“The relationship hasn’t been working for many years, and now it’s unsustainable.”
When Carles Puigdemont took the dais at the Catalan parliament and uttered these words, it sounded like a Dear John letter, a death knell for Catalonia’s prolonged unhappy alliance with Spain.
In what seemed like an unusually long day, people started gathering at important landmarks in Barcelona, cloaked in Catalan flags, in anticipation of witnessing a historic moment as the Catalan President readied to address his people. For the immigrant flag sellers, it was a day of great delight, as they capitalised on the patriotic surge.
Amid all the excitement, there were concerned faces as well, the ones who feared an uncertain political scenario awaiting right around the corner for an independent Catalonia.
Puigdemont’s perplexing speech that’s now being dubbed on social media as Schrodinger’s Catalan cat, was greeted with applause from the crowd when he finally stated that he wants to follow the people’s will for Catalonia to become an independent state. However, his immediate decision to suspend a formal declaration of the same was met with boos.
By delaying the decision, Puigdemont avoided the risk of Article 155 — also dubbed as the nuclear option — being implemented in Catalonia, which would have allowed Madrid to suspend the regional administration and take control over the matters into their own hands. He might not have satiated the hopes of hardcore idealists in favour of secession, but as a leader, Puigdemont was pragmatic enough to not further devolve an already volatile situation.
Out of the 5.3 million registered voters in Catalonia, only 2.3 million turned up for the election on October 1, with 90 per cent of them favouring independence. But the riot police took to violence to sabotage the peaceful referendum, prompting some of the neutral ones also to question the Spanish authority.
However, the following week, Barcelona witnessed a retort to that, with thousands pledging their loyalty to Spain, some of them wrapped in both Catalan and Spanish flags, sending a message to the world that not all Catalans are in favour of a separate country; their concerns seemed well founded, as they feared for their jobs and pensions once Catalonia severs its ties with Spain, with some of the companies already announcing their plans to relocate in the wake of political uncertainty. The pro-unity people, too, had their reasons to not disrupt the existing status quo.
When it comes to PR wars, both sides had their share of wins. If the heavy-handed riot police taking on peaceful voters made Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy look tactless, the solidarity rally turned the tables when noted personalities including Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa moved the mass with their eloquent speech. With words laden with nostalgia, Vargas Llosa reminded the people to not let passion override their reason, while Joseph Borell, the former president of European Parliament, opined that borders are the scars left on the skin of the earth by past wars.
However, it has to be noted that Catalonia’s resistance is more political than social; it has little to do with borders, and their cries are for fiscal autonomy, a sovereignty over its resources that accounts for 20 per cent of Spain’s economy. They have been complaining for long about the region’s non-reciprocative relationship with the Centre, and have been demanding more in return to augment their spending.
The strained relationship between Spain and Catalonia reached its nadir in 2010, when the country’s constitutional court ruled against Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy, abolishing 14 of its clauses, and reinterpreting 27. This triggered an avalanche of protests, which got exacerbated with each passing year.
Incidentally, it was also a period when Spain was experiencing a crippling financial crisis, and the country couldn’t have afforded losing hold of one of its most affluent regions, crucial to the survival of the economy.
Even for a neutral observer, the matter looks too tangled for an immediate solution. Regardless of some of the genuine concerns echoed by the Catalans, the word separatist has a negative connotation in today’s world, especially when European Union is trying to combat identity politics, the biggest threat to its integrity. Fervent youths clad in flags crying for freedom wouldn’t do much help in garnering the support of the EU, let alone the world, if the dominant narrative of the protest is that of independence, regardless the fact that Catalans have never resorted to violence to meet their demands like the Basque Country.
A better alternative for Catalans could be the demand for a federal system, a republic, that ensures more room for the functioning of democracy, instead of making the tension look like a simple narrative of struggle for independence, centred around the revival of their identity.
The zealots who were anticipating a new dawn for Catalonia are disappointed by the delaying of the declaration, which they believe lacks audacity, but Puigdemont has managed to draw the attention back to the civility in the mode of protests of his people, sending a message to the world that the issue is beyond a binary conflict.
In response, Rajoy has cleverly dodged the bullet by giving Puigdemont an ultimatum to come up with a lucid statement regarding the independence, reiterating that the doors for mediation are open only within the confines of legality, thereby putting the Catalan President in a conundrum. To bring Rajoy to the tables, Puigdemont will have to take back his words.
Amidst all this uncertainty, a tiny sliver of hope is Rajoy’s consideration of constitutional reform, backed by Spain’s main opposition party as well, if at all that happens.
Spain’s segue from dictatorship to constitutional monarchy is often lauded for its bloodless nature, but that doesn’t hide the fact that the political elites back then managed to do so by sweeping the memories of its painful, conflictive past under the rug. The Pact of Forgetting was made under the objective to forcefully erase the crimes of Franco’s brutality, contrary to how Germans rebuilt their nation by prosecuting the Nazis.
When they opted for avoidance instead of confronting the historical crimes and offering retribution, little would have they imagined the ramifications. The past always comes back to haunt, the contemporary political dilemma in Spain bears testimony to that.