Stability Over Sovereignty: The Case for Unified Spain
By CRISTIAN ZARAGOZA | October 25, 2017
On October 1, the Catalonia regional government, the Generalitat, held a referendum asking residents of Catalonia a deceivingly straightforward question: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?”
Although independence is rarely a straightforward question, Catalonia presents an almost overwhelming case that checks off critical boxes of an independent, national identity. Historically, Catalonia has existed as a sociopolitical entity that predates the Spanish empire and nation. The region can trace its history back to its merger with Aragon in 1137 to form the Crown of Aragon, followed by further integration with the Crown of Castile to form the Spanish Crown. Thus far, the region has developed an identity unique from the rest of Spain. This unique character is represented in Castells, the tradition and sport of forming human towers. The Catalan language, although a romance language, is neither a mere dialect of Castilian Spanish (form of Spanish spoken in Spain) nor a combination of French and Spanish. Catalan is an entirely different tongue. One cannot deny that Catalonia has a regional history and distinct identity from Spain.
Before the current populist movement for separatism, the Catalan identity conflicted with overall Spanish identity most seriously under the General Franco regime. A civil war that pitted leftist Republicans against right-wing Nationalists during the late 1930s led to a cumulative death toll of 610,000 people, followed by Franco’s rule in Spain in 1939. Under the fascist Franco regime, the Catalonian identity was suppressed in favor of an institutionalized spread of Spanish nationalism. In a deliberate effort to suffocate Catalan culture and diffuse a broader Spanish identity, the government banned Catalan cultural traditions and restricted language use. This suppression was effective in the short term, yet it served to crystallize the Catalonian identity even further in the long term. Shortly after Franco’s death in 1975, the Spanish Constitution was revised in 1978. Catalonia successfully leveraged its semi-autonomy as a constitutionally protected provision to allow a greater degree of local, self-rule.
Since this revision, Catalonia has enjoyed its regional status and a degree of semi-autonomy. Residents of Catalonia wield control over the region’s ruling parliamentary institution, the Generalitat de Catulunya. The Generalitat is granted regional jurisdiction in matters such as culture, education, and justice. These powers are shared or exclusive from Spain. With this grant of semi-autonomy, Catalonia has placed a great emphasis on fostering and developing a regional identity unique from overall Spanish culture. Since then, further revisions have guided and notably expanded Catalonia’s semi-autonomy. Through these grants of semi-autonomy and a re-emergence of Catalan culture, the push for separatism has grew.
Eventually, the question of Catalonian independence dominated political life within the region and across Spain. The Generalitat received negative decisions from the Spanish Supreme Court regarding proposals for further autonomy, and a pro-separatist referendum was deemed illegal in 2014. The disappointing decisions caused the issue to remain unresolved. The Catalonian regional government sought to, once and for all, usher in a formal separation of Catalonia from Spain.
In hopes of settling the issue, the Generalitat announced on June 9 that it would proceed with an independence vote through referendum. The results would be deemed binding by the Generalitat. On the same day of the announcement, the Spanish Supreme Court declared the proposed referendum illegal. Leading up to the vote, Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy declared any separatist effort as an afront to a unified Spanish people and government, stating “we all decide together about what belongs to all of us, which is our country.” He implored secessionists not to “underestimate the strength of Spanish democracy.”
Nonetheless, the referendum continued as planned. With a low turnout of 43%, most likely due to a boycott by the Catalans who opposed secession, 90% of voters sided with independence. During the referendum, the Spanish national police cracked down on demonstrations. Eight hundred people were reportedly injured, creating a public outcry against a perceived abuse of power.
The same police actions that were criticized in some circles were supported by Spain's King Felipe VI, who went on to condemn the Catalan leader for moving ahead with the illegal vote. Catalonian leader Carles Puigdemont has even reached out to the European Commission (EC) to act as a mediator between this dispute. So far, the EC has rejected the offer on the grounds that the internal matter does not warrant outside mediation and should stay within the country.
The deceptive label previously imposed on the referendum question stems from the forethought that despite the accumulation of seemingly overwhelming evidence to bolster the Catalonians’ bid for independence, the label pays no regard to the implications of full Catalan sovereignty in Spain, Europe, and the world.
Absolute and complete Catalan independence would undermine the Spanish nation. At a national level, the Catalan separatist movement presents a serious stability problem for Spain. Section 2 of the 1978 constitution emphasizes that the existence of the Spanish nation hinges on the “indissoluble unity” of said nation. If the region splits from Spain, it would induce a constitutional crisis for the country, as it would be compelled to amend the language. Redrawing a constitution would not be a simple task. Following a Catalan break off, the Spanish government’s rule over semi-autonomous regions comes into question. It warrants other factions claiming a unique and separate identity from Spain to make an argument to secede.
Catalan secession could open the door to the re-emergence of another separatist movement: the Basques known as Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA). ETA sought the independence of the Basque people in a region that straddles northern Spain and southern France. Formed in 1959 under General Franco, ETA has been responsible for terror attacks throughout Spain, with its deadliest attack in Madrid in 2001 (95 killed). After its leaders were brought into custody by both French and Spanish officials, the ETA declared a ceasefire in 2010. However, disarmament and more nuanced points of the peace process are still ongoing. With claims to a unique regional identity similar to the Catalans, a successful Catalan separation movement may encourage the ETA and pro-separatism Basque peoples to continue their armed struggle. Any weakness demonstrated by Rajoy could embolden a resurgence of the terrorist organization. Thus, as head of the Spanish national government, Rajoy must demonstrate a decisive and strong response to the issue.
