If the Spanish King appears on state television to make an institutional statement and it is not Christmas, something very serious is happening. King Felipe VI’s live broadcast to the nation on 3 October was just such a moment. An existential crisis has engulfed the country and the fact that the monarch has become involved is yet another measure of its gravity.
The stand-off between Barcelona and Madrid about the future of Catalonia could not be more critical for the future of Spain and has consequences for the rest of Europe too.
Perhaps the only useful precedent for Felipe´s broadcast was when his father, King Juan Carlos, appeared on TV in 1981. In full dress uniform and as Commander in Chief of the armed forces, Juan Carlos took to the airwaves to order all troops back to their barracks following an attempted coup against the fledgling post-Franco democracy. On that occasion, Juan Carlos’s word was law and the crisis passed. It is unlikely that Felipe VI’s intervention will have the same quick success.
In August, the Catalan regional government announced a referendum on the future of the region, to be held on 1 October. The question asked voters whether they wanted to Catalonia to become a republic separated from the rest of Spain. The Spanish constitutional court had declared the plebiscite illegal and so the central government in Madrid drafted security forces into the region to prevent the vote.
Few people will have been untouched by the images of the grotesque chaos that ensured. Baton wielding police in full riot gear beating ordinary citizens attempting to vote made for ugly scenes that looked more like the Spain of 50 years ago when the quasi-fascist dictator, General Franco governed the country. Catalans, Spaniards and international observers agree that the brawling, which left nearly 1000 people injured, has no place whatsoever in a modern European democracy. It should never have happened. There is far less unanimity, however, about who is to blame or what should happen next.
The situation is even more confused because neither side is politically strong. This is a confrontation driven by two minority administrations. Mariano Rajoy’s rightwing Popular party (PP) government in Madrid won just on 30% of the popular vote at the general elections of 2016 – he governs only with the consent of other groups in the national congreso.
Rajoy has been pilloried for his handling of the Catalan referendum and rightly so. The government in Madrid is attempting to deal with the dispute as a legal wrangle and, foolishly, Rajoy simply refuses to engage with the politics of the dispute. His political style is to speak last and speak least – former socialist leader Felipe Gonzálezquipped that Rajoy is the only animal that advances without moving. This approach now looks wholly inadequate to deal with a situation fast spiraling out of control.
In Barcelona, the separatist administration of Puigdemont cannot command a majority of popular support either: between them, the parties of his coalition government have only a slender majority of seats in the Catalan parliament that they won based on less than 48% of the popular vote. The paving legislation to hold the referendum was sprung on the Catalan parliament last month and bulldozed through the chamber after scarcely two hours of a debate in which no amendments were allowed. Opposition parties refused to take part in what they regarded as a legislative sham and walked out of the chamber in protest. If the new republic is ever born half the midwives will have been missing at the birth.
Catalan separatists like to try and frame the dispute as one between the Catalan region, yearning for freedom from the yoke of an oppressive regime in Madrid. But this is a simplistic perversion of the reality. Like the UK on Brexit, ‘Catexit’ has split Catalan families, friends and society down the middle.
The Spanish Socialist party (PSOE) has been leading calls for calm and negotiation to try to resolve the dispute. It is to the socialists’ credit that the last PSOE government granted more powers to the Catalan region, a measure thwarted by the constitutional court in 2010 following challenges from the PP. That shortsighted resistance to further devolution in Spain looks even more idiotic now than it did then. President Rajoy will need to abandon his intransigence and find a solution. The alternative, as the King well understands, will be the break-up of Spain.