Catalan dilemma exposes a deeper scar

By Cristina Font Source:Global Times Published: 2017/10/12 21:33:39

On Tuesday afternoon, Catalonia's President, Carles Puigdemont, announced to the regional parliament that following the positive result of the referendum, Catalonia should become an independent state in the form of a republic. However, the process has been frozen by the central government, and so separatists, witnesses to the rise and end of the shortest republic in history, could only enjoy the triumph of the independence referendum for a few moments.

For weeks, the international community has expressed concerns over how broken the dialogue between the regional and central government is. Both Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, and President Puigdemont are stubborn men who will not budge an inch. In fact, they are willing to play a trench war if it is necessary. Proof of this willingness comes from the fact Rajoy has been betting everything on the coercive powers of the law and the state in order to make Catalan leaders back down from their plans of declaring independence.

However, these ongoing incidents are not the conflict itself, it is in fact the most recent political decision that provoked the escalation and led to the changing role of the Catalan government: the situation went from dealmaker to insurrection.

Due to the complexity of the dispute, the Spanish government has not yet found the correct way to solve the conflict with the Catalan autonomous region. In fact, the conflict dates back 100 years ago, though recent months have seen the conflict turn more intense and deep-rooted among the different political groups. But to understand the mechanism that has been causing the present political struggle, it is not necessary to look back so far in time. Catalonia's 0-1 score and Tuesday's faint declaration of independence is the culmination of an important set of disagreements between Barcelona and Madrid, which started in 2003 when Catalonia sought a deal to increase autonomy and failed.

In 2003, when the Catalan parties pushed for a reform of its statute on autonomy, they received a promise from Spain's former Socialist prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who at that time was part of the pro-independence campaign. Hence, in 2005, the Catalan parliament approved the reform of the region's statute on autonomy. However, in 2006, the Spanish conservative opposition leader Mariano Rajoy took the reform to the Constitutional Court. His Popular Party launched a campaign against the reform which collected 4 million signatures against it.

Even though the Spanish Congress and Senate approved a watered-down version of the autonomy statute, which was accepted by the regional parliament, the tensions between the central and the regional governments were already there. Moreover, as a consequence of the global economic crisis in 2008, the tensions escalated. Historically, Catalonia has been one of the richest regions in Spain. Therefore, its contribution through taxes to the welfare of other regions was high. However, by 2009, the global financial crisis had already started to strike the region's economy. And by 2012, the Spanish government created a line of credit, known as FLA, for regional governments. From then on, Madrid checked and approved all payments made with FLA funds. And that year, Catalonia received 40 percent of all FLA funds. By the end of 2016, about 66 percent of Catalonia's public debt was owed to Spain through the FLA funding. The economic austerity imposed from Europe added to the tax collection and distribution system helped to increase societal discomfort. Consequently, in 2010, Catalans marched for the first time with signs reading "We are a nation. We decide!" to protest the court ruling. Since 2012, during La Diada on September 11, Catalonia's national day, pro-independence grassroots organizes provoked mass rallies in hopes of attracting international attention.

In 2014, former Catalan president Artur Mas' call for a non-binding referendum on independence for November 9 of that year further represented the conflict's escalation. At that time, Mariano Rajoy, already the Spanish Prime Minister, decided to remain passive. Though, the Constitutional Court suspended the referendum, as well the vote.

Then, the conflict exploded in the first part of 2015, when Mas and three of his former ministers were banned from public office over the 2014 non-binding informal vote. Subsequently, Carme Forcadell, former president of the Catalan assembly, stood trial facing criminal charges for disobeying the Constitutional Court when allowing a parliamentary debate on independence.

Nothing is solved yet and the dialogue between the parties continues to be deficient. Rajoy's cabinet rejects the idea of getting help from a third party as it would undermine its position, while the European Union maintains that the Catalan crisis is an internal Spanish affair, so international mediation is not an option now. Moreover, both the Catalans and Spanish have already proceeded with their parliamentary sessions, though neither side has taken the next step. While Puigdemont declared independence without an actual statement, Rajoy has talked about using Article 155 of the Constitution, but hasn't enforced it yet. Both players know that the next move most probably will determine the end of this political game.

Puigdemont could not enforce de facto independence in Catalonia because it would have been rejected by the international community. That would give the perfect ground for the triggering of Article 155, with which the central government would regain control over Catalonia and arrest Catalan separatists. Nevertheless, this move would only give "mate" to the Spanish government, since Puigdemont would become a martyr for the Catalan cause. Consequently, the central government would face the need to control the population through an increase in police forces, because at this point, any form of dialogue is already impossible. Then, Rajoy would face backlash from the international community. Hence, the Catalan independence campaign would finally find the perfect context for succeeding. Therefore, this is not a titan war. The strongest will not be the winner, if not the most astute player.

But the Catalan dilemma is the symptom of an overall problem: Spain's transition to a democratic state has not been achieved yet. A reform of the constitution that allows the state to become a real federal country is mandatory. In that way, nationalism, like the Basque or Catalan, would find their place in Spain. As the reality of Spain is complex, it needs a formula that can accommodate its social plurality.

The author is a Jinrong Scholar at the BFSU Research Center of the United Nations and International Organizations. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn



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