In the Catalan crisis, pro-independence politicians have proven themselves particularly astute in their tactical judgments and this has undoubtedly accelerated the crisis. Nevertheless the fact remains that the Spanish government and the institutions of the European Union have failed abjectly in defusing this crisis. Catalan independence, whatever the deleterious externalities, is now a real prospect. The government in Madrid may fall. One of Spain’s most prosperous regions may be suspended in a period of indefinite chaos. The European project is potentially in jeopardy. Dark historical parallels are recalled. This is a catastrophe of potentially unlimited proportions. It can only be hoped that wiser heads shortly reject the blinkered recent policies so poorly fumbled in response to the Catalan conundrum.
By Matthew Parish
In the evening of Friday 27 October 2017, the Catalan Parliament voted to declare independence from Spain. The vote was undertaken by a secret ballot of the Catalan deputies (itself an extraordinary means of voting for Spanish MP’s) on the Friday afternoon. The outcome of the vote was declared while Madrid’s Senate was closing its simultaneous debate upon whether to invoke Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution to revoke Catalonia’s autonomy and impose direct rule. This is something Spain has never done save under the government of its fascist leader General Francisco Franco, when he executed the last Catalan leader to declare independence, Lluís Companys, in 1940.
The timing of the Catalan Parliament’s declaration of independence was impeccable, and once again revealed the political dexterity and determination of Catalonia’s pro-independence leaders. After appearing to hesitate for several weeks after the 1 October referendum to the dismay of their constituents, they waited until the Spanish Senate was in session to approve the Spanish Prime Minister’s proposal for intercession in Catalonia’s affairs. Then the Parliamentarians voted in private, to make it harder for the Spanish Prosecutors to charge Catalonia’s deputies with rebellion or sedition as had been threatened. This was because there would be no record of who voted how.
Then the Catalan authorities withheld the results of the vote until just before the Senate was about to vote. At the last minute the result of the vote was announced, forcing the Spanish Senate (the Senado) hastily to change the resolutions it was about to pass. Whereas the Senado had originally anticipated dismissing the Catalan government and arranging for new elections within six months, now it hurriedly rewrote its decision to include dissolution of the Catalan parliament and organisation of new elections for 21 December 2017 (i.e. in less than two months).
The Catalan parliament has 135 members. The two pro-independence groups have 72 seats, and the opposition (anti-independence parties) have 63. The opposition parties mostly boycotted the vote. The parliamentary tally in favour of independence was reported as 70:10, with two abstentions / spoiled ballots cast by MP’s from pro-independence parties. The best possible inference from this data is that of the 63 anti-independence deputies, 53 boycotted and 10 attended but voted against. But given the anonymous nature of the ballot, the actual breakdown may never be known with precision.
One intriguing question is why 10 MP’s from anti-independence parties attended a vote when the majority of their colleagues from the same parties did not. The practical effect of this was to give cover to the pro-independence deputies within the secret ballot, so that the Spanish authorities could not be certain which MP’s voted in favour of independence and hence to charge with the political crimes of rebellion and/or sedition. It has long been rumoured that the Catalan independence movement may include some Catalan MP’s who publicly oppose independence but support it tacitly. This applies even to deputies from Madrid-based parties that are ostensibly anti-independence. Whereas 70/80 makes a majority of 87%, and 70/135 conveniently makes a majority of 51%, 80/135 makes a majority of 60%. This may be the most accurate estimated percentage for the number of Catalan MP’s explicitly or tacitly supporting independence.
The Senado’s hurried resolution was scheduled for just twenty minutes after the Catalan Parliament declared independence to the enthusiastic cries of a large pro-independence demonstration outside. The organisers of an anti-independence demonstration misplayed their hand in organising their event for 29 October 2017, two days after all the principal events had taken place. Various EU member states pushed out hurried statements on Friday night, declaring that they would not recognise an independent Catalonia. These announcements only stated the obvious. The Catalan leaders knew they would not do so. That is not their strategy. In the interim, images were broadcast across the world by the international media of Spanish flags being taken down from government buildings and replaced with the Catalan pro-independence emblem. The rapid development of events became a public relations catastrophe for the Spanish government virtually immediately.
The faces of the Catalan independence leaders on television on Friday evening, including that of Carles Puidgemont, looked grave. They knew that once this threshold had been passed they had only limited control over what they had unleashed. They face arrest upon various political charges. But arrest feels the same whatever the charges; the Madrid government has already arrested two pro-independence leaders on charges of sedition and imprisoned them pending trial. Now the Catalan pro-independence leaders are on the run. The attitude of the Catalan local police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, will be critical. Madrid’s Senate purported to demote the Chief of the Mossos, who bizarrely promptly thereafter declared allegiance to Madrid (once his allegiance was no long revenant because he had been denuded of authority). At the time of writing it is unknown who is really going to be running the Mossos and whether they will take instructions from Madrid. If they do not, what will Madrid do? How will it enforce its decisions?
