Spain and Catalonia


It has been a busy week in Spain. On Tuesday last week, 12 Catalan leaders of the attempted secession from Spain in 2017 went on trial in Madrid, charged with rebellion, sedition and the misuse of public funds. And on Wednesday the Spanish government fell when two small Catalan nationalist parties voted against its budget, essentially to punish it for not stopping the trial.

But Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s government could not have stopped the trial at this point: Spanish courts are independent. And the “Catalan 12” are certainly guilty of something, although it isn’t “rebellion”, which in Spanish law involves a violent uprising. They are guilty of cheating, but there isn’t any law against that.

Sanchez’s now defunct government would almost certainly not have brought such extreme charges against the Catalan would-be martyrs. (Oriol Junqueras, former vice-president of the separatist regional government of Catalonia, faces a possible 25 years in prison.) But the charges were brought under the previous right-wing government of Mariano Rajoy and Sanchez could not just cancel them.

Sanchez’s Socialist Party, which took power last June, depended on two small Catalan separatist parties for its majority. It has fallen because the Catalans felt he had done too little to prevent the trial of the “Catalan 12”. The trial will continue, and the snap election that must now follow will be held in an atmosphere of super-heated nationalism. The separatists probably do not mind.

We are already being treated to a feast of nationalist rhetoric cloaked in the idiom of democratic rights over this trial. Former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who declared Catalonia’s independence, but chose to go into exile rather than face trial when the gambit failed, declares that the trial is “a stress test for the Spanish democracy”.

As the trial began, Jordi Sanchez, one of the 12, tweeted: “I am going in with my head held high, convinced that self-determination is not a crime.”

The trial is really about “the right to self-determination and the democratic principle”, defence lawyer Andreu van den Eyde said. But all this talk of high principle is quite beside the point.

What actually happened in Catalonia in 2017 was that Catalan nationalists, unable to win a convincing majority for their project of independence, decided to skip the bit about a convincing majority. They did control the regional government, so they declared a referendum on independence in which only those in favour of separation would vote.

Such a referendum was illegal under the Spanish constitution, which forbids secession, so the pro-Spanish parties would boycott the referendum. They would have to boycott it in order to stay within the law. Whereas all those who wanted independence — almost half the population — would defy the law and cast their votes.

That is exactly how it worked. Every opinion poll for years had shown that Catalonia was split right down the middle, with around 45% for independence, 45% against it, and 10 % undecided. Just 45% of the population voted in the referendum, and 90% of them voted for independence. Those who didn’t vote could now be dragged out of Spain without further ado. Hurrah for democracy!

For the secessionist leaders, it was a two-way bet. Just possibly, the rest of the world would fail to notice how the vote was rigged, accept it as a democratic exercise, and recognise their claim. Just possibly, too, the Spanish state would be so weak that it would fail to defend the rights of the half of Catalonia’s population who wanted to stay in Spain.

Or, more likely, the Spanish government would intervene to stop this attempted kidnapping and arrest those who had led it. They could then be portrayed as pro-democracy martyrs. That would be almost as helpful to the nationalist cause, and it is what is happening right now.

To be fair to Catalan nationalists, most of their fellow citizens in the region who oppose independence are Spanish-speakers, descended from people who immigrated from other regions to share in Catalonia’s industrial prosperity. A majority of Catalan speakers do back independence.

How can you choose to disregard the views of the Spanish-speaking half of the region’s current population in order to sneak your independence project through? By believing that they are not entitled to a view because they are not real Catalans. Of course, you never say it quite like this in public.

These views persist, and the “Catalan problem” will not go away. Neither will the “Basque problem”, which involves almost identical dilemmas on the other side of Spain. It is the classic problem facing long-established ethnic and linguistic groups that have become minorities, or just barely majorities, in their own lands. There is no “fair” solution, just endless unsatisfactory compromises.

The new Spanish government that emerges from the forthcoming snap election, whatever it is (nobody knows), will not be able to solve the problem either. The most it can do, if it’s sensible, is to commute any prison sentences imposed on the “Catalan 12” and deny them martyrdom.

Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. His new book is titled Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).