My group of friends right now are, as I assume most groups of young, politically conscious Europeans are, discussing the Catalan independence movement. Debates rage on across Facebook, with people are taking sides, figurative barricades erected discussing if literal barricades should be set down and the like.
One of the articles being discussed was one from the Independent, proudly proclaiming that the referendum was a “landslide victory” for Catalonian independence. And damn, this is just what the problem is, isn’t it? Because the backside to that is of course that the participation in the referendum was very low, well below 50% which is far lower than what the separatists hoped for. This could equally be spun as a victory for Rajoy. When I noted this one of my friends answered that the irony, then, is that Rajoy might have been better off if he had held a referendum. He might have won outright and been able to put the question to rest once and for all.
And indeed he might have! It is certainly an argument you can make and that many federalists do. But as Rajoy sees it he simply could not accept Catalonian independence and how could he then honestly have held a referendum? He would not have followed the people’s will if they voted yes to secession after all. And why waste all that money on something that would not matter for the Spanish state? Then there’s also the fact that the referendum itself is against the Spanish constitution and even if Rajoy wanted to let Catalonia go you can’t just ignore the constitution that rules your country. And all that, all the laws and impossibilities aside, even if Rajoy might have had an advantage in the polls, anything could have happened – it was anybody’s game. Before Brexit, all the polls showed that Britain would stay in the European Union and before the end of the American presidential elections, Clinton looked to be winning. A referendum gamble might have come back to bite him as it did Cameron in the UK and Hillary in the US.
That said, Rajoy met the Catalonian demands in the least humane, least constructive way possible. There are many other things he could have done that did not involve the Guardia Civil. He could have organised his own referendum, one that was explicitly only ”advisory” and if it won he could let go of some symbolic rights for the Catalonians and wave the rest away in a cloud of vague promises of future reform. Not the most honourable way to solve it maybe, but certainly better than police violence. Even better, he could have actually sat down with the Catalonian devolved government and agree to a compromise, accept some points and do the political solution. That is now growing increasingly difficult – but not impossible.
(The true answer to what he should do is of course federalise, give all regions, Castile included, the same rights and responsibilities and make all federal subjects equal. Federation – It works yo.)
A stubborn leader
The problem is that Rajoy is against all forms of agreement that is not a total surrender of the separatists and a violent solution to the problem benefits him at this stage. His party has kept the Francoist dream of a unitary Spain, united and indivisible, and they see all forms of devolved government and federalisation as defeats. In their eyes, Spain should have one people with one language and be a “natural entity” with “natural borders” – a struggle he cannot win. Spain is ethnically diverse and short of ethnic cleansing he will not be able to change that. Mr Rajoy should accept this and adapt. A bit more darkly, the harsh reaction to the referendum is also a useful distraction for him, since Spain is on the brink of entering another recession, arguably at least partly the fault of Rajoy himself. A violent solution makes people forget that and focus on him taking a hard stance against separatism, which is something his core voters absolutely support and enjoy. Strategically it matters little what Catalonia thinks if he can keep the majority solid in the rest of Spain.
Guilty on both sides
But Catalonia does not get off easy here and they are no white doves either. Madrid is not the only place with belief in a ”natural state with natural borders” and they are led by a government that in some ways are surprisingly conservative for a claimed social democrat. Puigdemont became president of Catalonia by breaking socialist rule there after all. More directly, one of his main complaints against Spain is that Catalonia, as a richer region, pays taxes that go to the poorer regions of Spain, hardly a complaint in line with leftist solidarity and something that has led the Catalonian left to have an at best mixed, at worst directly antagonistic stance towards independence.
For both sides then, economics are of paramount importance, perhaps more so than national pride. But do not doubt nationalist and reactionary feelings being central to the Catalonian cause either, like for Madrid. Where Rajoy is stuck in a frame of mind where Spain is unitary, the Catalonians never really got over the Francoist trauma. Understandable in part certainly, but not very constructive. Because Spain is not a fascist dictatorship, it is a rather common European liberal democracy, the Guardia Civil are not stormtroopers, they are riot cops of the kind that exist in most western nations. That is why the violence against them has been so important to the separatists to the point that quite a lot of incidents seem to have been fabricated. Claiming Madrid as an oppressor supports their incorrect claim that Spain still is a Francoist regime, still a fascist dictatorship. And sorry Mr Puigdemont, but that is simply not true.
As the case so often is, both sides are to blame. Both sides have economic reasons for acting the way they do. Both sides have been unnecessarily, though understandably, uncompromising. Both sides fail their citizens by acting in ways that are, in the end, not conductive to their happiness.
Both sides act in ways that are, to them, logical and natural. Both sides have defensible points of view. But both sides, ultimately, are to blame for the situation being the way it is. Thus, both sides are responsible for solving it.