Joshua Eyre: The Catalan referendum made headlines across the world last weekend following clashes between police and crowds protesting the handling of the contested results. Could you tell me a little about the background to what happened?
Roberto Robles: This was the culmination of the Catalan regional government’s unilateral strategy of pushing for independence. Thinking of the historical background, for many years pro-independence sentiment in Catalonia was a fringe political view – only 15-20% wanted it. That all shifted with the financial crisis. The Catalan case is interesting because, in contrast to the situation in many European nations, you saw the political disaffection turning into nationalism. In Catalonia, part of the public felt strong disaffection with the central government because of deep budget cuts and a feeling that they were bearing an unfair burden. Catalonia is a wealthy region. Naturally, like any wealthy region, they cross-subsidise the rest of the country, which is only fair and to be expected in a nation with economic disparities. London similarly subsidises the rest of the UK.
JE: How far back do the demands for secession go?
RR: It’s a position dates back at least a century, and like all nationalism is based on a mix of history and mythology. But the real push, the transformation of this nationalism into the desire for secession is very recent, tied to the 2007-08 crisis and its aftermath.
Historically, there was a very strong consensus in Catalonia about maintaining strong political autonomy, since the return of democracy to Spain about 40 years ago. The governing parties in the region were pragmatic, and were able to obtain more autonomy by negotiating with parties on both sides in Madrid. But these nationalist parties around five years ago changed their mind on independence, and have managed to push a significant proportion of the Catalan population to believe that secession is a desirable option.
The transformation of the idea of independence from a fringe view to one now closer to the mainstream – not a majority, but a large and very vocal minority – is what set things in motion, and perhaps the only way this could end was with an illegal referendum. The Spanish constitutional framework doesn’t permit a part of Spain to hold a referendum to secede. No democracy with a constitution permits it. The UK and Canada are partial exceptions because they don’t have a codified constitution. Those that do, like Spain, will almost without exception say that the state is indivisible.
JE: What does this mean for regional independence and the legality of referendums towards that effect?
RR: Well, this is where it gets interesting. It’s why the Catalan government ended up holding this illegal vote. They began to push very hard for this idea of independence despite lacking majority support in Catalonia. They were elected on around 47% of the vote. It’s close to a majority, but it isn’t one. In my view, if you want to claim unilateral independence you need a little more than an ‘almost majority’.
JE: There are clearly similarities with the UK referendum on Brexit and what we saw in Scotland in 2014. People didn’t realistically believe that the consensus would come out in favour of ‘Leave’ when David Cameron tabled the EU referendum. Campaigning changed that. Was it a strong campaign on the ‘leave’ side in Catalonia that produced the results we saw last week?
RR: What the Catalan referendum lacked – and this is a feature of the referendum being illegal – was an open debate about the benefits of remaining part of Spain or declaring independence. On one side, you had the Catalan government and a large minority of the electorate pushing for independence while blaming all economic and political failings on Madrid. On the other side, you had people refusing to engage with the debate, just saying this is illegal. In my view, while the Spanish government is correct on the law, they should go beyond that and try to change people’s minds. I believe that the pro-independence government has been able to get away with claims that wouldn’t have been acceptable if there had been a proper debate on the advantages and disadvantages of independence, like you saw in Scotland. In Catalonia, you had a government saying that with independence will come full membership of the EU from day one, even though the EU Commission is saying this is impossible! Nobody has really challenged this in national debate. Those same attitudes culminated in the terrible events that we had on Sunday. Again, while the national government was correct on the law, it failed to make a political argument. Ultimately this is a question of political leadership and in this respect the central government has failed in the last few years.
JE: Let’s talk a little about the actual referendum. What happened, what was the government’s response and why has it featured so heavily on international news over the last few days?
RR: A journalist from one of the main Spanish papers summarised what’s happened by saying this wasn’t a referendum, the vote doesn’t count for anything, what matters is the picture and the picture looks bad. The central government should have ignored this vote, removed from it all legitimacy, said it’s not valid and pretended it didn’t happen. The government’s actual response, sending in the national police and the civil guard and the violence we saw with the protestors, crossed a line. After what happened last weekend the nationalists have won. The results of the referendum don’t matter. This referendum had no legitimacy. You had people voting without showing their IDs, children voting, lots of examples of people voting two, three, four, five times. It was a sham of a vote but the reaction of the central government has given the nationalists the kind of international support they were lacking. That’s pretty dangerous and complicates where we go from here.
JE: What’s the response now from the government? We’re in a stalemate?
RR: Again, on this whole question the Spanish government has not shown enough political leadership, and then overcompensated by sending in the police the way they did. We need to wait to see what the regional government does. A declaration of unilateral independence – though it won’t meaningless legally – but is politically very serious. What will happen then? Well you can imagine that this is something that’s been discussed and the central government applying article 155 of the constitution which entitles the government to suspend the autonomy of one of the regions if it harms the national interest.
JE: It’s a funny one isn’t it, nobody really knows what to do, there isn’t the history. In the case of the UK there is at least a legal mechanism for the departure from the EU. Catalonia is going into the unknown?
RR: In the UK nobody is questioning the legality of Brexit, but in Catalonia the legal mechanism make independence virtually impossible. What you have seen is an unprecedented polarization of the Catalan public, split pretty much down the middle. The expectations are very high for the 40 or so percent that wants independence, and it’s difficult to see how their expectations are going to be met. But it’s also difficult to see what choice the central government has at this point beyond temporarily suspending the region’s autonomy to restore the constitutional order.
Unfortunately, I think it’s too late to go to the negotiation table. It would look like blackmail for the Catalans to act outside the law, and for the central government to then agree to give them more money. Imagine the signal that sends to the rest of the country and the other regions. On the other hand, I’m not sure that the Catalan government would settle for anything less than full independence at this point. There is no middle ground I can see. There might have been a middle ground a few years ago, when Catalonia made demands for an improved financial settlement, but I fear it is too late for that now.
JE: What should be watching out for now?
RR: Watch whether the Catalan government follow through with a unilateral declaration of independence, and how this is perceived abroad. The images in the press really aren’t going to help the cause of the central government. How public opinion changes abroad may end up mattering. Overall, this is a tragedy. We have a complete disregard for legal process and the rule of law from the Catalan government. We also have a complete failure of political leadership from Madrid. In the end, who is going to lose? All the people of Spain and the people of Catalonia are the victims here. I’m not saying that both sides are equally at fault, but some blame falls on both sides. I can’t see how we can get out of this lose-lose situation.
Roberto Robles is a Senior Associate at the London-based public policy consultancy Global Counsel largely working on UK and Continental politics. He has a BA in International Relations from the University of Sussex, and a MSc in Comparative Politics from University College London. He has previous professional experience in the think tank sector and the EU institutions. He writes here in a personal capacity. He has previously written about Catalan nationalism for the Policy Network think tank here.