By Lorenzo G-A Llamas. Originally published on 2012/12/03
On September 11th 2012, Catalonia, as happens every year, took to the streets to celebrate its day – la Diada. Without warning, without preview and in one instant, Spain witnessed how a traditional celebration transfigured itself into a resounding demand. A demand, that regardless of how it is met, or even if it is not, is likely to alter the present day conception of the Spanish state.
With over 1.5 million participants it is clear that this Diada epitomized a popular, general sentiment, vested within its demand. Never before had Spain witnessed a Diada disguised with more impetus than simple celebration, neither had it witnessed such numbers nor the congruent unity amongst so many different elements. A general feeling was stated. What is less clear is, what were they really demanding? What does this sentiment aspire to? Autonomy? Independence? Federalism?
Answers vary significantly according to whom you ask. The unity witnessed was not the manifestation of a collective’s future aspirations, but the manifestation of a collective’s present grievances: Spain is at an existential crossroad on its way to change – and how this change will occur is going to depend on a number of things.
Frequent misapprehensions, even within Spain, have muddled the nature and agenda of the issue. With frequency, one sees how individuals treat this issue as a singular conflict that is demarked by two sides: Spain & Catalonia. This inference is shortsighted as it fails to capture the complexity and substance of this issue. More than a duel between Catalonia and Spain, the duel is rather of Spain vs. Spain. The 2012 Diada echoed a sentiment that has taken over the entire country: a sentiment of frustration and impotence. Anyone sensible who has taken three steps across Spain can see that it is an eclectic mosaic of peoples and places, not of Spanish and Catalonians, as many try to illustrate Spain. From Galicia to Catalonia, from Navarra to Andalucía, Spain is constituted of different nations. They are all distinct from one another but engrained together under the banner of a common Spanish identity. Hitherto, the identity of Spain has been forged by the results of its union: a reciprocal commitment of unity; and the history this has led it to share since 1492 when the crowns of Castilla and Aragon coalesced. All Spaniards share this with one another; thus, no one can be said to be more Spanish than another in this union.
Spanish statehood has undergone a wide array of processes and circumstances: some as worthy to have been called golden eras (i.e. Siglo de Oro) while others have been termed gloomy, as dictatorship and civil war characterized them so. Nevertheless, to this day, Spanish territorial integrity has been maintained and reaffirmed numerous times.
Today Spain is once again confronting adversity; and this issue is Spanish rather than simplyCatalonian. Although Catalonia has been a frontrunner manifesting discontent; the fact of the matter is that today the Spanish’s state structure of governance does not reflect today’s necessities and configurations. Catalonia has spoken for all Spain.
Roots of the Conflict and its Aggravation: An Economic Downturn and its Mismanagement
It is only natural that if the wide establishment is not working, individuals turn to their narrower environments where they feel they can take issues at their own hand. The persistence of ineffective governance has led to a frustration that, founded in incompetence, is compelling societies within Spain to look at alternatives in governance. This is occurring even more so as Spaniards contemplate daily how their problems sharpen around them.
This question leads us to the framework in which the future of Spain is going to be defined: the political realm.
The acute situation of Spain comes from far away and from different directions. Despite the bleeding started in the Diada, the gash had been deepening for a while. The economic bonanza and the liberal experimentation of the post-dictatorial era cushioned the country’s political foundations. The foundations built in 1976, after the end of the dictatorship, had a momentary purpose that they met: the reorganization and legitimization of a new Spanish statehood. Today, these have become obsolete.
The first serious crisis since democracy that has swept Spain has unpeeled that establishment by corroding two primordial elements of any national cohesion that are intractably interwoven: 1) the economy and 2) the country’s governance. Thus, despite how strong a Spanish unity can be, nations within it are not going to jeopardize the economic wellbeing of its citizens nor their recognition of a self-serving will.
The case of Catalonian sovereignty has become exacerbated suddenly because of the economic result this crisis has had on it, and how it has consequently been magnified when filtered through Spain’s incompetent and inflexible centralized government.
