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Catalonia Again

I’m sitting here trying to write an article about the election in Catalonia on Wednesday, because there’s nothing else to write about. It would be more interesting if the African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling party for the past 23 years, elects a new leader who is not Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife, but the results on that won’t be in until tomorrow.

Apart from that there’s nothing except more stuff about Donald Trump’s Russian links. So it has to be Catalonia – and the problem is that I don’t care what happens in Catalonia.

One more smallish group defined by some tiny distinction of religion or language or history wants to break away from some other, bigger group – ‘Spaniards’, in this case – that is defined by slightly broader and more inclusive distinctions of the same kind, and I simply couldn’t care less.

Maybe, after all the nonsense that happened in the past six months – big demos for independence, an illegal referendum that was designed to provoke the Spanish state into over-reacting (and succeeded), and various pro-independence leaders jailed or going into voluntary exile to avoid arrest – a majority of people in Catalonia will be so fed up with the turmoil that they vote to remain part of Spain. But I don’t think so.

Maybe a majority will be so enraged by Madrid’s blundering over-reaction that they vote for their independence from Spain, and actually get it.

Then most of the larger companies in Catalonia will move their headquarters elsewhere (several thousand have gone already), and they will have a new currency nobody trusts (because they will no longer be in the European Union), and the people running the place will be the single-issue fanatics who managed to put this issue on the agenda in the first place. They don’t seem to have many ideas about what to do next.

As H.L. Mencken said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” But I don’t think the Catalans are going to vote decisively for independence this time either.

Instead, they are going to split their votes in a way that leaves no clear majority for or against independence, and makes it hard even to form a coalition government. (What is happening in Catalonia this month is actually an election, not a referendum, although everybody is treating it like the latter.) So we can look forward to months, years or even decades more of the same.

On a somewhat larger canvas, this is exactly what is happening in the United Kingdom, too. Just as the Catalans complain that they are paying too much tax to the Spanish government, which transfers it to poorer parts of Spain, so the ‘Little Englanders’ complain that the UK pays too much to the European Union (which spends a lot of it raising standards in the poorer parts of eastern Europe).

Just as the Catalans (and especially younger Catalans) are far less different from other Spanish citizens than the separatists imagine, so the English (and especially the young English) are far less different from other Europeans than the Daily Mail-reading older generation of English nationalists imagines. It is the ‘narcissism of small differences’, in Sigmund Freud’s famous phrase.

But just as the Catalan mess is guaranteed to run on for years, now that it has reached this stage of obsessiveness, so will the British mess. If the UK actually leaves the European Union, the British will be much the poorer for it, and the nationalists who foisted it on the rest of the population will spend the next generation blaming the wicked Europeans for their own mistakes.

And if, by chance, the British end up not leaving (rationality doesn’t often win, but occasionally it does), then the country will spend the next generation contending with a non-violent insurgency waged by the disappointed nationalists.

Obviously, not every separatist movement that appeals to nationalism is wrong. The anti-colonial struggles for independence in the 20th century were fully justified and necessary because the injustices were great and the gulf between rulers and ruled was immense. The American war of independence in the 18th century was justified because great questions about human rights and democracy were at stake.

But when all parties concerned subscribe to democratic values, it generally makes more sense to stay together and try to work out the differences. Separatist pro-independence movements in democratic countries tend to be driven by the ambitions of politicians who want to be bigger fish in a smaller pond.

As former Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien put it (in a broken half-English sentence calculated to insult his fellow French-Canadians who were the separatist leaders in Quebec), they want to drive up “dans un gros Cadillac avec un flag sur l’hood” (in a big Cadillac with a flag on the hood). Enough said.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“But just…nationalists”)

Catalonia: The Silent Majority

It’s been going on for a while. “Recently in Catalonia we have been living through a kind of ‘soft’ totalitarianism…the illusion of unanimity created by the fear of expressing dissent,” wrote best-selling Catalan author Javier Cercas in the Spanish newspaper El Pais in 2014. Those who didn’t want independence kept their heads down and their mouths shut, in other words.

Three years later, it has just got worse. Last July, leading Catalan film-maker Isabel Coixet told The Observer that “Madrid is deaf and mute and the government here (in Catalonia) is really happy about that. They never really look for dialogue at all.” She added that Catalans are afraid of speaking out “for fear of being called fascists.”

That about sums it up. Opinion polls consistently show that a majority of the people who live in Catalonia want it to remain part of Spain. The latest, published in El Pais on Saturday, showed that 55% per cent of those polled opposed the declaration of independence in the Catalan parliament last week, with only 41% in favour.

That’s an even more decisive rejection of separation from Spain than a poll commissioned by the Catalan government and published just before the declaration of independence, which came out 49%-41% in favour of remaining in Spain. Yet the news coverage was all about flag-waving nationalist crowds demanding independence, because the silent majority was staying low.

Finally, on Sunday, a big pro-Spanish crowd came out in the streets of Barcelona: 300,000 people according to the police, more than a million according to the organisers. About the same size as the pro-independence crowds, therefore, but they left it rather late. The separatist strategy has worked well, and by now the fat is really in the fire.

