The absurd and tragic Catalan crisis (earlier comment here) lurches forward.
- The secessionists called for yet another referendum on October 1. This was declared illegal beforehand by the Spanish Constitutional Court. The central government made a hamfisted attempt to block it, with scattered violence by the national police. (Casualty totals here, on a Catalan website. Does not look like Tien An-Men or Kent State to me.) The unionists stayed home: the secessionists “won” the recorded vote by 93%, but with turnout of only 43%.
- On 10 October, Carles Puigdemont, the President of the regional government, sort-of declared independence in a speech to the Catalan Parliament (which has a thin secessionist majority), treating the referendum result as a mandate, or self-executing, or something. He immediately suspended it “for a few weeks” to call for “dialogue” with Madrid, on Catalan terms, mediated by outsiders. (Offers to referee the knife-fight have not been forthcoming).
- Mariano Rajoy, the Prime Minister of Spain, seized on the opening to demand that Puigdemont clarify whether he had declared independence or not. He hasn’t clarified at all, so Rajoy is going ahead with selective suspension of parts of Catalonia’s regional autonomy under Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution. Crucially, he has secured the support of both the Socialist PSOE and the reformist Ciudadanos parties for the move, leaving only Podemos (hippie reformists) and the regionalist parties opposed. The Senate will surely approve the suspension on Friday.
If you are scoring this as a match, Rajoy lost points by the failed and violent attempt to stop the referendum taking place, but Puigdemont lost them back by the non-declaration. A deadline of a year would have been a serious threat, and an immediate declaration would at least have been brave. As things are, it looks as if he chickened out at the last moment.
Meanwhile, a trickle of companies moving their legal headquarters outside Catalonia has turned into a flood: 700 by October 16. Rajoy initially encouraged this but is now alarmed by the success and reversed track. Standard & Poor’s suggest a recession in Catalonia is on the way – that’s before the chaos of a real attempt at independence.
What happens now?
The hope of the secessionists must be for more bloodshed in the streets and secessionist regional ministers dragged from their offices to jail on TV by hatchet-faced Guardia Civil in tricorne hats. They might get it. Rajoy is a stereotypical Galician, phlegmatic, calculating, determined, legalistic and cold-blooded. What he lacks is empathy for his adversaries, or even his supporters. He has been unable over the years this has been building to develop any emotional argument why Catalonia should stay within Spain. He had better find agents to carry out his will in Barcelona with a much better sense of propaganda than has been in evidence so far. Flowers! Girls! Babies! Fireworks! Flamenco! Football! What’s the fun if Barça can’t beat Real Madrid in the Spanish League?
Rajoy’s strongest allies are Puigdemont and his cronies. To me, they look a bunch of dishonest agitators with no strategy or sense of political and economic realities. They have been peddling independence to a still unconvinced Catalan people on the basis of a completely bogus prospectus of a land flowing with milk, pork and honey as soon as industrious Catalans stop subsidising those shiftless Andalusians. The budget transfers are real – close to 5% of GDP, within the range for federal states. Since poor, oppressed Catalonia has a GDP per head 20% higher than the Spanish average, the oppressors in Madrid must have been slacking. The calculation only makes sense if everything else remains the same, that is the region stays embedded within the European single market and currency area and the Schengen space of free movement.
Catalan secessionists have claimed that an independent Catalonia would be welcomed instantly and with open arms into the European Union. This is a plain lie. Numerous Presidents of the Commission and other European leaders have stated very clearly that under the Union treaties, an independent Catalonia would be outside the EU and would have to reapply for membership. This would give Spain a veto. Further, other European states have reason to fear secessionist impulses within their own countries and would prefer to punish rather than reward a successful model. Catalonia would have a hard time persuading everybody of its good citizenship.
There would also be a huge technical problem. When the newly free states of Eastern Europe applied in the 1990s for membership of the European Union, they were presented with a monstrous pile of EU legislation that they had to take on board, no questions asked: the acquis communautaire. (“Acquis” is an English word, in Brussels Eurospeak.) The pile was guesstimated at the time as 50,000 pages – it’s taller now. Other estimates triple this. Catalonia is already applying EU law, of course: but as part of the Spanish state.
