What are the implications of the Barcelona-Madrid confrontation?

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George Filatov

The Catalonian crisis is far from over. Despite the victory of the Catalonian separatists on the December 21 parliamentary election, there is no clarity about the future of the local government (the Generalitat). It remains to be seen if the incoming government will be able to come up with a compromise with official Madrid.      

In the early January, the Catalonian parliament appealed to Spain’s Constitutional Court with a request to reassess Madrid’s decision to apply the Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution in October 2017, which allowed dismissing the Catalan authorities and dissolving Parliament. Barcelona sees this move as unconstitutional. The text of the request was prepared in the late December, but only in January it was presented in the court, according to La Vanguardia, a leading newspaper in Catalonia.

All this means that the confrontation between official Madrid and rebellious Barcelona will go on in 2018. On October 1, 2017, a controversial referendum on Catalonia’s independence took place. As a result, about 90 percent out of 2,28 million voters supported the idea of Catalonia leaving Spain. The autonomy’s parliament supported the referendum to recognize Catalonia’s independence unilaterally, but Madrid removed from office Catalan leader and nationalist politician Carles Puigdemont and his government as well as appointed the snap parliamentary election on Dec. 21. Eventually, the nationalists won the majority, yet it is so far unclear, what party will lead the government.

Pyrrhic victory  

The results of the Catalan parliamentary campaign as well as the election of a new regional leader should end the direct ruling of Madrid over the autonomy, which was imposed after Catalonia unilaterally announced about its independence on Oct. 27, after the referendum. It was an extraordinary measure not only for Spain, which applied the Article 155 for the first time, but also for the entire European Union, which, if reluctantly, recognized these controversial moves as legal. The EU is used to resolving conflicts through negotiations and reaching an agreement or at least creating the vision of this agreement between two sides. The events in Catalonia showed another scenario, which is uncommon for the EU.

The interest toward the Catalan crisis went beyond the European Union. For example, the Russian media were closely following the independence referendum, and this interest stemmed from the fact that Russia has its own experience of separatist conflicts, given the Crimean incorporation and the Donbas war. Moreover, Spain is one of the EU countries, which is favorable toward Moscow. After all, Madrid was against the anti-Russian sanctions, imposed for the Kremlin’s policy in Ukraine. Furthermore, Spain didn’t want to support a new set of sanctions against Moscow for the Aleppo bombing in October-December 2016. In addition, the Russian vessels are using the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla to get fueled in their way from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.

Interestingly, Russia was, in part, included in the agenda of the Catalan crisis. The Spanish authorities accused Russian hackers of attempting to influence the results of the Catalan referendum through posting on social media. Such statements sought to shift responsibility for the Catalan crisis to some external factors, from the shoulders of the Spanish government, which, in fact, failed to resolve the own domestic problem.

However, Catalonia’s aspirations for independence resulted from Spain’s deep economic problems. The country suffered a great deal as a result the economic crisis, with unemployment having reached 26 percent in the early 2010s. Inequality among the country’s regions played a certain role as well: While Navarra and the Basque Country, the Spanish regions, can autonomously collect taxes on their territories, the rest of Spain, including Catalonia, has taxes collected by a federal state agency.

On top of that, the reluctance of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to make concessions to Catalans, who wanted to expand their rights and autonomy, fueled the tensions and aggravated the crisis. So, the Catalan elite took the secessionist    course. And the results of the Dec. 21 election seem to have become another stage of the Catalan crisis, not its end.

The results of the vote were not unpredictable. Numerous public opinion polls had indicated before the election that separatists were highly likely to win a majority in the parliament (68 out of 135). Indeed, they won, but although they are celebrating the victory, it looks like a pyrrhic victory. First, they got 70 seats, which is two seats less than after the 2015 election. Second, one should not forget that some leaders of the secessionist parties could not join the parliament, because they are currently hiding abroad (like Puigdemont, the leader of the Together for Catalonia party) or they are imprisoned (like Oriol Junqueras, the leader of Republican Left of Catalonia). Without them the advocates of the Catalan independence cannot get the absolute majority.

Of course, other deputy and candidates from the voting lists can replace them, but in this case a new problem could emerge before the secessionist parties. Puigdemont and Junqueras are not only the most experienced and popular politicians, but also they are recognized as true leaders. If they are removed from the political scene, the separatists will have to look for new ones, which is not going to be easy. Whether they are able to come up with a compromise in the current environment is a big question as well. Remarkably, they even cannot agree on a united coalition, although they could do this after the 2015 parliamentary election.

The fact that 52,1 percent of Catalan voters supported the parties that are calling for keeping a united Spain is also important, with deputies from the unionist party Citizens having gotten most seats.  This situation is favorable for official Madrid, because it gives a good argument to those who want Spain remaining united: Now they can question the right of the separatists to promote their agenda on behalf of Catalonia’s entire population.

The crisis is going on     

Today there is no clarity in the plans of the secessionists. Another unilateral attempt to announce the Catalan independence will lead to the same results which Catalonia saw in October 2017: Madrid will impose its direct ruling over region once again. Rajoy makes no bones about it: He has already said that would apply the Article 155 if it is necessary.

However, these threats are hardly likely to reconcile Barcelona and Madrid over the future of a united Spain. For example, the imposition of the direct control by Madrid in October only fueled secessionist sentiments in Catalonia, with 49 percent of respondents having supported independence against 41 percent in July.

At the same time, the rest of Spain responded in a completely different way to the Catalan crisis. The streets of Spanish cities were decorated with numerous Spanish flags, which could be a sign of expressing patriotism and a belief in a united Spain. Previously, this trend was common only during national holidays, festivities or after sport triumphs, like the victory during the 2010 FIFA World Cup Championship in South Africa. Likewise, in the Basque Country, the number of secessionists sharply declined, with only 24 percent of respondents of the region having voted for independence in November 2017 against 28 percent in July.

However, what becomes a problem for new secessionists is the absence of the main leaders and the intransigent advocates for independence — Puigdemont and Junqueras — on the Catalan political scene. Hopefully, Catalonia’s incoming leaders will be able to find new approaches toward Madrid. After all, the Spanish central authorities are ready to expand the Catalan autonomy, as indicated by Rajoy’s October statements. Yet to win concessions from Madrid, the Catalan government agencies should work within the framework of the Spanish laws. Yet, the promise of the separatists to keep fighting for their independence indicates that the confrontation is far from over and the possibility of compromise is not feasible so far.

George Filatov is a research fellow of the Center of Spanish and Portuguese Research at the Institute of World History of the Russian Academy of Sciences.  

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