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Taking stock of the Catalan independence bid

With the high drama of October now in the rear view mirror, the push for Catalonia’s independence has largely receded from international headlines. Yet, it leaves in its wake a number of open questions. In this brief piece, I consider three that are particularly illuminating of broader patterns of politics in multinational states.

Why no compromise?

Outside observers found the inability of Catalan and Spanish governments to reach a compromise before October’s showdown concerning and puzzling in equal measure. The incomprehension was understandable: economically advanced liberal democracies do not normally produce this level of open political conflict. Surely, breaching the constitutional framework (as the Catalan government did), and responding to such a breach with force and unprecedented institutional intervention (as the Spanish executive did) would prove too costly to contemplate. Yet this is precisely what took place. Why?

The answer has to do with the stories used to mobilize around specific political projects, and the party-political dynamics with which these stories intersect. Proponents of Catalan independence built their support by arguing that a federal compromise, the default institutional preference of many Catalan nationalists prior to 2012, was simply no longer viable. In making their case, they offered a number of ‘proofs’, including the 2010 decision of the Spanish Constitutional Court, widely perceived in Catalonia as having reduced the scope of Catalan autonomy.

This discourse was mainstreamed amid heated competition between two major nationalist parties, the Republican Left (ERC) and Democratic Convergence (today Catalan Democratic Party (PDeCat). Once a sufficiently large segment of the Catalan public internalized the ‘end-of-compromise’ narrative, the outbidding dynamic propelled the two parties toward increasingly radical options.

On the other hand, Spain’s governing Popular Party (PP) has traditionally viewed itself as the ‘protector of the Spanish state.’ A significant proportion of its constituency is hostile to multinational federalism, to say nothing of secession. It is therefore not surprising that the party spent the past five years steadfastly refusing successive Catalan governments’ demands for a referendum on the region’s status.

PP’s resolve was further stiffened by the prospect of losing ground to Citizens, a party even more unrelenting on national unity than PP itself. Recently, these fears have started to come true, first in PP’s electoral wipe-out in Catalan elections last December, and subsequently in the Citizens’ surge in Spain-wide opinion polls. This combination of mutually exclusive narratives and party politics made compromise between Spain and Catalan exceedingly difficult.

2012 Catalan independence protest on September 11th by Kippelboy. CC-BY-SA-.30 via Wikimedia Commons.

The dog that did not bite

The ensuing confrontation between Spanish and Catalan governments created a political climate in which it was reasonable to expect a spike in support for independence and even greater instability. Recent scholarship suggests that loss of autonomy tends to energize secessionist movements instead of weakening them. If there ever was an unambiguous reduction in the scope of Catalan self-government over the past four decades, it came with the application of Article 155 of the Spanish constitution. The suspension of Catalan autonomy was preceded and followed by several other actions that were framed as assaults on self-government, including the dismissal and arrest of members of the government and parliament last October and November.

Yet despite this, Catalan secessionist backlash failed to materialize. Support for independence did grow, but only to a previous high of just under 50%. This result was affirmed in the recent regional elections, where pro-independence parties obtained much the same level of support as two years prior (47.6%, with a thin majority of seats). What accounts for this seemingly counter-intuitive outcome?

The most obvious answer is the fear of rising economic uncertainty. Over three thousand companies moved their headquarters from Catalonia to other parts of Spain since 2 October  2017. The story gets more complicated when we consider that national identity and traditional party affiliations predispose people to discount economic costs of risky decisions. This could explain why so many Catalans voted for secessionist parties on 21 December, apparently undeterred by the potential economic perils of their choice.

However, I believe we need to dig deeper. Rather than confining our inquiry to the impact of ‘objective realities’ of politics, such as the change in the levels of territorial autonomy, we ought to pay far more attention to how these ‘realities’ are interpreted and packaged in political discourse. A constructivist approach to nationalist mobilization might reveal that raw data on, say, institutional change may mean something completely different under dissimilar circumstances.

Groundhog Day scenario, with a twist

The last open question is what happens next? As noted, the recent regional election produced roughly the same balance of pro- and anti-independence forces that existed before the application of Article 155. Catalan independentists control a slim majority of the seats and may return to government (provided they are able to select an eligible candidate for the region’s presidency). If all one did was read the numbers, it might appear that everything was set for a replay of the past round of clashes. This would then probably result in the same response from the Spanish institutions – in other words, a Groundhog Day scenario.

Yet, despite superficial similarities, it is clear that Catalonia’s political landscape has been transformed. Criminal charges against – and the arrests of – regional officials and civil society figures, the now much more tangible economic cost of secession, and the suspension of Catalan autonomy, present the pro-independence parties with a new reality. Unilateral action on independence is off the menu. At the same time, the activism of the past decade, combined with recent events, has transformed the identities and raised the expectations of many Catalans. This makes it difficult for the nationalist parties to reverse course and renounce independence altogether.

Instead, their strategy will entail treading water – they will likely continue advocating independent statehood while extending the time horizon within which that statehood is to be attained. Indeed, both ERC and PDeCat have been revising their strategies and cautioning that the road to independence will be long. What this will mean in practice is difficult to predict, but it may be that the worst confrontations are now in the past.

Featured image credit: Long expo Barcelona photo by Javier Bosch. Public domain via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Maria Luisa Raich Tallada

    Sorry to see your information is somewhat biased: over 3,000 companies STARTED the procedures to move their fiscal headquarters outside Catalonia, but only 342 have COMPLETED them to date.

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