Catalan follies update

An unsympathetic homage to Catalonia.

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.”

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

5 thoughts on “Catalan follies update”

  1. Not to be impudent, but don't governments and countries exist outside of the EU? Switzerland and Norway and Liechtenstein and Monaco survive without it, as do Costa Rica and Turkey and Thailand. Why must the fulcrum point of this decision be the "benefit" of submitting yourself to the predation of Angela Merkel and the Bundesbank?

    1. The whole case of the secessionists depends on EU membership. They don't want to be independent so they can carve their own foreign policy, like Switzerland. As far as I can see, they have no foreign policy apart from EU membership. As I pointed out in the earlier post, they have not thought about defence and NATO at all. Nor do they have any realistic understanding of the EU's faults as well as its merits. They would risk being treated like Greece if they didn't toe the line.

      If you are an EU member, your government indeed does not exist outside the EU confederation. National and EU law and policy are symbiotic, as Brexiteers are finding out. Exit is like separating Siamese twins.

  2. Glad to see this happening. When ignorant, jingoistic Texans were talking about secession back in the previous administration, I would have loved to see the President instructing DOD to begin the process of shutting down the many military bases in Texas and moving their units to bases in other states. The prospect of losing thousands of jobs would have brought all that loose talk to a screeching halt

  3. I entirely agree with you that both Rajoy and Puigdemont are playing their hands with almost unbelievable incompetence, but two points:

    1. Catalan separatism doesn't arise from present conditions; it arises from a catalogue of real and imagined grievances going back to the Treaty of Utrecht if not the revolt of 1640. Arguing with a Catalan nationalist on the basis of existing prosperity would be about as useful as arguing with an Irish nationalist in 1914 on that basis.

    2. The EU would not admit an independent Catalonia in my lifetime or yours. The powers that be in the EU would see that as a sure way to reanimate currently quiescent separatist movements in Italy, France, Belgium and quite possibly other states. Also, Madrid would be in a position to veto it and there's no reason to suppose it wouldn't.

    Incidentally, you mention Valencia as a Catalan speaking region*. I was there a couple of weeks ago and I saw no support for Catalan independence and a great deal of hostility to it.

    * Telling a Valenciano that they speak Catalan is like telling a Galician that they speak Portuguese. It may be technically true but that won't win you any arguments.

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