‘Spain is on the edge of a crisis, which has consequences impossible to predict’ said former socialist (PSOE) leader Josep Borrell in a meeting with foreign journalists last week. It would be comforting to dismiss Borrell’s words as yet more political hyperbole in the propagada war currently raging over Catalonia. But it is not that easy. The quietly spoken, ex-president of the European parliament is himself a Catalan. And he has nothing but scorn for the nationalist administration in Barcelona which has brought the region and the country to the verge of a political precipice.
The hard-line Catalan nationalist, Carles Puidgemont, declared unilateral independence (UDI) of the region from the rest of Spain on 27 October. The announcement was surrounded by controversy, however. What will happen next is far from clear, in large part because the decision making process that led to UDI has up to now been so chaotic.
UDI was supported in the Catalan parliament by just 70 of the 135 deputies. The Catalan socialists (PSC) and other opposition parties – who represent more than 52% of Catalan voters – walked out in protest at what they argued was a legislative farce. Senior lawyers working for the parliament warned deputies that their vote had no legal force: the Catalan parliament has no more right to declare UDI for the region than it does to ban smoking on the streets of Berlin or stipulate the closing time of bars in Brussels.
Without and a clear majority or the law behind them Puidgemont claims a mandate from a referendum held on 1 October – but this vote was marred by confusion and violence. Less than half the population turned up to vote. Unionist parties complained that the plebicite was illegal and nationalist parties complained of police aggression. Both had a point. The day was a democratic shambles. That is why it cannot possibly be the legitimate foundation of a new Catalan republic as nationalists now claim.
When the leftwing mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, was asked if a Catalan republic now exists she confessed that she had no idea.
Without a transparent and legitimate mandate either from the parliament or the people, the Catalan region is currently in state of a politcal and legislative limbo. The Spanish government has invoked article 155 of the Spanish constitution which allows it to take over the day to day control of a region. Puigdemont is lobbying for support in Brussels but his team has received the cold shoulder from the European capital. For the past 60 years, the European project has been driven by the aspiration of ‘an ever closer union’. Catalan separatism flies in the face of this dream.
Echoing the claim of Scottish nationalist leaders before their referendum in 2015, Puigdemont insists that an independent Catalonia will automatically remain part of the EU. Commission officials and leaders in other European capitals deny this. There is no legal basis to claim that continued membership of the EU is certain and, thus far, the new Catalan republic has not been recognised by a single member state of the EU. Nor is it likely to be: countries such as Italy, Belgium or Hungary are also home to regional tensions and have no appetite to encourage Catalan separatism.
The situation may become clearer by the end of the year. The government in Madrid has called fresh regional elections, to be held across Catalonia on 21 December. This will give Catalans a chance to make their voice heard in a legal, open and transparent ballot.
However, it is far from clear that there will be any overall winner from the poll. Despite the noisy street demonstrations there is no sign of any increase in popular support for nationalist parties. The parliament may well continued to be effecively gridlocked, reflecting the deep divisions in Catalan society.
Whatever the result, the damage to the cohesion of Catalan and Spanish society will be difficult to heal. The veteran trade union leader, Nicolás Sartorius, recently wrote an article in which he patiently explained why nationalism – Catalan or any other – runs counter to socialist ideals of greater equality and solidarity between working people. Sartorius was imprisoned and tortured by the Franco regime but nationalists quickly wrote off his views of those of a ‘facha’ or fascist. In such a climate returning to normal politics in Catalonia will be difficult. Pepe Borrell and those who think like him are right to be worried.