Catalonia has had to ask for a rescue by the Spanish government in order to meet its balances, while at the same time having to pay 8% of its GDP revenues to the state that it does not benefit from in any way – instead, the revenues are channeled to subsidize other less productive regions. Catalonians see that their own economy is threatened, and with this persisting, questions about the central system arise: is its unresponsive in the face of crisis? Does it lack room for negotiation and reform?
Furthermore, PM Rajoy recently denied the Catalonian autonomous President Mas the demand of obtaining a fiscal tax system that already applies to Navarra and the Basque Country – disparities of conditions within a union are only going to generate fractures and naturally incite centrifugal forces.
The details of the conversation are unknown but the manner in which Mas returned to Catalonia was reflective of a resignation shadowed by the central government’s inflexibility. The issue is gaining an impetus that can be dangerous, the amplification of nationalism, and the manipulation of its nature can be conducive to the questioning on part of society about the prevalent national definition – particularly in a moment of crisis. The risk that radical elements arise in this scenario could further complicate the issue.
Nevertheless, all sorts of indicators are reflecting a varied and mostly undefined Catalonian electorate in regards to secession. This illustrates where the nature of this issue lies: the essence of the problem is not about being independent or not, but rather about the conditions Catalonia, and the rest of Spain, are going to live with.
The issue of the last few days seems to be orbiting about the status Catalonia would have with the EU in case of secession, and centered on what are and are not democratic rights. Disregarding the name of the party in power, and being non-partisan, the reality is that the current government is sidetracking. The issue should not orbit around what if, but around what now – namely: shaping the people’s intentions, perceptions and outlook for the future. If the government enters into dialectic of what you can and cannot vote, of if you will or will not belong to EU, it is only accentuating divisions by generating a focus on the future rather than amending its present. At the same time, the government has misconceived the nature of this issue and given itself the liberty of taking personal postures that have aggravated the tone of the issue. The abstract declarations on the part of the Minister of Education and Culture, Jose Ignacio Wert, to “Spanishize Catalonian children in school” were dubious. They do nothing more than speculate about the nature of its meaning and the government’s intentions. It simply helps to distance the two corresponding faces of this issue, segmenting what the government should be keeping integral: we are not seeing constructive attitudes.
Reflections on the Status Quo
Criticism about Spain has been very recurrent recently and easy to formulate; thereby, this text thus far would be of little worth if it made no intent of at least identifying where the solution to this crisis lies.
This examination finds the answer to this issue in governance. While one cannot blame the current executive in power for the crisis, the management of the issue is going to be crucial in crafting the outcome – and will thus be judged by its management. So far we have only heard rhetoric, demagoguery, and speculation on the part of our politicians. It is time our government takes action.
The government is going to have to make an effort and not address this process as a prescribed surgery – but take a step further outside of itself and be able to create consensus. The negotiating capacities of the central government are going to be determinant of the behavior of a sensible Catalonia – where the personified postures of politicians in this issue are also going to be driving forces. The longer the government takes to recognize the necessity of addressing a clear manifestation of an inclusive society that is questioning its self-preservation, the more obtuse this issue is going to become – and the more Catalonians, and other parts of Spain for the matter, are going to look to themselves for solutions.
Instead of looking at how there are no mechanisms to secede it should take a closer look at how to discourage secession, stress the strengths of our union and create an optimist prospect for the future.
The visible fractures emerging on the surface of Spain need to be addressed by all parties involved, and at all levels. A committee of national reorganization should be assigned in which experts improve the platforms of dialogue and efficiency of governance. Some have pointed out that federalism beholds Spain’s statehood sustainability – I’m not in the condition to judge but what the government should do is create a dynamic of transparency and dialogue that seeks improvement of Spain’s foundations.
As well, at the root of our dysfunctional governance is our political class, which has been decadent for decades. Politicians in Spain are not appreciated and judged for their qualifications like in other Western democracies. This is due to a series of circumstances.
Our political leaders have a unique privilege of being able to hold and run for office while undergoing a judicial process. Numerous corruption and unethical scandals of all sorts have swept the country, at all levels of its bureaucracy and coming from all sides. Furthermore, their public images are rather poor and their curriculums tend to be rather shallow. All this has resulted in a dynamic between the political parties that is demarked by destructive tones of the opposition and arrogant approaches of the leading government.