The EU “regulations” and decisions of the European Court of Justice are directly applicable, but they only form a small part. The bulk are “directives” which have to be translated into national law. Assume the sloppiest possible method of doing this, basically photocopying the text of the directive and shoving it through parliament. At the very least, some national agency has to be designated as responsible for applying the directive: a food labelling authority, a banking supervisor, a customs administration, a data protection regulator, an electrotechnical standards committee, and hundreds more. Note the national agency. These don’t exist in Catalonia. They would have to be created, hundreds of them. Until that’s done, and the >50,000 pages embodied tidily in Catalan law, Brussels won’t be satisfied that Catalonia is ready for membership. Lithuania did this, why should we make an exception for you? Brexiting Britain, an existing state of 60m people with an efficient civil service, faces severe technical difficulties in setting up a new customs system by the deadline of March 2019.
This will take time. For comparison, look at Slovenia. There has been some criticism that Slovenia’s walkout precipitated the breakup of Yugoslavia, but the general feeling has been that the Slovenes were justified, in the light of Serb bullying and worse before and subsequently. It’s a nice, prosperous, law-abiding country and no threat to anybody, so it had at least as good treatment by the international community as Catalonia can expect. Here is the Slovene timeline:
- March 1990 – Parliament votes name change to Republic of Slovenia.
- December 1990 – Independence referendum, 88% in favour.
- June 1991 – Slovenia declares independence.
- Gradual recognition by other states.
- May 1992 – Slovenia admitted to the United Nations.
- May 1993 – Slovenia admitted to the Council of Europe.
- March 2004 – Slovenia joins NATO, after referendum in March 2003.
- May 2004 – Slovenia joins EU, after referendum in March 2003.
It took Slovenia fourteen years from independence to enter the EU. True, Catalonia has been inside the EU since 1986 as part of Spain, and already applies EU legislation. It does not have to go through all the steps that Slovenia did. Still, it won’t be quick. Even minimum recognition as an international actor, symbolised by entry into the United Nations, took Slovenia a year.
Meanwhile, Catalonia will be outside the EU. How can this be anything but an economic disaster, a Brexit on steroids? The desperate Barcelona government will have to pass an enabling act, as May plans in the UK, incorporating Spanish EU-derived legislation en bloc into law for subsequent tweaking. But that won’t be enough, see above. To prevent complete economic collapse, the government will plead with France and Spain to allow temporary movement of goods and people under current arrangements. To accept this, at the very least both countries will demand to station their own customs and immigration officials at all ports and airports. Independence will quickly look rather hollow.
A final question. When you drive or take the train through Catalonia, it looks as good as the statistics say. It is obviously prosperous, obviously busy and productive, and much of it is very pretty too. What’s the grievance?
Discrimination against the Catalan language, perhaps? But road signs, radio, and the few billboards are in Catalan not Castilian. That is not superficial. Catalan is the language of administration and the first one in education. The Generalitat can promote Catalan in the arts and the media as much as it likes. What more could it do for the culture with independence that it can’t do today? Since it would be poorer, the real answer is less. Catalan would be added to the linguistic smorgasbord in Brussels, with jobs for hundreds of Catalan translators and interpreters. This is purely symbolic. The real working languages of the EU are French and English, and to some extent German.
Catalan has at most 10 million speakers, including those in Valencia, the Balearics and Roussillon. That would put it at the 85th position in the Wikipedia list of languages by native speakers, behind Czech and Zulu. Spanish is second, with 390 million. Languages of this small scale face an uphill struggle to survive as means of cultural expression and creation in the Internet era. The battle is already lost in science. Independence for Catalonia would do nothing for this problem. By arousing suspicions in its neighbours, along with prolonged economic crisis in the new country, the revolution would very probably make matters worse. They “war against the sunset glow.”