Progressive Futures

The Catalan question: the neverending story

26 February 2019

The fallout from the 2017 Catalan independence referendum rumbles on.

Luis Cornago Bonal
Javier Padilla

Ten years ago, not many commentators thought that a unilateral declaration of independence would come from the prosperous Spanish region of Catalonia. Similarly, a scenario in which prominent and mostly elected Catalan pro-independence leaders have either fled Spanish courts or been imprisoned was not considered plausible or likely. Today, however, these two events have become a reality, as well as the use of Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution to impose direct rule on Catalonia between 28 October 2017 and 2 June 2018 as a response to a unilateral declaration of independence by the Catalan government on 27 October 2017, a move that was deemed illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court.

One of the direct consequencesof these events is the increase in polarisation within Catalan society between those who support independence (47.5% of voters in the last regional election held on December 2017) and those who want to remain a part of Spain. In this environment, leaders on both sides who take a more conciliatory approach are labelled as “traitors” by hard-liners who are unwilling to compromise. For instance, Carles Puigdemont, the former president of the Catalan government, was considered a traitor for a few hours by certain secessionist factions when the media speculated that he was planning to defuse the situation by announcing elections in return for Spain’s government not applying article 155 in Catalonia. The same occurred with Santi Vila, former regional minister of Enterprise and Knowledge in Catalonia, after he distanced himself from the position of the Catalan government regarding the unilateral declaration of independence before announcing his resignation.

On the other hand, the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez decision to re-establish dialogue with the current Catalan government has been emphatically criticised by the right-wing opposition parties (Ciudadanos, Partido Popular/PP, and Vox) and to a lesser extent within his own PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español/social-democratic) party. This is particularly the case following the Spanish government’s claim it would be willing to include the inclusion of a “rapporteur” who could coordinate discussions in the ongoing dialogue between political parties in Catalonia regarding the Catalan question. The current social-democratic Spanish government, that came into power after the 2018 vote of no confidence in the government of Mariano Rajoy with the support of various nationalist parties(including the two major Catalan pro-independence parties), has tried to diffuse the conflict by offering dialogue. Over the last eight months, the PSOE administration has experienced significant difficulties when trying to implement a different strategy in Catalonia due to its narrow parliamentary majority, that relied on the support of Podemos and the two main Catalan pro-independence parties(among others),and the radicalised positions on both sides.

Left wing parties in Spain are not comfortable with the country’s territorial cleavages. That is mainly explained by the deep divisions within their electorates regarding how to approach decentralisation in Spain (that is, the transferral of further powers and resources from the national to the regional level), the allowance of a referendum on self-determination and, most recently, the type of sentence applicable to Catalan secessionist leaders. According to a recent poll, 44% of those voting for the centre-left PSOE consider that offences of rebellion were committed whereas 47% believe that secessionist leaders committed a crime but not one as serious as rebellion. Meanwhile, 38% of PSOE voters would accept for the prosecuted Catalan leaders to be granted pardons, and regarding Podemos, a party to the left of PSOE, 66% of their voters support a pardoning of secessionist leaders. Contrastingly, the electorate of the right-wing parties’ is more clear-cut, as a majority (87% of PP voters, 73% of Ciudadanos, and 95% of Vox) believes that an offence of rebellion took place in September and October 2017 in Catalonia. Furthermore, as a response to the exceptional situation in Catalonia, the issue of Spanish unity has regained salience as a basis for political mobilisation fostering the emergence of an explicit Spanish nationalism, which finds in Vox, a far-right party, its most extreme form.

The political situation in Spain has again attracted the attention of the international media amid the high-profile trial of twelve of the secessionist leaders. Although nationalist parties have claimed that they should be prosecuted due to their political ideas, they are actually being accused of a series of actions which are illegal according to the interpretation of the judges of Catalan and Spanish legislation. The fact that the current Catalan president, Quim Torra, an outspoken pro-independence leader, is not on trial and does not face any legal charges shows that in Spain political leaders are not prosecuted for expressing ideas or thinking different.

