The Financial Express

The Catalan fiasco: Europe wary of centrifugal tendencies

| Updated: November 11, 2017 12:40:44

The Catalan fiasco: Europe wary of centrifugal tendencies

The last few weeks have witnessed an evolving political dynamics in Spain. The current dispute has been Spain's worst political crisis since democracy was restored there in the 1970s.  At first there was the  October 01 referendum, following which the Catalan leader Mr. Puigdemont signed a declaration of independence but delayed its implementation to allow talks with the Spanish government. He ignored warnings by the Madrid government to cancel the move, prompting Prime Minister Mr Rajoy to eventually remove Catalan leaders and impose direct rule.

Catalonia, an autonomous region in north-east Spain with a distinct history dating back almost 1,000 years is a wealthy region with its own language, parliament, flag and anthem. Carles Puigdemont assumed the office of President of Catalonia in January 2016. Six parties were represented in Catalonia's 135-seat regional parliament. Three of them were pro-independence. Elections were held on September 27, 2015 and "Together for Yes" (JxSí), a coalition of two parties and civic organisations, focused on achieving independence from Spain. They won the largest number of seats - 62. It was short of an absolute majority and required support from the pro-independence, anti-capitalist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), with 10 seats, to form the government. The second largest party in parliament, with 25 seats, was the liberal anti-nationalist Citizens-Party of the Citizenry (Cs). The Socialists' Party of Catalonia (PSC-PSOE), with 16 seats, and the People's Party of Catalonia (PPC), the Catalan affiliate of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's People's Party, with 11 seats, opposed the bid for independence. Catalonia Yes We Can (CSQP), a left wing-green coalition, which won 11 seats, was in favour of self-determination for the Catalan people.

The independence referendum was held in defiance of a ruling by the Constitutional Court which had declared it illegal. On October 27, the regional Catalonian Parliament declared independence with a 70-10 vote and Madrid responded by declaring the move illegal. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy then announced the dissolution of the regional parliament and the removal of Mr Puigdemont as Catalan leader. He also ordered that fresh regional elections be held in the third week of December.

Direct rule has since been imposed on Catalonia. Eight members of the now-disbanded Catalonian government are now in government custody. Warrant of arrest has been issued for Puigdemont, who is now abroad.

Catalonia, one of Spain's richest, most distinctive regions, with a high degree of autonomy, now finds itself in a state of uncertainty. With 16 per cent of Spain's population, Catalonia, according to Spain's Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness, has been responsible for 25.6 per cent of Spain's exports, 19 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) and 20.7 per cent of all foreign investment. This created a feeling among a section of the Catalans that their region was contributing more to the Spanish central authority than they were receiving. Many Catalans in the past two months have also openly recalled their historical grievances, in particular Catalonia's treatment under the dictatorship of General Franco.

However, before Madrid took over the Catalan government on October 28, the region could boast of possessing one of the highest levels of self-government in Spain. It had its own parliament, police force and public broadcaster, as well as a government and president. Catalans had a range of powers in many policy areas from culture and environment to communications, transportation, commerce and public safety. Foreign affairs, the armed forces and fiscal policy have, though, always been the sole responsibility of the Spanish government. Spain's Deputy Prime Minister, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria is in charge of Catalonia since Madrid imposed direct rule on the region.

In the meantime, a poll carried out by Spanish national newspaper El Pais after the central government's actions on October 28 has suggested that more Catalans (52 per cent to 43 per cent) are now in favour of the dissolution of the regional parliament and the holding of elections. Fifty-five per cent of Catalan respondents have also opposed the declaration of independence, with 41 per cent in favour.

The response to this evolving drama from within the European Union as well as other major countries has followed the expected line.  Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, has observed that the Catalan Parliament's declaration of independence had changed nothing, adding that the EU would only deal with the central government in Madrid. "For EU nothing changes. Spain remains our only interlocutor," Tusk said on Twitter. The EU has insisted that the standoff in Catalonia is an internal matter for Spain and backed Madrid's position that the October 01 referendum was illegal.

Madrid's allies in the EU and the US have rallied behind Rajoy, voicing alarm over the latest constitutional crisis, and expressing support for a united Spain. "A political crisis can only be solved through dialogue," Charles Michel, the Belgian Prime Minister, said on Twitter. Germany and the United Kingdom have also said that they back Spanish unity and do not recognise Catalonia's unilateral declaration of independence. "The German Federal government does not recognise such an independence declaration," German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement posted on Twitter. He also added that "The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Spain are and always will be inviolable" but those "involved should use all available opportunities for dialogue and de-escalation." The United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May's office has mentioned that Britain "does not and will not" recognise the Catalan regional Parliament's declaration of independence, which "is based on a vote that was declared illegal by the Spanish courts".  However, the Scottish government, led by the pro-independence Scottish National Party, has been critical of Spain for refusing dialogue and has mentioned that imposition of direct rule by Madrid "cannot be the solution". The United States has also backed Madrid's efforts to keep the country united. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert in a statement has commented "Catalonia is an integral part of Spain, and the United States supports the Spanish government's constitutional measures to keep Spain strong and united".

The European economic institutions are closely watching the situation. Spain's Ministry of Economy has already increased its control over regional finances and started paying directly for essential services. Under the new proposal, Madrid is slowly taking full financial control. This is apparently being done not only to reassure those who have invested in Catalonia but also to avoid any instability that might be unleashed by the declaration of independence and the consequent deterioration in economic governance. It may be noted here that nearly 1,700 companies have recently moved their legal headquarters out of Catalonia, a region accounting for one-fifth of Spain's economic output. Shares in Spanish companies, particularly Catalan banks, have dropped sharply in the last two weeks. Tourism, one of the main sources of income for Catalonia, has been affected because of the uncertain conditions. This is having its impact on the services sector and also on the hotel industry.

Catalonia's secessionist groups have, meanwhile, called for widespread civil disobedience. Leaders of the dissolved Catalan National Assembly have asked civil servants not to follow orders from the Spanish government and urged them to follow "peaceful resistance". It is, however, unclear whether such calls will be followed or not. Analysts are pointing out that, all Catalans do not support breaking away from Spain, with polls showing they are roughly split.

Since the end of dictator Francisco Franco's repressive 1939-75 rule, it is for the first time that the Spanish central government has curtailed regional autonomy. Catalan independence supporters have warned that they will resist the temporary measure, implemented under Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution meant to rein in rebellion-prone regions. The far-left CUP party, an ally of Puigdemont, has already tweeted: "We will not cave in to Rajoy's authoritarianism, nor to 155".

This response has led some observers to state that the resistance to what is happening in Catalonia might come in the form of more severe street protests and strikes.

A hard task awaits the Spanish government if it wants to prove to the world and the people of Catalonia that it is not attacking the autonomy and the dignity of the Catalan people.

The rest of Europe will now watch very carefully how Spain handles the situation. They will do so because a number of regions and sub-regions in several other European countries have also been toying with the idea of greater autonomy and possible separation. These include the Faroe Islands in Denmark, Lombardy, Veneto and Sicily regions in Italy, Basque region in Spain, Corsica in France, Bavaria in Germany and Scotland in the United Kingdom.

The standoff between Madrid and Barcelona has plunged Spain into its most serious political crisis, since the country transitioned to democracy four decades ago. The next two months might exacerbate the situation. Hopefully, better sense and reason will prevail among all the stakeholders and they will be able to find least common denominators so that violence can be avoided and stability restored.

The writer, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.

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