Catalonian Strike for Independence: Look Inside

Catalonian secessionism is a case for vigorous debate. Latest developments show that conflict is far from being resolved. In this regard, it is interesting to determine the reasons of Catalonian government’s recent actions as well as the social and political reasons for the popularity of secessionism. Marc Sanjaume Calvet, researcher and adviser at Self-Government Studies Institute, tries to show the different from the most common approach towards Catalonian case.

– I would like to start with the question which is more related to the history. In the article 145 of the new Constitution of Spain (1978) it is strictly prohibited to create the federation of Autonomic Communities. What are the historical reasons for such prohibition?

– I think we should interpret the article 145 in the light of Article 2. Article 2 demonstrates tension that exists. When the Constitution was written and discussed there was a really strong influence from dictatorship and Spanish nationalism.. At the same time, democratization was rampant throughout many regions but especially in Catalonia and the Basque Country which claimed the right to autonomy. In one case, there is a history of dictatorship, strong central state, Spanish unity, AND national identity. In the latter, there was a democratic opposition which in territorial terms claimed the right to autonomy. This tension was resolved throw the mix of strongly united defense (in Article 2 there is the idea that the Constitution is based on the undisputed unity of Spanish nation; it is not only a Spanish unity because Spanish unity is previous to the Constitution) and the distinction between regions, nationalities, and their right to Autonomy. In the following articles there are designs to which regions will become Autonomous Communities and how regions would get powers but you don’t have the list of regions. Prof. Ferran Requejo*1 describes the Constitution as a kind of “cheese with holes” (a gruyere ). You got change the Constitution with the right to autonomy but the question is how will the right to autonomy be implemented? We know how the state can transfer competences to the autonomy and the way autonomies should be formed. But we cannot imagine how the state will look like because there was no final model in the Constitution (1978). It provoked disconfidence and threat the whole process. In the article 145 we observe a defense against this threat of “regions against the state”.

– Do you believe that the Constitution needs to be reformed with current secessionist developments in mind? Is it possible under Rajoy’s leadership?

– It is like different questions. Under the government of Mariano Rajoy it seems impossible to achieve Constitutional reform. Upon examining the mechanism of Constitutional reform, it is evident that it requires very strong consensus. This consensus is stronger for the core of the Constitution (2/3, elections, absolute majority, referendum, and then 2/3 again for a deep reform and 3/5 for a less demanding reform). And then you have less strong path to Constitutional reform for the rest of the Law. One could imagine the creation of a final article which can may be included into the Constitution. Some constitutionalists have suggested that the main parties (Popular Party, Social Party, Ciudadanos) could agree on including the final clause, for instance, on Catalan autonomy or Basque autonomy. With this in mind, constitutional reform is hard to reach. The problem is that the Constitution should be reformed right now, but the consensus even for this clause is almost impossible. My final answer is that it could be even more possible a defensive (against autonomy) reform than the reform which accommodates autonomy and self-determination demands.

– In comparison to the Basque Country, why historically, is the fight for independence in the Basque Country turned violence but not in Catalonia?

– My hypothesis is related to the transition. Catalonia took part in the transition process taking an active role in its drafts. The Basques were somehow outside this path. In the Basque case, the referendum results, the turnout (around 45%) was very low. In comparison to Catalonia, in this case there was huge participation. Some Basque political forces considered that the difference between the dictatorship and new democratic regime was not enough. There was no difference in terms of legitimacy. And some Basque political forces considered that the fight against dictatorship should continue as a fight against the Spanish state. That is the reason. In Catalonia it also existed but the support for more radical positions was by far a minority. The reason for the low support is that the most political actors in Catalonia took part in this transition period. Why Basques aren’t? There are a lot of social variables. There was a certain bourgeoisie detached from the Spanish project and economically disconnected from Madrid. So they thought that there are no incentives to support Constitution. Obviously, the memory of Dictatorship and a different national identity played a crucial role too.

