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I imagine this reading will make a lot of readers unhappy, but the Catalonia’s secessionist leaders made clear they hold a weak set of cards in dealing with Mariano Rajoy’s government. The European Commission washed its hand of the matter, saying Catalonia and Spain needed to settle their hash on their own….within the constitutional framework that allows Catalonia no exit. The full text of its press release:
Under the Spanish Constitution, yesterday’s vote in Catalonia was not legal.
For the European Commission, as President Juncker has reiterated repeatedly, this is an internal matter for Spain that has to be dealt with in line with the constitutional order of Spain.
We also reiterate the legal position held by this Commission as well as by its predecessors. If a referendum were to be organised in line with the Spanish Constitution it would mean that the territory leaving would find itself outside of the European Union.
Beyond the purely legal aspects of this matter, the Commission believes that these are times for unity and stability, not divisiveness and fragmentation.
We call on all relevant players to now move very swiftly from confrontation to dialogue. Violence can never be an instrument in politics. We trust the leadership of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to manage this difficult process in full respect of the Spanish Constitution and of the fundamental rights of citizens enshrined therein.
Yet after having threatened to declare independence within 48 hours of a favorable referendum vote (and press reports indicated that the total number of voted lodged favoring departure was higher than the threshold Catalonian separatists had set), officials in Catalonia are now retreating from their threat of a speedy exodus. Instead they want to negotiate and have the EU moderate. But you can’t have talks unless the other side wants to talk too.
Even though Catalonia has called on the EU to mediate, there’s no reason for the EU to get involved, and more important, no reason for Rajoy to come to the negotiating table. Recall what it took for the Basques to get where they are now: years of violence. It also took years of violence by the IRA before both sides were willing to hammer out a deal. Even though the EU might tisk tisk about Rajoy sending in his storm troopers, it’s made clear it won’t pressure Rajoy to be more accommodating towards Catalonia.
The lack of an overlap in probable bargaining positions is another impediment to negotiations, even if Rajoy were less bloody-minded than he is. As reader Jesus pointed out yesterday:
Regarding negotiations in the (near?) future: I don’t see common ground. It is not about this or that politician being pig-headed. We are seeing in conflict two incompatible concepts of the polity: the Spanish side thinks of Spain as one, and the whole of Spain as the subject that makes collective decisions. On the Catalan side, Catalonia is the subject and it is entitled to making the decisions about its future. Spain has never accepted that Catalonia is entitled to that. I think that the events these days show that clearly. The apparent success story of devolution in Spain since the ‘78 Constitution was a big exercise of pretense: Madrid would pretend that it respected Catalonia’s identity, and the Catalans would pretend that the problems with the watered-down devolution that we got were sort of technical, that they would be solvable one by one, through negotiation and influence. To make a long story short, the ruling of the Constitutional Court in 2010 meant the end of the pretense. The reach of that ruling was more political than juridical. It meant that the game of increasing devolution step by step, through political negotiation was over. So we had to turn to something else, which is where we are: independence as the only option to avoid Madrid making decisions that we feel are ours to make.
Now, I think that the only possibility of fruitful negotiations for Catalonia to remain is Spain is the return of that pretense. But the return of the pretense is going to be a hard sell in Catalonia. Not least because the big beneficiary of that arrangement was Spain.
There is no trust on the Catalan side. Nothing short of real devolution would be accepted. Madrid is not going to let us decide. And on top of that, real devolution means also financial devolution, something similar to what the Basques have, and that would be a major restructuring of the State.
We’ve mentioned that Catalonia had a nuclear weapon, in terms of defaulting on its debt, which would take down the Spanish banking system. But as far as I can tell, Catalonia’s official had never even made a veiled threat along those lines. Moreover, as Rabid Gandhi indicates in comments, that weapon appears to have been largely disarmed.
Moreover, as this Twitter thread (hat tip Dean) points out, Rajoy’s thuggish response to the Catalonia independence threat has if anything strengthened his position. That means he has every reason to continue to take a hard line on Catalonia:
As we've seen from the images today, the right wing government in Madrid is incredibly craven and reactionary. Almost fascistic.
— Nando (@nandorvila) October 1, 2017
Rajoy has used his hardline stance against Catalunya to shore up his base of support in a moment of economic hardship for Spain.
— Nando (@nandorvila) October 1, 2017
And the Rajoy government is not making nice noises. From the Financial Times:
As Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy met other party leaders on Monday, his government gave little sign it was open to talks as long as the separatist Catalan government pushes for full independence from Spain, in contravention of the law and the constitution…..
Rafael Catala, the justice minister, said the government would use all the tools at its disposal — including if necessary the suspension of Catalonia’s autonomy — to enforce the rule of law. “We have always said that we would use all the force of the law,” he said told Spanish television.
There were also hawkish calls by Albert Rivera, the head of the liberal Ciudadanos party which supports the PP government, to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy immediately. The government on Monday rejected taking these steps right away, although has left the option open for the future.
It is worth noting that the Spanish government could have wound up pretty much where it is now, from a substantive perspective if it had let the referendum go forward but stressed that it had no legal meaning and would be ignored by the Spanish government as extra-legal. Polls before the referendum shows that only 41% of Catalonians supported a referendum if the Spanish government opposed it.
Moreover, even though the Catalonia government has tried to declare its voting results as legitimate and binding, it’s hard to see that with the disorganized polling that resulted from the crackdown on the election. Allowing voters to go to any polling station means no one can have confidence in the results.
Moreover, Catalonia’s negotiating stance is tantamount to, “We really didn’t mean it. Give us enough concessions and we’ll declare victory and go home.”
Now if Catalonia had started with a clear set of devolution demands, say that they wanted the same terms as other regions with better deals, most important, control over their own tax collection, the latest gambit would look like Catalonia was being consistent: “We want more devolved powers but will leave Spain and the EU if you don’t make concessions, which will hurt both of us a lot.” Instead, the sudden retreat looks like unseriousness, as if the referendum was a mere stunt.
In addition, outsiders might assume that because Rajoy is a hard core neoliberal, the separatists must be left-wingers. Not so. They are neoliberals too:
Catalan nationalism has typically been conservative, especially in the democratic era. CiU, which ruled Catalunya for decades, is neoliberal
— Nando (@nandorvila) October 1, 2017
In fact a lot of the leftists that are veterans of the labor movement and anti-Franco resistance reject independence https://t.co/I4tmbNuHfr
— Nando (@nandorvila) October 1, 2017
Catalonia held what was originally billed as a general strike, but English language reports are characterizing it as a protest over the violence by the Guarda Cadilla, as opposed to pro-separatist per se (although the two issues are linked). From the Guardian:
Large numbers of Catalans have observed a general strike 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.
Schools and universities were shut on Tuesday and unions reported that most small businesses were closed after unions called for the stoppage to “vigorously condemn” the police response to the poll, in which Catalonia’s leader said 90% of voters had backed independence from Spain.
And the action today has been framed so as not to be a general strike:
The action has officially been called a general stoppage, as opposed to a strike, in order to maximise the participation of the 200,000 public sector workers who, thanks to this semantic twist, will not lose a day’s pay.
“It’s not a general strike, it’s a political stoppage,” said Camil Ros, secretary general of the UGT union in Catalonia. The unions have asked private enterprises to negotiate with their employees so they can join the stoppage without being penalised financially.
However, the underlying issue is that Catalonia may not be sufficiently united on the idea of secession for the government to proceed with confidence. Again from the Guardian:
But any attempt to unilaterally declare independence is likely to be opposed not just by Madrid but also a large section of the Catalan population, a region of 7.5 million people that is deeply split on the issue.
And as reader St Jacques pointed out:
It is clear that the economic crisis is behind the surge in support for independence since then, but they are still in the minority. In 2014, when the economic situation was far worse, they held a referendum which polled 81 per cent in favour but they were only able to get 42 per cent of eligible voters to participate. Since then, all polls have shown that support for independence has been weakening slowly.
Continued over-the-top use of force could move public sentiment the other way in Catalonia. But the unyielding position of the central government means that Catalonia would need to engage in a sustained campaign, meaning over a period of years, to make it painful enough to Madrid to force it to relent. I’d rather be proven wrong, since Rajoy represents a particularly ugly face of neoliberalism, but the rapid backpedaling by the separatists says they know they don’t have enough support among the public to go toe to toe with Madrid.