The Silence of the Damned: Catalonia’s Separation from Spain
October 10, 2017
“Can you hear the silence? Something isn’t right.”
“Silence of The Damned,” by Ace of Black Hearts
On October 1, nearly 900 people were injured by European police in a major European city…and there was silence from the European Union.
On October 2, the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, called for outside mediation and dialogue to alleviate tensions…yet again there was silence from the European Union.
It is difficult to recall an international situation or crisis in which the European Union at its most senior levels has not called for immediate dialogue and de-escalation, offered itself as a potential mediator, and condemned disproportionate use of force against civilians. Of course, the European Union is best poised to help countries beyond its borders, not within them. Yet, the policy response of silence from Brussels when one of its members is experiencing its most serious constitutional breach since the country’s return to democracy in 1975 seems inadequate from an institution designed to facilitate peace and reconciliation, as well as prevent conflict from ever occurring again in Europe. In its silence, the visual of Spanish police dragging elderly voters from polling stations onto the street placed a glaring spotlight on the acute tension between self-determination, democracy, and the rule of law and the European Union’s inability to form a policy response.
In its defense, the European Union, its member states, and the entire international community are all struggling to address one of the greatest political and security challenges of our time: stemming a rising tide of state fragmentation—within itself or beyond its borders, and particularly for Europe, those challenges emanating from North Africa and the Middle East in the form of migration. The disjointed EU policy response to migrant flows emanating from fragmenting states to the south may eventually and irrevocably harm the future of the Union itself (more than 13,000 refugees came to Spain in the first eight months of 2017 alone).
October 1 was a tragic day for Catalonia and for Spain. As a Spanish governmental spokesperson ominously stated, “coexistence is broken.” Yet this day was in no way predestined and could have been avoided in 2010 had both sides decided to concentrate on dialogue rather than defiance. This is also a story about the unintended political repercussions of the 2008 global financial crisis as autonomous Catalonia, a region that transfers wealth to the state (Catalonia represents 19 percent of Spain’s gross domestic product and 25 percent of its exports), was incensed when the central government imposed budget austerity on the region. This transgression—combined with the majority election of the center-right People’s Party, which took a very hard nationalistic line against Catalonia’s parliament, increasingly fueling a move toward independence—began a chain of events that ended in tragedy for both sides on October 1. But Catalonia’s status as an economic powerhouse within Spain is vulnerable to the instability surrounding the independence push: Barcelona-based banks have taken steps to relocate out of Catalonia and others could follow. Ironically, Spain’s economy has begun to heal from the crisis (Spanish economic growth last quarter was 3.1 percent); but politically, the hemorrhaging continues not only in Catalonia, but after two inconclusive national elections, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy leads a minority government in coalition with a once-regional Catalan party that vehemently opposes Catalonia’s independence.
It was Mr. Rajoy’s lack of receptivity and creativity to establish some form or channel of dialogue with Catalan leaders and civil society within Spain’s constitutional framework that could ultimately impair his leadership—present and future. The events surrounding October 1 and his continued political rigidity have certainly severely tarnished his legacy. Now Prime Minister Rajoy may need to step back and let others begin a process of national dialogue.
Though not silent, Catalan leaders may find themselves damned as well. As Madrid blocked each Catalan attempt to express itself on the issue of independence or greater autonomy (this is prevented in the Spanish constitution) but did not attempt to facilitate a dialogue with Catalonia’s parliament, politics within Catalonia’s diverse political spectrum became more difficult to hold together. Repeated regional elections (2010, 2012, and 2015) became practice independence referenda that now seem to have run their course. Polls of public opinion in Catalonia have consistently indicated a majority against independence, but the Catalan authorities have pursued the cause single-mindedly. The last election cobbled together disparate parties with a thin majority that was left to play out the sole political path to achieve these parties’ sole political purpose: Catalan independence. But the pro-independence Catalan leadership’s claims to popular support for independence were shaken on October 8, when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators against independence took to the streets. There clearly is a significant portion of the population that opposes breaking away, raising the prospect not only of discord between Madrid and Barcelona, but within Catalonia as well.
Where do we go from here? Should President Puigdemont make an open declaration of independence on October 10 as he delivers the “results” of a violent and protest-plagued referendum, he will do so because he is “following the law” that was passed by the regional parliament to read the results of the independence referendum 48 hours after the results were declared (they were declared on Friday, October 6). Mr. Puigdemont could also call snap reelections to suggest that the election would (again) be an independence referendum by other means. This seems unlikely, however, given the 2015 outcome and the large anti-independence protests that have erupted across Catalonia.
If Mr. Puigdemont declares independence, Prime Minister Rajoy will also “follow the law” and very likely invoke Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, thereby suspending substantial autonomy for Catalonia. To do this, Mr. Rajoy will need to send large numbers of Guardia Civil, which could spur violence the likes of which the world witnessed in Catalonia on October 1. This act will damn the people of Catalonia and Spain. A national outcry would ensue, potentially causing Spain’s two other major political parties, the center-left Socialist party and the far-left Podemos party, to call a vote of no-confidence in the prime minister and his minority government, which, if successful, could portend new national elections. This act could further splinter Spain.
No shortage of the damned. But, will we continue to be silent?
Note: an earlier version of this Commentary incorrectly stated that Catalonia represents 16 percent of Spain’s gross domestic product and 20 percent of its exports. It represents 19 percent of Spanish gross domestic product and 25 percent of exports. This version has been corrected.
Heather A. Conley is a senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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