– Let’s turn now to the modern history of Catalonia. Can you shortly describe the dynamics of separatism feelings in Catalonia? I mean, why the left Republican Party of Catalonia which positioning themselves as independentists until 2012 gained no more than 16,5% of votes whereas the autonomists (not separatists) dominated the whole Post Franco period (Convergencia y Unico)?

– The mainstream Catalan nationalists have always been moderate. The idea was about they came from the dictatorship and then we got democracy. We know that the Spanish state was really tough but Catalonia obtained a good deal from the Constitution, so we will try to develop it. This is related to the first questions. The Catalan nationalists were really aware of autonomy in Spain as a dynamic process. CiU*2 knew that it was a win-win deal and being moderate means that, on the one hand, you help Spain to democratize and, on the other hand, we got power and money for Catalonia. This process had been ended by the early two thousands. At that time the main state parties in Spain realize that the model is dynamic but it could not continue centuries. That is why some parties (in a wrong view what was happening) were not able to understand what the federation is; they though in terms of autonomy as a more getting autonomy and stated that there could be no way around to create a new federation. The result was that the Popular Party became very centrist. At the same time Catalonia decided to reform the State of Autonomy. And it was a breaking point because the reformed Statute of Autonomy was refused by the Constitutional Court. The main Catalan law, the Statute of Autonomy, was restrictively interpreted by the Constitutional Court after its approval at Catalan Parliament, Spanish Parliament and its ratification in a regional referendum in Catalonia. The Court’s decision broke the rising dynamic of autonomy and drastically changed the trend.

– What are the reasons, apart from the economic ones, for the popularity of independence in Catalonia?

– There are several reasons which we can divide into substantial and instrumental ones. Instrumental reasons lie in economy as you mentioned. Despite of Madrid campaign everybody knows that the independent Catalonia, after a peaceful agreed process, would be economically better off. It is also clear that Spain promotes centralist public economy which isn’t beneficial for Catalan interests as an economically dynamic regions without real political power. For instance, in case of infrastructure Catalonia would build it with France and southern part of Spain, through the Valencian Community, but Spanish government promotes it for Madrid in a very jacobine manner. But there are also, and probably more important, substantial reasons related to identity, meaning of self-government, and symbolic dimension. Probably in the 80s being Spaniard with the democratization process meant also to be a Catalan. But today being Catalan within the Spain is probably more difficult. Moreover, being Catalan and Spaniard in the same time is getting more difficult because state is not able to change the Constitution in order to include the diversity. In the context of substantial reasons we would like to have Spain which reflects internal diversity. Finally, recent progressive regional public policies such as anti-eviction laws or banks taxes, have been rejected by the Constitutional Court. Catalan majoritarian forces cannot pursue their own policies within the current autonomy scheme since these are constantly blocked by Central institutions.

– Which social classes show the major support for the independence?

– It is a middle class. From the historical perspective, there is a correlation between working class and Spanish identity, so working classes which do not have a qualified job are less pro-independent. A different phenomenon is the upper-class which does not want independence. In my opinion, it is not a matter of identity but more about the order because some elits don’t want to lose their social position. And also there is some people who think that the revolutionary idea isn’t bring benefits.

– As for the policy of Arthur Mas, can his political campaign be considered as populism?

– I don’t think so. There are a lot of definitions of populism. In brief, populists just only manipulate the electorate and it is a somehow empty political strategy as some theorists have observed. Arthur Mas policy can be considered as populism by some commentators but I disagree. Firstly, the independentism comes from grassroots movements and it has been a bottom-up process. It is obvious that Arthur Mas took the advantage from this movement to win the elections. But which politician isn’t taking advantage from the social movements? I don’t think that this fact let us to call him populist because it social, grassroots, bottom-up national movement but it is not a majority. Calling this movement “populist” would mean misinterpreting historical, identity and national minority dimensions. This movement didn’t appear as a “mushroom”; Catalonia strived for autonomy and independence for the last 3 centuries in several different ways.

– What was the plan of Catalonia government after the referendum? How they would like to gain real independence?

