Just like Brexit, the region’s separatist movement reeks of populism and is putting Europe at risk.
In his work entitled L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution, Tocqueville put forward his famous paradox according to which the risk of a political regime being overthrown is lower when a crisis is at its worst than when the situation is improving. Spain is proving to be a new and striking illustration of this. On the one hand, it has managed to overcome the terrible effects caused by the bursting of one of the most gigantic real estate bubbles in history, which brought about a fall of 10% in its GDP between 2003 and 2013 and raised the unemployment rate to 27% of the working population. Since 2014, it has returned to a growth situation, reaching a 3.2% growth rate in both 2016 and 2017. In two years, the economy has created 1 million jobs, thereby reducing the unemployment rate to 17.3%. At the same time, the country has regained control over its public finances, reducing the deficit from 9.5% in 2011 to less than 3% of GDP. On the other hand, this recovery from crisis has been torpedoed by Catalonia’s independence referendum – the most difficult test faced by Spanish democracy since the abortive attempt at a putsch by Lieutenant Colonel Tejero in 1981. The referendum organized by the Generalitat on 1st October became a trial of strength. Out of an electorate of 5.3 million, several hundreds of thousands voted, and 90% voted in favor of independence. But the way in which the vote was organized – going against the most elementary electoral rules – deprived the result of any validity. At the same time, excessive repression by the police, which left several hundred injured, backfired on the Spanish government. Any dialogue between the two opposing conceptions of democracy seems out of the question: Barcelona holds the sovereignty of the Catalan people and universal suffrage as absolute principles; Madrid is holding its position on the defense of the rule of law and the illegal nature of the referendum as established both by the Constitutional Court and by the High Court of Justice of Catalonia.
The claim to independence goes back a long way. It was only in 1714 that Philip V Catalonia annexed Catalonia to Spain. The region’s desire for autonomy was one of the causes of the Civil War in the 1930s. Then, having undergone violent repression under Franco, autonomy – inseparable from Catalan culture – was recognized when democracy returned, and it was written into the Constitution of 1978. The other reason is economic: 16% of the Spanish population live in Catalonia, and yet it generates 19% of GDP, 30% of the country’s exports and, in the first quarter of the year, has received over 8 million tourists. The unemployment rate is down to 13% of the working population. Barcelona has become one of the major cities of Mediterranean Europe, with direct links to globalization. Finally, the financial crisis has exacerbated tension with Madrid over sharing out the financial burden involved in the rescue plan for the banking system, over the difficulties of the middle classes and the ravages of corruption.
National feeling in Catalonia has also been galvanized by the clumsiness of the authorities in Madrid. The agreement concluded in 2010 – including the financial aspects of it – had all its significance removed by the Constitutional Court. For a long time, Mariano Rajoy treated Carles Puigdemont with scorn and indifference before he engaged on a course of escalating reprisals. The placing of the Generalitat under financial supervision, together with police repression, have contributed to making Catalans lean if not toward independence, at least toward being in favor of a referendum. These factors have also brought the separatists and the Catalan bourgeoisie together, as well as the radical left wing of Podemos.
The fact remains that Catalonian separatism is a populist movement, combining a need for identity, regional preference and xenophobia. The Generalitat is far from being free of the evils it condemns in Spanish democracy – from the lack of political legitimacy to corruption. Furthermore, Madrid’s hostility has led the Catalan authorities to show an irresponsible tolerance toward Islamic radicals, as brought to light in the tragic attacks of 17th and 18th August on the Ramblas and in Cambrils.
Above all, independence would be a catastrophe for Catalonia, for Spain and for Europe. If Barcelona left the Union, the Eurozone and the Schengen Area, it would fall into oblivion, compromising its development and its role as a bridgehead for foreign investment in Spain – which has fallen by 10% since the announcement of the referendum. Spain would lose its most dynamic region and would have to face more and more requests for secession, starting with the Basque region. As a final point, at a time when the European Union is seeking to reform itself, it would find itself caught between Brexit and the spreading contagion of separatism, causing the dismemberment of its member states, especially with regard to wealthy regions and their metropolises: for example, in Northern Italy, the Veneto region and Lombardy are themselves having referendums on 22nd October.
Just like Brexit, Catalonian independence is an infernal machine from which everyone emerges as a loser. It is therefore high time we disarmed it. Democracy is not only based on universal suffrage but also on compliance with the rule of law and the search for compromise. Increased confrontation must give way to negotiation and the spirit of compromise. Catalonia would be putting its future and its freedom at risk if it confined itself to a populist approach which would open the door to authoritarianism. On the other side of the coin, Madrid must find a response to the feeling in Catalonia that the central government is treating their identity, their development model and their culture with scorn. Between the extremes of independence and the status quo, there are federal solutions to be explored, in line with the 2010 agreement. With the many global dangers facing us in the 21st century, neither Europe nor freedom will be served by dismantling European nations.
(Column published in Le Point, 5th October 2017)