The Spanish paramilitary central police, the Guardia Civil, might try to occupy Catalan local police stations. They might try to occupy the Catalan parliament to prevent it sitting or to arrest all of its members. They might try to occupy the offices of Carles Puidgemont, the Catalan President now ostensibly dismissed along with his entire cabinet pursuant to decree of Madrid. (Bizarrely, Madrid has declared Puidgemont to have be replaced by the Spanish Deputy Prime Minister, a Partido Popular hawk. Does she intend relocating to Puidgemont’s office in Barcelona in the course of her rule?) What will the Mossos do if Madrid central government forces start to occupy Catalan government buildings? Will they fight? Will they resist? Will they cooperate? Of the Catalan politicians dismissed from office, who will volunteer themselves for arrest and imprisonment by turning up to work in the face of Madrid’s edicts? Will other government ministers start working from secret offices?
At the time of writing, all the steps are being put in place by pro-independence forces for a massive exercise in peaceful civil disobedience by Catalan public officials. Civil servants are declaring that they will not accept Madrid’s orders. Protestors are organising human chains around government buildings. A ten-day strike has been called. Puidgemont, casually attending lunch in a local restaurant on the Saturday after the Friday evening declaration of independence, issued a statement indicating that he fully intends to continue serving as the President of an independent Catalan Republic.
The current course of events in Catalonia is dangerous. If politicians are driven underground; there are threats of political arrests; diverse police forces are potentially in conflict; tens of thousands of people are on the streets (for example blockading police stations, surrounding government buildings, or arriving with their children, as happened at polling stations during the contested 1 October 2017 referendum) then the potential for chaos, violence and instability is high. Assuming the prime candidates for arrest by Madrid are sufficiently deft to avoid surveillance and detention (something they proved to be during the referendum on 1 October), the creation of two parallel government structures seems likely. Catalan political structures may be torn apart through divided loyalties.
What happens next? There are various options.
One option is that Rajoy orders the tanks to enter Barcelona. He engages the military. Given that the Spanish King is apparently unqualifiedly behind Rajoy, the Spanish army would presumably comply. But what would this achieve? Military occupation of a territory is of limited value without a strategy for imposing renewed civilian rule within a meaningful timescale. Soldiers cannot run tax offices. They can raid buildings and carry people away. But they would be doing this in plain sight of the world’s media. The image of military vehicles rolling down Barcelona’s tourist street Las Ramblas would ruin Spain and Catalonia alike. The negative associations with Franco’s Spain, and the insinuations of the reemergence of fascism in contemporary Europe, would have consequences far beyond Spain’s borders. The European Union must be hoped to be doing everything to prevent this outcome. If military intervention does take place, then all common sense has been lost and we are experiencing a recreation of the darkest days of the second half of the 1930’s.
A second option is the use of force by the Guardia Civil and Police Nacional (the latter being Spain’s central police force, unlike the Guardia Civil not under a military control structure) to seek to compel the entry of Madrid functionaries into the offices of deposed Catalan bureaucrats. Again this is likely to be a public relations disaster. Even if the Mossos d’Esquadra remain passive, as they did during the 1 October 2017 referendum, it will be an overwhelmingly difficult task to take control of the civilian administration. The Mossos may well just melt away. Let us hope that they do. If they are persuaded to adopt a course of resistance, then Catalonia and Spain will find themselves on the verge of civil war. There are 17,000 armed members of the Mossos, who know Catalonia intimately and in a way national police forces never can.
For every public official arrested and imprisoned, there will be more demonstrations, possibly another general strike, and an increased hardening of Catalans’ attitudes towards the central government. The only possible arrest that might dampen the independence movement would be that of Carles Puidgemont. This gentleman must be taking the most extraordinary security precautions at the current time. But even if he were careless or unlucky (and so far he has indicated that he is neither of these things), his detention would create a further outcry of potentially even more monumental proportions than those seen so far. Moreover it must be assumed that the Catalan pro-independence movement, led by the wealthy and canny former Catalan President Artur Mas (himself removed from office by political forces loyal to Madrid after organising an unofficial referendum on Catalan independence in 2014), has a replacement for Puidgdemont in the event that he is deposed. Mas is rumoured to be worth some US$400 million. Although this does not compare to the fortunes of Spain’s 26 reported billionaires, Mas is close to at least two of those 26. Puidgemont is Mas’s choice to lead the independence movement, and Mas is too wealthy and well-connected to go anywhere.
