For the last two decades, Catalan and Spanish politics have been conditioned by the attempts of Catalonia to increase its self-government, and the attempts of the Spanish government to limit it. We are now witnessing the climax of this conflict. After several years of impressive pro-independence mass protests, the Catalan Parliament approved a referendum bill quickly suspended by the Constitutional Court. About two million of Catalan citizens voted on Sunday 1st October under irregular and exceptional circumstances including harsh police repression.
On the 10th of October the President of the Catalan Government declared that he assumed the mandate for independence, as about 90% of voters casted a pro-independence vote, but at the same time suspended its effects waiting to negotiate with the Spanish government. As I write these lines the Spanish government has requested a clarification and is considering whether to bring to Parliament the suspension of the Catalan autonomy. How did we arrive here?
The first thing to be acknowledged is that, unfortunately, the Spanish state is not really a federal state with a generalised federal political culture that respects diversity, self-government and shared rule. The national Spanish Parliament severely amended the Estatut (catalan constitution) approved by 88% of the Catalan Parliament in 2005. The wave of malaise and support for independence grew particularly since 2010, when the Constitutional Court (composed by magistrates appointed by the main Spanish parties PP and PSOE) further amended the already reduced version of the Estatut approved by Catalan popular vote.
The central state disregards Catalonia in terms of infrastructure investment, frequently interferes in Catalan legislation competences and often brings Catalan legislation to the Constitutional Court. Catalans are deeply hurt by this attitude of the Spanish state.
Second, the Catalan conflict has been used for electoral purposes both in Catalonia and in Spain. In particular, the Popular Party has intensely used the Catalan question to gain votes in other parts of Spain, generating anti-Catalan feelings in Spain and anti-Spanish feelings in Catalonia. This has worked as a useful distraction from the economic crisis and the numerous corruption scandals affecting the PP. Sadly, this strategy has contributed to further polarize the question, moving the median political preferences of Spain and Catalonia further apart (Spanish citizens want more centralization, Catalan citizens more decentralization), and also increasing the divide within the Catalan public opinion.
Third, the Catalan government has also conveniently used the territorial question to distract attention from corruption and austerity. Although the pro-independence discourse is pretty hegemonic in the Catalan public space, Catalans are split on this matter, and support for independence is below 50% of the electorate. This is one of the many reasons why the Catalan government made a very questionable choice when breaking both Catalan and Spanish laws to call for the 1st of October referendum.
This referendum cannot really be considered as an adequate instrument to find out what Catalan people want. It was an additional event of large-scale mobilization in favour of independence. But the Spanish government harshly beating citizens aiming to vote was disproportionate and unnecessary, unacceptable in a democratic state that claims to respect human rights.
How do we move from here? An agreed legal referendum with full recognition from all parts seems to me at this stage the only possible way to settle the question in a relatively sustainable way. Catalonia, Spain and Europe need to find a way to solve the issue or at least regain some control. Other countries have done it before and several constitutionalists have argued that such referendum is perfectly compatible with our existing constitution.
This conflict cannot be considered an internal Spanish matter: this is a European scope challenge that involves democracy, institutional arrangements for minority protection, and human rights. European governments and actors can have a fundamental role to play in making the Spanish government aware of the fact that maintaining or face-washing the statu quo and repressing the conflict is neither sustainable in political terms nor acceptable in democratic terms.
The Spanish government is trying to ignore the 1st October referendum because it was not legal nor legitimate, but it should not continue ignoring that over 40% of Catalan citizens seem to be in favour of independence from Spain and that about 80% of Catalan citizens are in favour of an agreed referendum to decide whether Catalonia should continue to be part of Spain. The Spanish state has a responsibility to offer an alternative that is appealing for Catalan citizens, if it wants to prevent that support for independence becomes truly majoritarian.
The PSOE, main party in the opposition, is a crucial player in this game and seems to have persuaded the PP to initiate a constitutional reform. It is my sincere hope that this reform will successfully take place, but I have to acknowledge that the distance between the different positions seems so huge that it makes the task look daunting. It will take all the effort we can think of, and it may not be enough.