as a distinct political society and back pro-independence parties, Madrid may refuse to face reality and to recognize them as a nation, but it is not clear whether the international community will share its view.

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Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia

Col·lectiu Emma is a network of Catalans and non-Catalans living in different countries who have made it their job to track and review news reports about Catalonia in the international media. Our goal is to ensure that the world's public opinion gets a fair picture of the country's reality today and in history.

We aim to be recognized as a trustworthy source of information and ideas about Catalonia from a Catalan point of view.
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Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia