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With or without you: Will Catalonia be Europe’s next crisis?
Catalonia’s elections have caused more problems than they have solved. It is time for both Spain and Catalonia to start a national dialogue to reform Spain’s model of regional government writes Camino Mortera-Martine. Otherwise, Catalonia will become Europe’s next crisis.
Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s conservative prime minister, comes from Galicia, on the north-western coast. By reputation, Galicians are so vague and elusive that – according to a Spanish joke – if you meet one on a staircase you cannot tell whether he is going up or down. Rajoy’s handling of the Catalonian problem has epitomised this uncertainty. His belief that the problem would simply disappear if he ignored it for long enough has led to a pseudo referendum that broke more things than it fixed. It is now time for him to face an uncomfortable truth; he should start a dialogue on Spain’s model of regional government.The results of Sunday’s elections (with pro-independence parties winning the most seats, but non-secessionist ones having the most votes) have divided Catalonia’s public opinion and made the region virtually ungovernable. In the run up to the election, a heated debate, with threats and ultimatums from both sides, has increased the deep political divisions in Spanish society. Politicians in both camps have sadly succeeded in convincing Europe that Spain and Catalonia are mutually exclusive concepts. The reality is much more complex.

Support for Catalonia’s independence has surged in recent times. For the last four years, each September 11th (which marks the ‘Diada’, Catalonia’s ‘national’ day) has seen millions of Catalonians take to the streets to support independence. And each time, Artur Mas, Catalonia’s regional president, has called on the Spanish government to allow the region to hold a referendum. The response of Madrid has always been the same: the Spanish constitution protects the country’s territorial integrity and, as such, forbids such referendums. The 1978 constitution, agreed during Spain’s transition to democracy, represents in the eyes of many Spaniards the country’s success in reaching a political consensus after a bloody civil war which tore the country apart. This explains why mainstream political parties are so attached to it, and regard any separatist claim as an attack on Spain’s sovereign values.

After 1.8 million Catalonians voted in favour of independence in a non-binding consultation held on November 9th, 2014, Mas decided to dissolve the Catalonian parliament and call for early elections. Now he is facing prosecution before the Spanish courts for organising the consultation. After dissolving the parliament, Mas declared that given Rajoy’s refusal to grant Catalonians the right to hold a referendum, the regional elections should be interpreted as a vote on independence. To ensure a clear link between the elections and a potential declaration of independence, most pro-independence parties rallied under the same umbrella: ‘Junts pel Si’ (‘Together for a Yes’).

There are very different political forces in Junts pel Si: on the one hand, Catalonia’s republican party (Republican Left of Catalonia-ERC), known for its radical pro-independence stance and its leftist, anti-monarchical policies; on the other, Mas’ Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, a centre-right liberal party, which ruled Catalonia together with the non-separatist Unió Democràtica de Catalunya until they parted ways at the beginning of 2015 because of their diverging views on independence. Junts pel Si also represents a number of independent associations and individuals, all pro-independence. Junts pel Si is not a cohesive party and has no electoral programme, besides promising to withdraw Catalonia from Spain. For that, they have given themselves a deadline: 18 months to establish a roadmap, culminating in a declaration of independence.

Mas’ attempt to present these elections as a referendum led to the creation of two main political blocs: on one side is the pro-independence camp, with Junts pel Si and the so-called Candidacy for Popular Unity (CUP – a radical, left-wing populist party); on the other, the regional branches of Spain’s mainstream parties: the conservative PP; the socialist PSC; the liberal Ciudadanos; and, perhaps surprisingly, Podemos, Spain’s new left party – which defends Catalonia’s right to decide, but opposes a referendum under the current constitution.

Junts pel Si won the elections, with 62 seats out of 135, but nine fewer than the combined total of Convergència and ERC won in 2012. Ciudadanos came second, with 25 seats. The socialists obtained 16 seats, and both PP and Podemos, 11. CUP won 10 seats.

If these were regular elections, seats would be everything that mattered. But they are not. Mas and his partners did not fight the elections to win seats. They fought them to gain legitimacy to pursue and eventually declare independence. For that, they needed to win the majority of the votes, regardless of the seats. And they did not achieve that: together, the pro-independence camp (CUP and Junts pel Si) got less than half of the vote (47.8 per cent).

Mas is in a difficult position – and so is Catalonia. He presented Catalonians with a false choice: vote for me, and you will be voting for independence; vote for the others, and Catalonia’s voice will not be heard in Spain – or Europe. Whatever the outcome, the election would not have given Mas a legal mandate to withdraw Catalonia from Spain. But since he did not get 50 per cent of the votes, he has no moral mandate to push for independence, either.

The pro-independence camp is now splintering. The CUP has announced that it will not back Mas, thereby depriving him of the majority he needs to form a government. It is not clear whether the ERC, his partner in Junts pel Si, will support him either. These splits among the supporters of independence could make Catalonia ungovernable, leading to new elections, the fourth in five years.
Spain as a whole is now on the brink of a constitutional crisis. And this is everybody’s fault. The government should understand that almost half of Catalonians want to revisit the region’s relationship with Spain. Madrid should be open to a constructive and comprehensive dialogue that includes not only Catalonia, but also the other Spanish regions. As much as Spaniards love their hard-fought constitution, it is time to change it.

The constitution is based on the asymmetric devolution of competences: regions such as Catalonia, the Basque Country or Navarra have more powers devolved to them than others such as Extremadura, Murcia and Asturias. The asymmetry creates resentments, and if the government tries to deal with the Catalan problem on its own, potentially increasing the differences between different regions, it risks making the tensions between the central government and other regions still worse. Spain is a country of strong regional identities, and most Spanish regions have separatist movements of some sort. The government’s aim should be to reform Spain’s outdated model of regional government, including rethinking the role of the Senate. As in other federal or quasi-federal countries Spain’s upper chamber was designed to represent the regions in the law-making process. But the constitution did not give it enough competences to play this role effectively. So the Spanish Senate has become a virtually defunct institution, and regional representatives have to channel their claims through other fora – not least the Congress, Spanish lower chamber. This accentuates regional divergences and exacerbates secessionism; as in many cases, the country’s political debate falls hostage to regional quarrels that do not find their place elsewhere. If Spain reformed its Senate to make it a fully-fledged chamber of regional representation, some of these issues could be resolved.

Catalonia’s pro-independence parties should end their confrontational rhetoric. They should stop picturing Catalonia as the victim of the Spanish central government, whose only real option is to leave. Pro-independence parties should start by engaging in a sober public debate about Catalonia’s relationship with Spain and Spain’s approach to its autonomous regions, based on facts, not on myths and emotions. Otherwise, the independents will fail to impress Madrid but also their European partners. As John Kerr warned before the Scottish referendum in 2014, the road to the EU for a seceded region would be long and painful. If Catalonia was to leave Spain, it would de facto leave the EU. There is currently no legal possibility for enjoying the rights attached to EU citizenship without having the citizenship of a member-state. Catalonia would then need to re-apply to the EU, and would need the support of all member-states. This would create an unprecedented constitutional challenge for the EU. Currently, Europe is dealing with its fair share of problems. If Catalonia wants its international partners to take its claims seriously, it needs to rethink its hostile strategy and be willing to be part of a more inclusive debate on Spain’s regional configuration. Otherwise Catalonia may indeed become Europe’s next crisis.

Camino Mortera-Martinez is a research fellow and Brussels representative at the Centre for European Reform (CER). This article was first published by the CER.

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