– I think the plan was to call attention from the EU and other member states in order to get some sort of mediation. This dimension worked in a weak way. The Belgium and Slovenian Prime Ministers critiqued Spanish government but they were not such critical as Catalans expected. What happened? It was kind of track in between secessionist movement and a state. It was almost impossible to make them negotiate. The Spanish government was on the legal way and repressive logic and the social movement for independence was claiming independence. Catalan government called Spanish side for negotiating process but Madrid rejected it. Exactly, Catalan government had plan on how to take powers which belongs to the state. This plan could be implemented in a more consensus scenario with the central state but not in the scenario when the central police are here and there is a constant threat of arrests. Other thing is that Catalan government has never planned violent actions. How Catalonia planned to sustain after the loss of membership in the EU and other international institutions?

– I think that Catalan government relied on the idea that we are European citizens. The most realistic point of view is that European Union cannot afford to have the Catalan territory due to the geographic and economic position among with population dimension out of the EU. Catalonian government was planning some kind of transitory period in which Catalan territory could remain European territory like the Northern part of Cyprus where citizens are European citizens. Of course, the Catalan institutions should apply membership in a fastest way when the other candidates. It makes no sense like in Scotland to expel the European population of 7 million people with its economy, geographic position on the crossroad from Africa to Europe…

– But in the article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty it is articulated if the part of the territory of the member-state separates, this part will automatically loose the membership in the EU. After that, they need to apply for membership and, as a stage, obtain the unanimous agreement in the Council of the EU…

– It is not that clear. It never happens. Controversially, it happened many times the other way around, meaning the EU being flexible and adaptable to the situation. For example, there are the cases of Cyprus, Greenland, and Germany unification in which both ways (getting in, getting out) treaties can be interpreted in many regards. I think that Catalan government (I don’t know exactly the truth but we will see in the future if I am right or not) thought in practical terms that it would be impossible to imagine a border in Pyrenees, in the southern bank of Catalonia which it is the entrance point to Europe from Africa.

– How they would like to gain the international recognition?

– In the consensual situation when the Spain recognizes the independence of Catalonia. In other case, it is more difficult. Nevertheless, there are a lot of sympathies in Europe. But international relations are rather based on interests. At some point, there would be countries interested in less powerful Spain (i.e. Iberian Peninsula). It is just my opinion.

– You have already partly answered to this question. Anyway, do you believe that the EU can help to resolve this puzzle?

– Sure. European Union can help in many ways but it is not doing that. The first way, it would be sanctions using the Article 7 when Poland and Hungary have been doing the wrong policies against rule of law or separation of power. It isn’t the application of Article 7; it is just a threat of it. It is not even necessary to punish the member-state and the European Commission (we will see it one day because Spanish state is dangerous for its minorities) could say: “Please, stop and talk about politics, not only about Constitutional or Criminal law”. The second way, it would be the mediation. The EU has been mediating in many cases in the world (i.e. Kosovo), so it can be a mediator within the state. The other way is more theoretical. It requires considering the EU as a federation. If you take the EU as a federation, an internal secession in the Union could be seen as a creation of a new member but not entirely as a creation of external state. We could consider super theoretically because it is not in the Treaties; the preamble of Treaties talks about European peoples but no one knows if there are four peoples in Spain or just one. In this regard, the EU accepts the separations within the European Union. India and Switzerland are doing that. For instance, in Switzerland the Jura canton is separated from Bern and created a new Switzerland canton member. Under the Constitutional reform, now a canton can separate from a canton and create a new one within Switzerland. In this way, it could work in the EU because you have secessionist movements extremely pro-European. You can see it in Scotland, Catalonia or in the Basque Country. Who is talking in Catalonia about new borders, new currency, or Catalan army? For the majority of Catalans secessionists these things should be in the hands of the EU. The European Union decides about the borders, political defense, currency, etc. The pro-independence movement idea it is not simply creating a new nation-state; but a new EU member-state.


Interviewer: Andrei TARASOV

Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals (IBEI)


*1 Ferran Requejo Coll – Phd in Phisolophy, director of the Research Group on Political Theory (GRTP), full professor at the University of Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona

*2 Convergence and Union – the dominant political party in Catalonia during XXI century