The separatists’ problem was this: no opinion poll has ever shown a majority for independence since the current upsurge in Catalan nationalism began about eight years ago. For the past few years the ‘yes ‘ vote has been stuck at around 40%. You can hardly declare independence for the region without a vote of some kind, so what do you do?

A referendum is better than an election, because it’s a single-issue vote that will really get the faithful out. But how do you prevent the more numerous sceptics from voting too? Well, the Spanish constitution is a great help there, because it says that a referendum on independence for any of Spain’s regions would be illegal. So if you hold one, maybe the true nationalists will vote despite the law, while the rest obey the law and stay away.

They road-tested this model three years ago with an ‘advisory’ referendum that the Madrid government sort of tolerated (though it said it was illegal), and it worked just fine. Only 37% of the population voted, but 80% of those who did show up voted ‘yes’ to independence

That’s the kind of number you could really use to justify declaring independence, even if it’s a bit of a cheat. If anybody complains, just shrug your shoulders, say you wish the turn-out had been higher, and carry on doing what you want to do: declaring independence. And so it came to pass.

The independence referendum on 1 October was the real thing, not ‘advisory’ at all. Rather late in the day Spanish Prime Minister Maria Rajoy realised that the independentistas intended to use the result as a justification for a declaration of independence, so he got a court judgement confirming that the referendum was illegal and sent the police in to shut it down.

The Catalan nationalists had foreseen this, and welcomed it. Nothing could be better for the cause than images of Spanish police dragging women out of polling booths, and the uproar would keep even the hardiest ‘no’ voters away. The turn-out this time was a bit higher, at 43%, and so was the ‘yes’ vote: 90%. Very gratifying.

With that manipulated result in hand, the president of Catalonia’s regional government, nationalist leader Carles Puigdemont, declared independence last week. The Spanish central government immediately dissolved the regional parliament, removed Puigedemont and his cabinet from office, and announced a fresh regional election for 21 December.

It’s all strictly in accord with Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, and Puigdemont probably foresaw this too. He has always been three moves ahead of Madrid. Meanwhile, Spains’s Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria now has the job of running Catalonia until the election, and she will probably have a very difficult time.

Puigdemont is now officially a martyr in the eyes of his fellow separatists, and Spain says that he will be allowed to run in the December election, so he has lost nothing. Unless the silent majority find their voices, he may yet be the first president of the Catalan Republic.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“That’s…pass”; and “It’s all…time”)

Fake Referendum: Catalonia

Catalonia, the north-eastern region of Spain (population of 7,5 million), declared independence from Spain last Tuesday evening. It was done quite formally, in the regional parliament in Barcelona, with regional president Carles Puigdemont, members of his cabinet and some leaders of other parties signing the independence document.

Independence was “the people’s will”, Puigdemont said, referring to the 90% “yes” vote in the referendum on October 1. He called on all foreign countries and organisations “to recognise the Catalan republic as an independent and sovereign state”. He seemed not the least perturbed by the low rumble of companies moving their headquarters out of Catalonia, nor indeed by the squadrons of pigs flying overhead.

There were only three little things that detracted from the joy of the occasion. The first was the fact that the Catalan president and his friends had no constitutional authority to separate Catalonia from Spain, or even to hold the referendum. It is a unilateral declaration of independence, and it is highly unlikely that either the national government in Madrid or foreign governments will recognise it as legal.

Indeed, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has “affirmed her backing for the unity of Spain” in a phone call to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. The French government has said that a Catalan declaration of independence “would not be recognised” and other members of the European Union (EU) from Ireland to Cyprus have said the same.

Many have separatist movements among their own minorities and they do not want to encourage them.

The second problem is that the referendum in Catalonia was a fake. The mere 43% of the population who voted in it almost exactly equalled the 44% of residents who wanted independence according to the latest opinion poll. The same poll put the number of people who wanted to stay in Spain in the majority, at 48%, as have all other polls in the past few years — but very few of the anti-independence people voted in the referendum.

This was no mere oversight. It lay at the very heart of the separatists’ strategy for declaring independence though only a minority of the population want it. They already knew from an “advisory” referendum two years ago that only pro-independence supporters would vote in it, while supporters of staying in Spain would boycott it. The earlier referendum also delivered a huge majority for independence — on the same low turn-out.

So hold another referendum, but this time say it is for keeps. Separatists will vote yes, anti-independence voters will abstain (because Madrid says it is illegal and urges them not to vote in it). Then use your fake 90% victory to claim that you embody the “people’s will”, and whisk Catalonia out of Spain before they know what hit them.

Which brings us to the third problem: if Puigdemont acts on the October 10 declaration and actually takes Catalonia out of Spain, it is going to be very lonely out there. Not only Madrid but other European governments understand the game the Catalan separatists have been playing.

The EU has made it clear that if Catalonia splits from Spain, the region would cease to be part of the EU and would have to re-apply for membership (which Spain could veto even if everybody else said yes). That has huge implications for the Catalan economy, since two-thirds of Catalonia’s exports go to EU countries.

Like the United Kingdom (which did at least hold an inclusive referendum that the “leavers” won with a 51,9% majority), Catalonia’s economy will go over a cliff-edge if the region leaves the EU without a negotiated deal that preserves most of its existing trading relationship. And that negotiation cannot even begin without Spain’s assent.

Spain also bears much blame for the present mess, since its inflexible constitution forbids independence for any of its regions. (That is why the referendum was illegal.) The present Spanish government made matters worse by getting the Supreme Court to cancel concessions that a previous government had made on further autonomy for Catalonia.

So you can understand the frustration felt by Catalan separatists, but the truth is that they did not have majority support for their independence project and have used illegitimate tactics to get around that inconvenient fact. No wonder Puigdemont has declared that he is “suspending the effects of the declaration of independence” for a few weeks, for more talks with the Madrid government.

The Spanish government is not going to negotiate on the basis of those referendum results and Rajoy has now directly asked Puigdemont whether he has declared independence or not. If he says he has, then Madrid will almost certainly activate Article 155 of the constitution, suspend Catalonia’s autonomy and take direct control of the region.

From there to the first violence against the “Spanish occupation” should not take very long. When you live in a country that has had three civil wars in the past 180 years, you should be more careful.

Catalonia: Puigdemont’s Strategy

Catalan nationalist leader Carles Puigdemont got most of what he wanted out of the chaotic pseudo-referendum on Sunday: 761 people injured by the Spanish police trying to block it.

One or two martyrs dead for the cause of Catalan independence would have been even better, and no doubt the 761 injured include a fair number of sprained ankles and broken nails, but the pictures will do the job. Even the foreign media coverage bought the story that the brutal Spanish police were suppressing the popular will – so now Puigdemont will have an excuse for making a unilateral declaration of independence.

Puigdemont, the president of the Catalan regional government, is no stranger to histrionics. In the past he has compared Catalan separatists’ non-violent campaign for independence to the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 and even to the Vietnam War.

“Every day is a Vietnam,” Puigdemont said in a TV interview last year, which seems a bit over the top as American B-52s hardly ever bomb Barcelona. But that’s the sort of stuff that rallies the troops, and there is a minority of people in Catalonia who really want independence. There always has been, because Catalonia has had a hard time from some Spanish governments in the past.

It fought on the losing (Republican/Communist) side in the Spanish Civil War, and tens of thousands of Catalans died when General Francisco Franco’s fascists won the war. Franco punished Catalonia by banning the use of the Catalan language (which is quite close to Castilian Spanish, but different enough for people to care about the difference).

But today Catalonia is the richest region of Spain. The Catalan language enjoys equal status with Spanish and is used in the schools. The region’s wealth has attracted so many people from other parts of Spain over the years that 46 percent of the population now speaks mostly Spanish. (37 percent use mainly Catalan, and 12 percent say they use both equally.)

So why do so many Catalans want to break from Spain? Historical grievances dating from the Civil War and even before; resentment that so many Spanish-speakers have immigrated to Catalonia; resentment that they have to share some of their wealth with poorer parts of Spain (but this is Europe, where that is perfectly normal); and most of all what Sigmud Freud called “the narcissism of minor differences.”

Equally minor differences saw Norway break away from Sweden non-violently in 1904, and Slovakia peacefully secede from former Czechoslovakia in 1993, so pettiness in itself is no obstacle. Catalan separatists, however, faced two major obstacles: an independence referendum is illegal under the Spanish constitution – and if they did hold a proper referendum, they’d almost certainly lose.

The problem is all those Spanish-speaking people who don’t share the romantic nationalist dreams of many (but not all) Catalans. A poll in March showed 48.5% opposing independence and 44.3% in favour; by July it was 49.4% against independence, and only 41.1% for it. It’s not easy to disenfranchise all those “Spaniards” (most of whom were actually born in Catalonia), so a simple referendum won’t deliver the goods.

Puigdemont’s big idea probably occurred to him after a symbolic referendum in 2014 produced an 80 percent majority for independence – because it was illegal, and therefore only a third of the population (almost all Catalans) voted in it. What if he held another illegal referendum, but this time have the Catalan parliament, where his coalition has a narrow majority, declare it “legal and binding”.

Once again, most Spanish-speakers wouldn’t vote – but this time, he said, there will be no requirement of a minimum turn-out, and the regional parliament can declare independence “within 48 hours” if the vote goes in favour. Or, if the Spanish government intervenes to stop the vote, as is its right under the constitution, he could use that as a pretext for a unilateral declaration of independence.

It was win-win for Puigdemont, and lose-lose for the Spanish government. If Madrid didn’t intervene, Catalonia would declare independence on the strength of a referendum in which only a minority of the population, almost all Catalan-speakers, voted. If it did intervene to stop the referendum, it would be guilty of “thwarting democracy”, and the images of Catalan protesters being dragged away from polling booths would prove to the world how evil the Spanish government is.

Madrid went with the latter option, and now is seen across the world as an oppressor. Puigdemont, in a televised address Sunday evening, said: “With this day of hope and suffering, the citizens of Catalonia have won the right to an independent state in the form of a republic.” He also hinted that a unilateral declaration of independence was on the way.

Nice strategy. Shame about the mess.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“It fought…difference”)