Spain and Catalonia, stumbling into crisis

Scott Gilmore in Barcelona: Spain has shown a near criminal lack of political dexterity in handling its Alberta-like separatists

Protesters demonstrate at the Placa de la Universitat square in Barcelona during a general strike in Catalonia called by Catalan unions on October 3, 2017. Large numbers of Catalans observe a general strike today to condemn police violence at a banned weekend referendum on independence, as Madrid comes under growing international pressure to resolve its worst political crisis in decades. (Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images)

Protesters demonstrate at the Placa de la Universitat square in Barcelona during a general strike in Catalonia called by Catalan unions on Oct. 3, 2017. (Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images)

Today the Spanish Senate voted to impose direct rule on the rebellious state of Catalonia, whose parliament responded a few hours later by declaring independence.

If any crisis could have been avoided, it should have been this one. Catalonia, by most measures, is a prosperous and happy place. It has a GDP per capita on par with Japan, and an economy larger than Portugal. The local language and culture are thriving, and its capital of Barcelona is one of the most vibrant in Europe. And all of these things, paradoxically, are driving the independence movement.

Many peoples are drawn to rebellion and separation because they are being oppressed, their sense of identity is threatened and they need to create their own state to survive. Others, like Catalans, have thrived and seen their economy and sense of identity grow to such an extent that creation of their own state seems inevitable.

READ MORE: If Spain wants to lose Catalonia, it will keep up its brutality

Nonetheless, the region does have cause to be angry about its relationship with Spain. Under General Franco, their language was outlawed, and it was even forbidden to christen your child with a Catalan name. And, although Spain’s return to democracy brought the region more autonomy, it also created new tensions.

To draw some Canadian comparisons, there are similarities to Quebec as the Catalonians feel their unique language and culture make them a distinct and separate nation. But there may be more parallels with Alberta. Catalans believe they are being unfairly excluded from the national conversation; few of the nation’s decision makers have been Catalan, including none of its prime ministers. And there are complaints Barcelona sends far more money to Madrid than it receives in return through federal spending. And, like many Albertans, many Catalans believe they have been unfairly taxed to prop up economic mismanagement elsewhere in the country.

To a Canadian eye, these are all familiar complaints that almost define our federal-provincial relationship. It is hard to understand how they have escalated towards the current crisis. The answer seems to be Madrid’s almost criminal lack of political dexterity.

Over a period of many years, the Spanish government, federal courts and regional politicians danced and stumbled around the question of whether the national constitution allowed certain types of autonomy and how Catalonians should be polled on the issue. A series of formal and informal referendums were held, most of which showed strong support for more autonomy, but all were diminished with low turnout and tight margins. Last year, the Catalonian President Carles Puigdemont announced his intention to hold a binding referendum on independence, with or without the consent of Madrid. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy defiantly (if ineptly) announced that the referendum would not be allowed to take place, which all but guaranteed it would.

When the vote was held four weeks ago, Madrid responded with a spectacularly ill-planned show of force. National police seized ballots, tried to close polling stations, and in many cases even beat and arrested voters. It was almost designed to increase local support for independence, which it did. But the final tally is unclear. Turnout was only 43 per cent, but of those 92 per cent chose to leave Spain.

And so, today, as I stood with several thousand Catalans outside their parliament, and as national police helicopters circled overhead, regional legislators voted on a formal and unilateral declaration of independence. When it was announced the “Yes” side had won by a large majority, the crowd of protesters reacted with a roar of delight as they waved flags, cried and hugged each other.

Mercifully, the birth of this nation was not being marked with smoke and blood—in fact, it was barely even noticed just blocks from where the historic declaration was being made. Further down the avenue, tourists sat in open-air cafés drinking espressos and listening to the crowd sing patriotic songs. I saw one or two take a photo of the celebrations, but most of them were not paying attention.

The blasé attitude of the tourists is perhaps a good indication that today we did not actually witness the creation of a new state. In earlier conversations with western diplomats, I had been told that the Catalonians were vastly overestimating the amount of international support they would receive if they declared independence. And this proved to be the case. The response has so far been universally unenthusiastic. As Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council bluntly announced: “…nothing changes. Spain remains our only interlocutor.”

Tellingly, Tusk added, “I hope the Spanish government favours force of argument, not argument of force.” The most likely way this crisis would continue to escalate is if Madrid once again incompetently overreacted. Earlier in the day, the national Senate gave Prime Minister Rajoy the power to impose home rule by force and remove the Catalonian leadership from office, a threat he has made more than once. But he also has the ability to simply sit down and discuss some of Puigdemont’s more reasonable demands, which would probably lead to tedious, seemingly interminable rounds of talks between the federal and regional governments—not a dramatic reaction, but possibly the most effective (and Canadian) way to end this crisis.

Editor’s Note: Two hours after this column was written, Rajoy announced that he was dissolving the Catalan Parliament, sacking its government, removing the director of police, and closing all Catalan offices abroad.

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