Catalan & Spanish flags on a wall

Catalonia at a Crossroads

Published: 27 March 2018
Author: Daniel Cetrà
With both sides in the Catalan dispute seeing the world from mutually exclusive perspectives, says Daniel Cetra, there is no clear way of finding a way forward. 
 
This is yet another significant episode in the greatest constitutional crisis in Spain since the restoration of democracy. 
 
There is a deep polarization both within Catalonia, between supporters and opponents of independence, and between Catalonia and the rest of Spain. Two distinct worldviews have grown apart over the Catalan quest for self-determination and independence that started in 2012 – and have been driven further apart by last October’s referendum and declaration of independence, Spain’s subsequent direct rule, and the events of recent days.
 
The majority view in Spain is that this is a legal issue. Catalan leaders broke the law and need to pay the legal price. This is the view of the Spanish government, led by Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular (PP), as well as the opposition Socialists (PSOE) and Ciudadanos (C’s). It is also the perspective of the majority of public opinion.
 
By contrast, the majority view in Catalonia is that this is a political issue. The last two elections returned a pro-independence majority in the parliament, and the claim is that Spanish institutions are not respecting the democratic mandate of the people and are abusing judicial powers for political purposes, including the jailing of political opponents.
 
These diametric opposed worldviews ensure that both camps have mutually exclusive takes on the events unfolding in Catalonia and across Europe. In addition, neither side has much in the way of an incentive to deescalate the situation.
 
The PP and C’s are battling each other to be seen as the greatest defender of state unity. The Socialists are fighting a rear-guard action on the same territory, desperate to avoid losing votes by seeming accommodating. Within Catalonia, rival parties – Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), Carles Puigdemont’s electoral platform Junts Per Catalunya (JuntsxCat), and Partit Demòcrata (PDeCat) – are also in a fight for the leadership of the independence movement.
 
In terms of the constitutional dispute between, rather than within, those two groups, the quest for independence was defeated last autumn.The declaration of independence passed by the Catalan parliament did not result in a break with Spain and so was, ultimately, a symbolic gesture or perhaps even a rather empty one. 
 
In addition, the pro-independence camp is disorientated and divided between those supporting a moderate roadmap focused on restoring Catalonia’s political autonomy and those defending continued disobedience.
 
However, the Spanish Government seems determined to continue to fight a battle it has already won. The Spanish institutions would do well to refrain from attempting to humiliate the Catalan movement and instead seek a political solution
 
The hopes for a negotiated settlement face another hurdle however. All of the main Catalan leaders are either in jail or exile. There are therefore no obvious interlocutors to enter such a dialogue and neither are their obvious leaders of the movement to develop new strategies and chart a new course.
 
The current round of arrest warrants and the series of events that preceded it have also done very real damage to the notion of the courts as neutral arbiter. Indeed, Spain now runs the risk of crossing the line between the rule of law, in which judges hold the ring of political dispute, to the rule by law, in which judicial powers are abused for political ends.
 
Solving this crisis requires a nimble political intelligence that has so far been absent. It also requires both sides to recognise each other as a legitimate political interlocutor and a recognition of past mistakes. Independence parties unwisely adopted a maximalist strategy (declaring independence unilaterally) without a clear democratic majority. The Spanish response of treating this issue as a legal challenge, as opposed to a legitimate political demand that needs to be addressed politically, did nothing to resolve the crisis.
 
It remains to be seen whether both sides have it in them to set aside the mistakes of the past and find a path forward. 
 

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