The never-ending political fiasco of Spain orchestrated by its bands of cronies and unqualified leaders has led this realm to decadence. Disregarding parties, disregarding individuals, disregarding the political discourse: the value we give our political arena has been in a steady decline for long over a decade. Stronger requirements, and consequently, a greater recognition should be provided to strengthen our political class.
The current panorama is not very positive but there are solutions. Spain needs a platform that brings greater cohesion at all levels of society – politically, culturally and socially. This maturing democracy needs to be aware of the dynamism of statehood and build bodies that enhance the development of it in accordance to the running times.
About a Spaniard
As for me, the day any one nation of Spain ceases to partake in this union, is the day that Spain will cease to be Spain; it is the day we will all cease to be Spanish. The identity of Spain is one of union and common history. The constituents of Spain have never been more achieving in their history then when united. Since its democratic flowering in the late ’70s Spain grew exponentially in all areas: economically, culturally, as an international player, in sports, in science – indeed Spain was the miracle of Europe in the ’80s and ’90s.
However, without one of its constituents Spain will cease having the union it has sought to secure for centuries and consequently stop building history that distinguishes it.
This applies to all of Spain’s regions, although Catalonia has been the first to pronounce itself against the status quo: the issue is at the root of the entire Spanish society. The problem really is more elemental than sentimental. The sentiment of union is not the question but rather the matter of effective governance: the demands transcend recognition beyond a legal status; it’s the aspiration to a certainty within a framework we all share.
A Few Days Ago, in Catalonia …
Parliamentary elections that took place the day before yesterday in Catalonia, their results reinforcing the argumentum that has been presented in this paper. Mas and his party, CiU, anticipated these elections two years after the impetus of the Diada. They were confident they would yield the absolute majority (two-thirds) and embark in their nationalistic projects without any constraints. The results have been backhanded – Mas and his party have lost twelve of the sixty-two seats they had obtained only in 2010. Mas, and more specifically his project, have received a serious warning from Catalonians: they want solutions, not more problems. They want an economy, that does not mean a new country.
The nationalistic gravity Mas was starting to give the issue was thickening it. With enough problems at home, the Catalonian leader had started to go on international ventures to harness support for his project. The Central government has also been closing down positions, and getting EU Commissaries to declare the difficulty of Catalonian joining the EU after secession. With the emerging pulse between Mas and the Central government, and to some degree the EU, the electorate has started to perceive this as yet another problem alien to the solution of their real grievances.
Spain’s problem come from its democracy, which has stagnated and entered into a spiral of immobility. Democracy is a static concept that needs to move forward to justify itself – it’s not a point you reach but an objective (popular sovereignty) you are continually moving towards to. The instances and manifestations of Spain’s deterioration is vast, it would speak volumes. And although it is of great importance it is not the topic at hand – for the political realm of Spain is sterile, and so is its economy. Their current dynamic does not allow it to move forward into the new, and it’s fermenting in its immobility. The situation is being reflected in the citizen’s hardships and unfulfilled necessities.
Weakened by its unemployment, debt crisis, salary cuts and corruption – the average Spaniard’s day is an overwhelming problem in itself. In this midst of continuous blows and absence of solutions, confusion has taken over the country: first it was economical subsistence, now it’s our territorial integrity; the horizon is wrapped under a blanket of futile governance. It’s a vicious cycle getting cloudier over time.
This Diada was an alarm for all Spain: our union has a cost and requires an effort.
A well-formed unity beholds all Spain’s best futures, but certain reciprocal concessions are going to be needed and our system rethought – whether its in a federal system, a more autonomous one – who knows, but creating room for discussion is going to be necessary to maintain Spain.
Only through the arrival of the longed effective governance will we be able to translate our historical ties, and the greatness of our union into today’s needs. It just might be time for all of us Spaniards to put our hands on the table and redefine the Spain we are starting not to have, the Spain that is kept us together this much.
The clock is ticking, and for now: Viva España.
 (note, that Catalonia has not been an independent state since the XII Century).
Disclaimer: This article was originally published as “Secessionism in Times of Crisis: The Case of Spain” on November 27, 2012 on The Political Bouillon, EST cooperation partner.