The Catalan people have delivered their verdict but, says Prof Josep Valles, creating political space to translate that into meaningful action will prove difficult.
The election of September 27th in Catalonia has had some meaningful effects. But they do not, by themselves, provide any clear solution to the enduring crisis in the relations between Spain and Catalonia. With an unprecedented turnout - nearly 78 percent of the electoral roll- these results have shown the existence of a strong political project devoted to the building of an independent Catalan state. This project gathers the support of several political tendencies, from the anti-capitalist left (CUP) to the neoliberals in CDC. Although they did not get an absolute majority, the pro-independence options secured 48.3% of the vote. Perhaps less than they had expected, but high enough not to be dismissed as an ephemeral accident.
This plurality faces now three major obstacles. The first is its internal heterogeneity. Social and party diversity is advantageous for social mobilization. But it becomes inconvenient when trying to implement a government action plan. Mainly, if some of its partners (CDC) adhere to the neoliberal policies dictated from Brussels while others (CUP) declare themselves anti-capitalist and advocate leaving the euro and the EU. It remains to be seen whether this pro-independence parliamentary majority can easily agree on a presidential candidate and form a steady Executive, responsive to the serious social and economic problems pending in Catalonia.
The second obstacle is the uncompromising opposition of the Madrid government to any radical change in the political status of Catalonia, a country that contains 16 percent of the Spanish population and accounts for 18 percent of its total GDP. This opposition to the Catalan claims is shared by many actors of Spanish politics: the Spanish State’s high bureaucracy, the main economic and financial powers, the most important media and cultural groups and, finally, a large majority of Spanish public opinion. The interests and mindset associated with Spanish nationalism judge an eventual Catalan separation as an unacceptable defeat. Hence their reluctance to admit the possibility of a referendum on the issue, like the ones held in Quebec or in Scotland. This referendum has long been demanded in Catalonia, both by pro-independence groups and by many non-independentists, as a way-out from the present impasse.
Finally, a third barrier to overcome is the lack of international support for the independence project. This support is an essential condition to carry it out. It has been proven in the most recent European cases - in the Baltic and in the Balkans - where the US and Germany did encourage and facilitate these new states founding. Spanish membership of the EU and NATO is a major difficulty for Catalonia to achieve its independence, as the hegemonic powers do not want to alter the current economic and strategic balances in this European area. Recent statements by Merkel, Juncker, Cameron and Obama have made this all too clear.
What can be expected from now on? In spite of the winning coalition strength, the conditions for an "independence expressway” – in the 18 months fixed term established by the electoral program - were not given. Besides, polarization between political stances appears to block the opening of any space for negotiation in the medium term.
Next December's Spanish elections may open a window of opportunity for this negotiation if the electoral results bring about the need to form the first coalition government in the Spanish democracy since 1977. A less confrontational and more consensual approach to the hard issue of the relationship between Spain and Catalonia could be a positive step. However, this change would need time to develop, following a gradual adaptation process. Whether the present Spanish political system is able to adopt this process as a way to cope with an issue that has become a serious risk for its own survival, remains to be seen.