As part of this strong response, Rajoy recently invoked article 155 of the Spanish Constitution in a move to vacate Puigdemont from leadership of the Generalitat. Rajoy, a conservative, is expected to gain approval from the conservative held Spanish Senate. The article institutes broad powers for the head of the Spanish government to sternly oblige regionally autonomous governments to comply with the general interest of Spain. The general interest in question is to maintain the unity of Spain. This issue is vital to Spain, as a split in the nation’s unity would force a constitutional crisis. A crisis threatens to shake the peaceful existence of Spain beyond just Catalonia.
Rajoy seeks to protect this interest by forcefully ousting the secessionist movement’s figurehead and political leader. The move has been criticized as overly-drastic and callous. Nonetheless, Rajoy is justified in his strong response. If the Spanish national government appears soft, it lowers the cost for secession and even rebellion. Therefore, Rajoy must hold his ground and cede as little as possible in negotiations. To maintain stable national unity beyond even the Catalonian case, the Spanish government must demonstrate a strong hand in instituting their will to maintain the indissoluble unity so critical to the country’s existence. Failure to maintain unity can open the floodgates for the nation’s demise.
However, Rajoy must not get caught up in stamping out secessionist flares. Rajoy must remain wary of Puigdemont and Catalonia’s response. As demonstrated through leading a procession of 450,000 people through the streets of Barcelona in response to Rajoy’s move, Puigdemont and fellow secessionists are willing to continue to fight the issue. Puigdemont’s rallying of support is a signal to Rajoy that pro-secessionists will remain steadfast to his leadership, even in the face of coercive measures. Rajoy must recognize this as a sign of Puigdemont’s hold on leadership and volatile attachment to the movement. The movement's success and failure depends on his leadership. Any extraction seen as violent will certainly ignite the issue, which no side rationally wants.
Rajoy is strengthening his legal and bargaining position through approval of article 155. Through approval, a coercive measure of force to oust Puigdemont from office is legally protected. Thus, Rajoy claims more legitimacy and strength in demanding that Puigdemont respond accordingly towards Spanish interests. If Puigdemont refuses, he is labeled as an extra-legal actor and no longers enjoys the legitimacy and backing as a constitutionally-protected representative of the people. This forces him into open rebellion. Garnering such a label is not productive towards his end goal in neither the immediate or near future as it forces the movement underground and exposed to increased repression.
To be clear, Rajoy would not want this outcome either as it conflicts with the general interest of Spanish peace and unity. Therefore, Rajoy must offer Puigdemont a way out. In negotiations, now established as the more legitimate and strong actor, Rajoy can shepherd Puigdemont into accepting a bargain that offers the Generalitat less autonomy than before or his resignation. A more repressive measure, like the suspension of the Generalitat for 5 years, would perhaps produce too strong of a backlash for Rajoy to handle. Thus, he must maintain a way for Catalans to politically express themselves in a legal manner. However, Puigdemont’s leadership remains an issue. Thus, the Generalitat must either choose more or less maintaining its degree of autonomy hinging on agreeing to the expulsion of Puigdemont; or, it can keep Puigdemont in exchange for a decentralization of executive power and an overall decrease in its granted degree of autonomy.
Beyond Spain, Catalonian independence can further rupture the European Union (EU) at a very critical point in its history. Following the Brexit campaign, the stability of the EU is in a precarious position. Brexit served as a signal to world leaders that populist movements have the current momentum necessary to drastically challenge the status quo. Because of its current, rocky position, it is even more important that the issue ends smoothly, preventing another breakdown of the country constituents. For its own good, the EU must remain on the sideline during this issue as the risk of showing favorites is unlikely to end well. Any action beyond supporting Spain’s legal right to keep the issue in-house would compound the severity of the independence movement’s impact.
The issue of stability extends beyond the EU as the Kurds and their semi-autonomous -government is in a similar position as the Catalonians. After residents of Iraqi Kurdistan participated in an independence referendum this past September, the unity of Iraq is under threat. With 5.3 million eligible to vote, over 3 million voted with 92% of ballots being cast in favor of separatism. Granted, Iraq is already heavily destabilized and facing existential threat and Kurdish independence would, in all probability, further escalate conflict in the region. It could also potentially force the Iraqi National Army and Pesh Merga (Kurdistan’s fighting force) to turn their guns on one another after years of cooperation in the fight against the Taliban and ISIS. Global reaction to the progression of the Catalonian issue will set the tone to how Kurdish independence is handled. If it does not and pushes forward with independence, the issue can perhaps empower other movements to reject foreign pressure and move on with a dangerous campaign for secession.
A less deceiving question would acknowledge that a vote to gain independence is a vote to destabilize Spanish sovereignty, further corrode the unity of EU bloc, and propel the rise of separatism across the globe. Independence in Catalonia does not just impact the nation of Spain and its immediate surroundings, it spreads across all of Europe and, to some degree, the stability of the broader status quo. Although Catalonia presents a strong case for secession, in the name of regional and broader global stability, it must de-escalate its populist push and settle for negotiating an expansion of its autonomy. Rajoy must concentrate his utmost efforts to maintaining unity throughout the process through balancing strength with peace.