The notion that the Catalan independence movement is not supported by a significant element of Spain’s top business interests, and not opposed by another significant element of the same faction, is implausible. This is at least as much a battle of financial titans as that of the politicians they stand behind. The proposals in the partially subsequently annulled 2006 Statute of Catalan Autonomy would have devolved tax revenues and expenditure within Catalonia to the Catalan regional government. This is what Catalan regional businessmen wanted, and precisely what the Spanish oligarchs loyal to Madrid were afraid of. This is a battle for control of financial revenues between commercial elites.
A third option is that Rajoy does nothing beyond making a merely token effort to apply Article 155. This may be the most likely option. Rajoy works slowly. If there were a time to use force, it would be immediately, while Spain and the rest of the world is in shock. The longer there is reticence to use force after the declaration of independence on the evening of Friday 27 October 2017, the less likely that the tenuous political alliance in Madrid between the Partido Popular (with its origins in Franco’s dictatorship) and the Socialist Workers Party (whose origins lie in the Republican movement in Spain’s 1936-1939 civil war) in favour of an uncompromising stance against Catalonia’s leaders can be sustained. The greater the delay, the less comprehensible will eventual state violence be to the world’s media and the EU politicians who will have hoped that the crisis was dissipating. It is in everybody’s interests, save those of Catalan politicians in favour of independence, that events be brought to a stable equilibrium sooner rather than later.
But acting quickly has proven not to be within Rajoy’s instincts. The legal measures he took on 27 October 2017, if enforced at all, should have been executed well before the 1 October 2017 referendum. Instead Rajoy suffered an emerging catastrophe that unfolded in agonising slow-motion. His reserve and hesitancy to act quickly itself call for explanation, given that he is capable of dramatic action eventually. He did order the Guardia Civil to try to prevent the 1 October 2017 referendum, to the horror or the world’s media. He did invoke Article 155 in the end. The Sneado proffered much applause. But this controversial decision, and the applause, could and should have come earlier if it was to come at all.
Rajoy seems not to be his own man. He presides over a minority government. His Partido Popular is in the curious position of occupying only 134 seats out of 350 in the Congreso de los Diputados, the lower house of Spain’s parliament the Cortes Generales; but 149 seats out of 266 in the Senado, the upper house. It is the Senado alone that was mandated to approve invocation of Article 155, rendering an easy victory for Rajoy’s proposal. The explanation for the discrepancy between the number of seats occupied in each house by Rajoy’s Partido Popular (in principle elections to each house are simultaneous) is the different systems of voting for representatives in the two chambers.
The members of the Congreso are elected by party-list proportional representation (i.e. each political party provides a list of potential MP’s, and they obtain the number of MP’s roughly proportionate to the number of citizens who voted for them). The representation of the Partido Popular in the Congreso is therefore a fairly accurate representation of the popularity of the party amongst Spaniards as a whole. It does not enjoy majority support.
By contrast the majority of the members of the Senado are elected by reference to Spain’s 50 provinces, approximately irrespective of the population of each province. The basic regime is that each province is represented by four Senators, although there are some variations. Catalonia consists of four provinces. A minority of Senators are appointed by the autonomous regional parliaments in proportion to a formula. The net result is that Catalonia receives 24 Senators out of 266: that is to say 9% of the seats. But Catalonia consists of 16% of the population of Spain.
The Senado electoral system is heavily weighted in favour of small provinces. The province of Soria, with 100,000 inhabitants (0.2% of the population of Spain), has four Senators (1.5% of the Senado). Catalonia has only 56% of the Senators it ought to have on a proportional basis; Soria has 750%. (Madrid, with 12% of the Spanish population, has 4% of the seats in the Senado and thus has only 33% of its “rightful” representation.) The natural majority of the Partido Popular in the Senado is by virtue of the fact that small, rural provinces are more naturally inclined to conservatism. Of the 24 Senators representing Catalonia, only one is from the Partido Popular (appointed by the Catalan regional parliament pursuant to the principle that regional appointed representatives should sit in proportion to local parliamentary representation of political parties). For Rajoy, Catalonia’s representation in the Senate is not of great interest to him. The Partido Populat is not hugely popular in Catalonia and it never has been.
It is not obvious that had Rajoy’s proposed Article 155 measures been presented to the Congreso rather than the Senado, they could have been passed. That may explain why Rajoy has spent the past several weeks delivering speeches appealing to Spanish patriotism and unity. He had a major political task underway, to carry the general will of the Cortes Generales with him for the draconian approach he had elected to adopt.
Rajoy’s slow pace is best explained by the precarious politics of his coalition, that was approved in the Congreso only with the non-objection of the Socialist Workers Party that holds 84 seats. With active opposition, the Socialists could have blocked formation of a government in 2016; the governing coalition has 170 seats in comparison with 180 on the part of the opposition. If Rajoy cannot continue to take at least the Socialists with him in difficult decisions, then his entire government may fall. By contrast Puidgemont has a clear majority in the Catalan regional parliament with his allies, and if he is astute he can force a vote on so precipitous a motion as independence on a 70:10 basis. This may explain why Puidgemont is so much more politically agile than Rajoy.
