On September 11, 2012 news of 1.5 million people marching in a major European city to demand independence made headlines all over the world. Some of the interpretations given were closer to the mark than others. Economic grievances tended to be cited as the marchers’ main motivation, or even –totally missing the point– as the only reason for the protest. A few of the better informed observers, however, put the event in the proper context of a wider national struggle.
Article publicat al bloc del Col.lectiu Emma
As to the reactions from Spain, high-ranking government officials have been issuing different sorts of warnings –and downright threats– against Catalonia taking the path to sovereignty. King Juan Carlos himself has put out a rare statement along the same lines. This shows how jittery they all are in high places about this new –and to them unexpected– turn of events.
The Catalan official response has been soberer. President Mas appears to have taken good note of the popular feeling and to have realized that his party’s traditional hedging around the main issue of national sovereignty can’t be sustained anymore. In public appearances on the days following the big march –including in Madrid– he was unusually clear and assertive about the need and the opportunity of a bid for a Catalan state structure. This earned him the respect of not a few doubters, but he will need to follow through if he doesn’t want to squander the credit that he’s built up this past week.
The first test will come on September 20, when he’s scheduled to meet President Rajoy in Madrid, ostensibly to discuss the Catalan proposal for a new fiscal arrangement with the central government. Both leaders know that after the events of September 11 the meeting can’t be just about financial matters, or even mainly about them. Clearly one and a half million people didn’t take to the street in order to obtain a marginal reduction in their contribution to the state or to get a deal that would, at best, put Catalans at the same level of other more fiscally independent Spanish regions, leaving the state’s framework untouched. Whether or not they acknowledge that to the public before or after they sit down to talk, the big question on the table will be if, and how, the new relationship with Spain that Catalans are demanding can be managed in the political sphere.
It is unlikely that this meeting, or others that may follow it, will produce a minimally satisfactory outcome. Sooner rather than later Mr. Mas will have to go back to the people. And since the Spanish legal order, quite undemocratically, won’t allow holding a referendum on independence, his only option will be to call an early election and turn it into a plebiscite around the issue of leaving Spain or continuing as part of it. It’s too early to call with any certainty how much support he can muster from other political groups or how much support he would eventually get from voters, although polls already show a majority for independence. What is clear after the march in Barcelona is that a large number of Catalans think they have no choice but to start on the road to full sovereignty, and more can be expected to come around. To them, the end result is now unquestionable. In a year or in a decade, Catalonia will be a new state in Europe.
The ball is now in Spain’s court. The disapproval, the scorn, the hostility, the threats and, most eloquently, the nervous silence that started coming from Madrid after the initial wavering reveal that the issue has taken center stage there too. The more far-sighted in the Spanish camp must realize that this September 11 has marked a turning point, reminding them that the “Catalan question”, that perennial hindrance for Spain’s long-running unitary design, simply can’t be wished away. Sooner or later Spain will have to make a decision, and from now on much will depend on how the Spanish side chooses to play it.
Those advocating a tough response –including the editor of a major Madrid newspaper who has called for a boost to the armed forces in the event a military intervention would be required to prevent secession– don’t seem to realize their precarious position. Still, while a violent action on the part of the state should be unthinkable in twenty-first-century Europe, all sorts of obstructionist moves, unfair tactics and spiteful retaliation can be expected –and in fact some have already been announced. It would be wrong for Spain to go there. If a strong majority of Catalans opt for independence after a clean and democratic exercise, an untidy separation process would be bad for all. And especially for a Spanish political entity that would have lost its main cash cow and would find itself in a tough spot, not only economically, but also because it would need to redefine itself as a nation, something it has been avoiding to do for at least a century. A traumatic breakup would create instability in Europe, would do unnecessary harm to the Catalan people, with the ensuing acrimony, and would be ultimately ruinous for Spain.
On the other hand, everyone would benefit from a well-paced exercise involving an unhurried but not artificially protracted transitional period. In the end, how smooth the transition is will depend on the position taken by the Spanish side. If all components of Spanish society –government, political parties, institutions, business leaders, opinion makers and the general public– realize that it is in their long-term interest to have in Catalonia a good neighbor and a loyal trading partner, rather than a resentful subject province within or an unfriendly nation next door, they might just do the reasonable thing rather than try to impose their will, by hook or by crook, on a people that has just given up on them.
Whichever way things unfold, other western countries should be vigilant and ready to be involved in the process from day one, both individually and within the EU framework. First and foremost to make it clear that violence, intimidation or obstruction from any quarters or in any form won’t be tolerated. And then, as needed, to offer their good offices, to mediate between the parties, to help broker eventual agreements, to smooth over the transitional period and to supervise that both parties honor their commitments within the established time frames. This is not just an internal matter of a particular state, because its consequences will affect the whole European area and beyond. A swift and untraumatic resolution of the Catalan question will be in everyone’s interest.