It should be noted that under Spain’s legal system more than one prosecution is possible. In this case there are three, namely from: Spain’s public prosecutor (fiscalía del Estado), the state solicitors (the legal representatives of the Spanish government) and a private prosecution led by Vox, Spain’s new far-right party. Both the public prosecutor and the state solicitors accuse most of the defendants (nine in total) of misappropriation of public funds to finance the October 1streferendum. However, there are substantial differences between the prosecutions regarding the other charges. First, Spain’s public prosecutor accuses nine of rebellion, including former Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras. The charges of rebellion would involve long jail sentences, ranging from 16 to 25 years in prison if found guilty. Some pundits have expressed their doubts concerning the appropriateness of the rebellion charge, as this charge requires violence to have taken place and it seems unlikely that any call for violence by the defendants can be proven in court. Second, Spain’s solicitor, representing the Spanish state in the courts, has not accused secessionist leaders of rebellion; instead, its accusation focuses on the crimes of sedition and misuse of public funds regarding the referendum and the unilateral declaration of independence.Under the article 544 of the Spanish Criminal Code, sedition consists of “a public and tumultuous uprising” brought about tin order to “prevent the application of laws, either by force or outside legal channels.” Third, the far-right party Vox, acting as private prosecutor, and accuse the defendants of criminal conspiracy, a charge that it is unlikely to find legal grounds in the trial. After its success in the December 2018 regional elections in Andalusia, Vox aims to gain political attention by exploiting the trial for their electoral benefit. Meanwhile, the trial is being broadcast on television so that all can judge the neutrality of the process, particularly after the repeated allegations made by pro-independence leaders regarding the lack of judicial guarantees and fair trial procedures in the country’s highest court.

From a political point of view, this trial seems to be acting as a glue for the deeply divided secessionist parties in Catalonia, and has increased the cost of a compromise between pro-independence parties and Spanish unionists. Aside from the clear implications of this dynamic with respect to regional politics in Catalonia, the conflict also influences Spain’s political developments at the national level. The fact that the two main Catalan separatist parties – Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya/Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and Partit Demòcrata Europeu Català/Catalan European Democratic Party (PdeCAT)– voted against the 2019 draft budget in the Congress of Deputies on 13 February, which brought about the end of the parliamentary term in Spain (a snap poll will be held on April 28), is an example of how much the Catalan issue matters in every day Spanish politics. Furthermore, ERC and PDeCAT opposition to the budget also suggests that moderate leaders within the secessionist movement do not currently enjoy much power in their respective parties.

In the coming weeks, the Catalan nationalist parties will continue claiming that the trial is a fraud and will not accept the verdict if the judgement is unfavourable in their view. In that case, the trial could end up at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. However, it is misleading to affirm that the trial against the Catalan independence leaders is a test of the Spanish judiciary and democracy. As Frans Timmermans, the European Commission Vice president, has stated, there is  “no reason to doubt” the independence of the judges and the fairness of the trial. The presence of the far-right Vox party, the increasing level of polarisation along identity and territorial lines in Spanish politics and the previous political responsibilities of those involved brings to the trial an irrefutable political dimension. However, judicial power remains independent in Spain, the process is transparent and open to the public, and the judges’ final decision will be open to appeal. According to the reports of international organisations such as Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence UnitSpain is a full democracy and the separation of powers is guaranteed. There is no reason to suspect that this trial will be substantially different from those that may occur in any other liberal democracy in Europe.

The trial, regardless of the sentence that will be imposed, will not solve the structural divisions within Catalonia. Sociologist Thomas Jeffrey Mileyhas pointed out that Catalonia “can be accurately described as a divided society”, in the sense that ethnolinguistic, territorial and class cleavages overlap with each other, which is reflected in partisanship and preference for independencein some quarters. Catalan nationalist parties have often overlooked this reality and have presented the Catalan people as a single and homogeneous society seeking their independence. For instance, Catalans with a background outside the region and low incomes are mostly against independence, whereas wealthier Catalans who have lived in the region for generations are much more supportive of independence.

In conclusion, a de-escalation of the situation in the following months is unlikely to take place. First, the electoral competition between ERC and PDeCAT for the dominance of the pro-independence movement in Catalonia reduces these parties’ incentive for compromise. Second, a similar competition is playing out at the national level between center-right and right-wing parties. After the emergence of the far-right Vox, Ciudadanos and PP are expected to maintain a hard stance on this issue, especially with four elections ahead, with national elections on April 28, and local, regional, national and European Parliament on May 26. As the trial is taking place in the weeks before the 28 April general election, Catalonia is going to be one of the main topics of the campaign. In order to succeed in this electoral environment, during the campaign the PSOE will present itself as the party of dialogue and will portray centre-right and right-wing parties as incapable and unwilling of managing the conflict in Catalonia.