Catalan conflict talks about to start
THERE IS much less esteladas, the red, yellow and blue flags of independence which, only a few years ago, draped the balconies of Barcelona. The atmosphere in Spain’s second city is more relaxed than at any time since Catalan nationalist politicians launched a campaign ten years ago for the independence of one of the largest and most remote regions. wealthy people of the country. This resulted in a referendum in defiance of the constitution and a unilateral declaration of independence in 2017, the temporary imposition of direct power from Madrid, and then long prison terms for nine separatist leaders. But the pandemic having intensified the feeling of exhaustion, the confrontation finally gives way to relaxation.
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In June, Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s socialist prime minister, pardoned the prisoners in an attempt to calm emotions. In a regional election in Catalonia in February, the separatist coalition retained power but Esquerra, the most pragmatic of its three parties, came out on top. Mr Sánchez and Pere Aragonès, the new Catalan president, are due to start discussions on the future of Catalonia next week.
The more realistic among the separatists know that they have abused their game in a region deeply divided and where independence has never obtained a clear majority. “Since 2017, Catalonia has been digesting a political failure,” explains Salvador Illa, the leader of the Catalan affiliate of the Socialist Party.
The talks will not be quick or easy. Mr. Aragonès has two requests. He wants a total amnesty: half a dozen other leaders, including Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president in 2017, are fugitives, likely to be tried if they return; and the court of accounts seeks to recover from former Catalan officials some 5.4 million euros, badly spent – he says – to promote independence abroad.
Secondly, Mr. Aragonès wants to organize another referendum, with the agreement of the national government this time. Most academics say the constitution prevents this. These two demands are politically impossible for Mr Sánchez. The question is whether a compromise is possible and what it might look like.
It is important for Spain as a whole. Jordi Pujol, the founder of modern Catalan nationalism, recently told an interviewer that the separatist movement “is not strong enough to achieve independence, but it will create a very serious problem for Spain”. The country stands out in Western Europe for the strength of its peripheral nationalisms, not only among the Catalans but also among the Basques and to some extent the Galicians, who all retain distinct languages. The reasons lie mainly in history. In the 19th century, when Romantic philosophers invented modern nationalism, the Spanish state was too weak to impose a uniform language and culture, as happened in France. Centrifugal forces were brutally suppressed during Francisco Franco’s long dictatorship. But Spain’s democratic constitution of 1978 seems to have settled the issue for good, with radical administrative decentralization to 19 regions.
The drafters of the constitution opted for a de facto, open and asymmetrical federalism. Needing additional voices in the national parliament, socialist and conservative governments ceded more and more power to Basque and Catalan nationalists who wanted recognition of the long history of their regions, rather than being treated the same as new administrative units such as La Rioja or Murcia.
As messy as it is, the system worked well as long as there was money and political goodwill. Since the 2007-09 financial crisis, both have dried up. Politics has been stirred by three successive populist movements. There is an identity populism in the separatist embrace of Catalan nationalism. Podemos, on the far left, rejects parts of the constitution; he is now the junior partner of Mr Sánchez’s coalition and is in favor of a confederal Spain. Vox was born from the far right. He wants recentralization. The traditional conservative People’s Party (PP) will almost certainly have to ally with Vox to gain power.
Juan José López Burniol, a lawyer close to Catalan business leaders, believes that a compromise would include the recognition of Catalonia as a nation in cultural but not political terms; a cap on tax transfers to the common pool; a shared tax agency; and strengthen the powers of the regional government over education, language policies and culture, including the Catalan-language public media. This package should then be submitted to voters in a referendum.
Mr. Pujol spoke of “fudge” in the same sense. Mr Illa and the Catalan Socialists are much more careful, at least in their opening offer. He believes discussions should focus on reforming fiscal arrangements. “We should make good use of the powers that we already have,” he said. The Spanish state should be more, rather than less, present in Catalonia, especially in cultural policy.
There are three obstacles. To last, any agreement needs the assent of PP, which receives few votes in Catalonia but benefits from an anti-separatist feeling elsewhere and wants to dilute the use of Catalan in schools. Second, it will take years for Esquerra and the separatist voters to agree to a compromise. Third, the rest of Spain is not a passive spectator. “We cannot allow the dialogue on Catalonia to organize the regional question in Spain”, declared Ximo Puig, the socialist president of Valencia, who is particularly aggrieved by the current financial regulation.
But in other respects, there is a consensus among peripheral regions, including Catalonia, that the status quo primarily benefits Madrid. In some ways, Catalan separatism is a response to a relative decline. When Franco died in 1975, Catalonia’s economy was 25% larger than that of the Madrid region. By 2018 Madrid GDP had surpassed that of Catalonia. The PP, who has ruled there since 1995, attributes this to its pro-business policies. The regional government has granted tax cuts totaling 53 billion euros ($ 63 billion) since 2004, said Javier Fernández-Lasquetty, Madrid’s economic director. “We believe there is a direct correlation between lower tax burdens and economic growth,” he says. Others say Madrid, which is home to almost all state agencies and is Spain’s transport hub, has benefited disproportionately from globalization. Public policies could change that.
If Spain were to start from scratch, the best answer to its regional puzzles would be German-style federalism. But there is little chance that that. The conflict that divides Catalonia in two has no final solution. But an imaginative compromise should be possible. Spain’s future success may well depend on it. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Grappling with a Rubik’s cube”