Democracy beyond the streets and courts: The need for a Spanish–Catalan compromise

by Jose Piquer

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In the second article in our series on Catalonia, Jose Piquer argues that the time has come for a new democratic vision where Spaniards and Catalans live imperfectly together rather than forever apart. This series has been commissioned by the Forum on Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge.

It has now been more than five years since the Catalan crisis mutated into a sort of existential crisis for Spain. During this time, clamour in the streets of Barcelona for Catalonia’s independence has been met with a lack of political imagination in Madrid. While pro-independence leaders have failed to recognise the power of the rule of law when it is applied to its full extent, the Spanish government has failed to offer any meaningful solution beyond the law. Five years of confronting the streets with the courts has ended in a stalemate. Appeals to the EU will not break it. Can Spaniards and Catalans finally opt for living imperfectly together, rather than forever apart?

Streets and courts, but not #Francoland

In dealing with the Catalan crisis, the unionists – led by the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy – have often grounded their responses in appeals to the law, relying on the courts to contain the separatist challenge: the Spanish Constitutional Court has suspended several laws passed by the Catalan Parliament; the October 2017 referendum was declared illegal, and Catalan officials have been arrested on charges of possible rebellion, sedition and embezzlement of funds. This over-legalistic approach has displayed a lack of political initiative by the Spanish government, while also suffocating any unionist attempt to offer a passionate, positive vision for the future – a political vision that could seduce enough Catalans to think twice before voting for independence.

In contrast, pro-independence leaders have used popular mobilisation to challenge the status quo. During the last few years, hundreds of thousands of Catalans have demonstrated in the streets, in particular during La Diada (Catalonia’s national day), calling for Catalonia’s independence. In this uprising of popular fervour, supporters of independence have rallied in the name of the Catalan people, and their demands have been conflated with the will of Catalonia, ignoring the other half of the population.   

Since 2010 Catalans have voted in two local (2011, 2015), four regional (2010, 2012, 2015, 2017), three national (2011, 2015, 2016) and one European (2014) election, as well as two unofficial or illegal consultations (2014, 2017). The emphasis on popular mobilisation has often shown little esteem for the rule of law, and the language of self-determination has been saturated with hyperbolic references to oppression and discrimination. Let’s be clear: Spain is not Francoland. The abuse of this discourse has hindered the ability of the pro-independence movement to embrace a less radical platform of compromise, which may have appealed to more people to improve the status quo.

Both the appeals to Spanish law and to the Catalan people have their limits and perils, but they have remained powerful strategies throughout the procés because they have been electorally successful for both sides. Plebiscitary elections, court indictments, massive demonstrations and legal challenges are not inimical to representative democracy, but these features cannot substitute the need for compromise in democratic politics. Streets and courts do not often talk to each other and, when they clash, the task of governing is quickly forgotten and political compromise becomes pathological.

Today Catalonia is a deeply divided society. There are simply not enough Catalans who believe they should secede from Spain because they are oppressed, but the Catalans who are willing to leave Spain in the absence of a new relationship are too numerous to be ignored. So the time may have come to end to this dialogue of the deaf and strike a deal. Can appeals to Europe be of any help?

A non-European affair

No external factor has played a bigger role in the Catalan crisis than what the EU has to say about the dispute. Diplocat, the former Catalan government PR agency, has toured European capitals, organised debates in European universities and held meetings in Brussels to promote the Catalan cause as a democratic struggle for freedom. The strategy has had the effect of sweetening a narrative that may otherwise have looked like the separatism of the prosperous, as Tony Judt once put it.

The Spanish government has concentrated on back-channel, off-line diplomacy to secure the support of European governments, with little interest in persuading European publics of the unionist position – an arrogant strategy that left the government speechless when they were confronted with the disproportionate use of police force during the banned referendum in October 2017

European officials and leaders have nonetheless backed the Spanish government, much to the dismay of pro-independence leaders, like Mr Puigdemont, who still hopes that European recognition will ultimately follow suit if momentum is maintained. Yet there are limits to how European this troubled relationship can be. For one thing, it is unclear how the political crisis in Catalonia may expand to other EU countries, even if one is willing to see it as a geopolitical struggle for state power. Likewise, the Catalan question cannot become a European affair simply because it cannot stop being a Spanish one, no matter how much one desires otherwise. Spain is not Kosovo and the EU has neither the means nor the will to solve what the Spaniards and Catalans cannot agree upon themselves.

At best, the Catalan crisis can offer an insightful lesson to Europeans: in the absence of an inspiring, collective vision for the future of the EU, this is what awaits you. The contours of such a future appeared during the financial crisis, when mutual recriminations between the Germans and the Greeks, the Greeks and the Spaniards, the north and the south, filled the European room with toxic air. As always, Judt was right: if 'Europe' stands for the winners, who will speak for the losers?

A made-in-Spain way forward

In the short term, normalisation in Spain will not come from Europe. It will entail the election of a new regional president by the recently elected Catalan parliament (perhaps a president other than Mr Puigdemont); that the Spanish government cease the application of article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which gives direct control to the central government over Catalan autonomy, and an end to the permanent sense of exceptionalism and agitation of recent years so that both the regional government and parliament can concentrate on, well, governing. It has been more than five years of procés hegemony. To be frank, only Argentinians are able to cope humorously with such levels of prolonged social unrest

Even if a temporary political truce is agreed upon, wounds will need time to heal. Hence, in the long run, a binding referendum in Catalonia (with a double-majority threshold requirement) may still be the second-best option for all parties. If a majority of Catalans vote in favour of independence (which I doubt), independence will have to follow. In the event of a tight result, Spain's political leaders may embark on constitutional reform to accommodate some of the separatist demands, while respecting the principles of solidarity between regions and equal rights for all citizens regardless of where they live – still a red line for many people. Depending on the scope and procedure of reform, the new constitution would need to be ratified by all Spanish citizens in a national referendum.

The outcome may not satisfy everyone. In fact, it may leave everyone equally dissatisfied. Democracy is imperfect and, in this matter, Spain is not an exception. Yet, for all of the political discrepancies that divide the country, it is not chimerical to believe that those who have lived, married, shared and celebrated their multiple identities for centuries can still find good reasons to live imperfectly together rather than forever apart. This is a powerful vision that too many people in Catalonia are unfortunately keen to discard.

About the author

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Jose Piquer is a PhD Candidate and Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) at the University of Cambridge.
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