If Rajoy does hesitate, then things may proceed in relative stasis: mass demonstrations; an internationally unrecognised Catalan government still in office; the Spanish Deputy Prime Minister issuing decisions and statements that are ignored; a dismissed parliament lumbering on, purporting to do things, until the 21 December election. Perhaps the major problem with holding those elections is that opinion polls indicate they would return a Catalan regional parliament with approximately the same (pro-independence) composition as that parliament Madrid asserts that it has just dissolved by decree.
Pro-independence Catalan politicians know this, and therefore are they unlikely to boycott early elections. Instead they will just win them, affirming the secession in what will be treated as effectively being a second plebiscite. Should that occur, Rajoy will look ridiculous and will be forced to backtrack. Such a humiliation might spell Rajoy’s demise and render Catalan independence irreversible. Madrid might try to prevent this outcome by executing draconian measures such as banning errant Catalan politicians from standing for re-election (a measure it took against Artur Mas but in that instance it involved an extended court procedure); imprisoning pro-independence politicians so they cannot stand; or banning pro-independence political parties. (Spain previously undertook political party bans in the Basque Country.)
But all of these measures would be met with international disgust. The Catalan independence movement is entirely peaceful, whereas the Basque separatist movement was not. Furthermore if Catalonia’s political leaders are prevented from contesting elections in any form, they will presumably nominate proxies to stand in their stead (as happened in the Basque Country). And the act of banning people from standing for office tends to reinforce support for the people banned, as the democratic populace rapidly becomes disillusioned with the totalitarian measures adopted to prevent them expressing their will.
In conclusion, it appears at first blush that Catalan political leaders have manoeuvred Rajoy into a political cul-de-sac. Short of invoking tyranny and violence, something the European Union would soon be forced to condemn, Madrid has no palatable options. Rajoy is in a mess. His project to annex Catalonia made the declaration of independence by the regional parliament more internationally acceptable, not less so. In his clumsy handling of the referendum process and its aftermath, Rajoy has rendered Catalan independence a credible prospect when it might never have been so. He has no means of enforcing his act of annexation tolerable to international public opinion in the face of anticipated mass civil disobedience. His intervention in Catalan regional government has no end game he can win. He will generate two months of condemnatory international media damaging to Spain, and then he will hold Catalan regional elections he will lose.
It is transparent that of Puidgemont and Rajoy, sworn enemies, only one will be left standing at the end of this débacle. The prediction of this author is that it will be Puidgemont. Rajoy can only defeat Puidgemont or his proxies and backers by reverting to Francoist authoritarianism. For all its sclerotic diplomacy in responding to the Catalan crisis, the European Union will not let Rajoy do this. If he tries, then at some point the telephone will ring from Berlin and Chancellor Merkel will tell him that he must step back. Should that outcome transpire, it will only be a matter of time before Rajoy falls from the premiership of Spanish politics.
None of this is good news, whether for Catalans, Spaniards or anyone else. Constitutional and political crises in a major Eurozone member state will cause everyone to suffer. The Euro will fall in value if events escalate: another factor that may precipitate Berlin’s intervention. Independence movements, as with revanchism and irredentism, cause social upheaval, economic disruption, political chaos and potentially violence. No rational policymaker can want any of these things. Nevertheless these movements have been prevalent throughout history and continue to be so, particularly in Europe. It is not valuable simply to assert that by virtue of creation of the European Union, all such phenomena stop a priori.
In the Catalan crisis, pro-independence politicians have proven themselves particularly astute in their tactical judgments and this has undoubtedly accelerated the crisis. Nevertheless the fact remains that the Spanish government and the institutions of the European Union have failed abjectly in defusing this crisis. Catalan independence, whatever the deleterious externalities, is now a real prospect. The government in Madrid may fall. One of Spain’s most prosperous regions may be suspended in a period of indefinite chaos. The European project is potentially in jeopardy. Dark historical parallels are recalled. This is a catastrophe of potentially unlimited proportions. It can only be hoped that wiser heads shortly reject the blinkered recent policies so poorly fumbled in response to the Catalan conundrum. But perhaps the darkest note to be struck in this crisis is that so far there is no glimmer of any such wise heads emerging within positions of power.
This is the third in a series of articles by the author about the crisis in Catalonia. The first two articles may be viewed here (“Reflection on the Catalan Conundrum”) and here (“Sequestering Catalonia”).
Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, and a scholar of ethnic conflicts and civil wars. He has written two books and over 200 articles in the field. He formerly served as a peacekeeper in Bosnia and Herzegovina and he is an honorary Professor at the University of Leicester. www.matthewparish.com
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.