How two stubborn men talked their way into a crisis
The vote of the Catalan parliament was flawed in several ways. For one, it was illegal, because the constitution does not allow secession of any region. The drama unfolded after an ill-fated general vote on Catalan independence on October 1. Forty-three percent of the electorate cast their ballots, and voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence. The civil guard disrupted the voting process on the basis of its unconstitutionality. Europeans, who espouse lofty principles of governance and civil rights, were shocked when they saw the violent scenes unfold on their television screens. The European Court of Justice and the EU declared the vote illegal. The US and the UN came down on the side of the constitution and the central government. They did so again on Friday. The government now faces the task of implementing direct rule for the first time since General Franco and the world is watching with bated breath, recalling the raucous scenes earlier in the month.
This was a clear case of the regional and central governments escalating the situation with rhetoric rather than allowing calmer heads to prevail. Puigedemont achieved the opposite of what he wanted: Instead of independence Catalonia is now under central rule. The people of Catalonia are deeply divided between the separatists and the Spanish loyalists. He gained neither favor nor sympathy from the EU (which he wanted to join), or with any of its member states. Only the Scots were supportive of the Catalan President’s aspirations.
History may not look favorably on Rajoy’s actions either. There was the violence on October 1 and his inability to calm things down. He refused dialogue, citing the unconstitutionality of the actions by the Catalan government. So much did Rajoy bungle the situation that even an ardent supporter of Scottish independence complimented the UK government on the professional way in which it allowed for the Scottish independence referendum within constitutional boundaries in 2014. She did so during the BBC’s prime-time flagship program Newsnight.
Project Catalonia is at this point neither politically nor economically feasible, irrespective of the now suspended regional government’s views. The population is deeply divided. There are no provisions for government institutions to make defense or foreign policy, and there is no currency. Outside the EU it would be difficult for the Catalan economy to exist. There would be no access to European Central Bank funding or to EU grants. There would also be no access to the customs union or to the common market. This has been reflected by the fact that more than 20 of the region’s largest companies are in the process of moving their headquarters elsewhere in Spain – among them the two largest Catalan banks, Caixa General and Banco Sabadell. Catalans may have a genuine cause for complaint in that they produce about 20 percent of the country’s GDP and do not see enough of the tax revenues they generate redistributed back to their region. They might feel differently, though, if they had to take on their fair share of the Spanish debt, which stands at about 100 percent of GDP.
The Catalan leader demanded independence and has achieved the opposite, while the Spanish Prime Minister’s bungling has led to violence on the streets. It is time for calm heads to prevail.
This crisis also puts a strain on the EU. There are not just the Catalans and the Scots. The Flemish want out of Belgium and there are rumbles in Corsica. The Lombardy and Veneto regions in Italy have just voted for greater autonomy from Rome. And all this against the background of Brexit.
The EU is ill equipped to deal with all these separatists sentiments. They put a severe strain on the organization’s structure and call into question its architecture, which is based on the nation state. It is therefore not surprising that EU and international law come down on the side of the nation state, which they see as the guarantor of stability and certainty. In the meantime we have to hope for a minimum of violence in Catalonia before December 21. Puigdemont’s call for resistance to Spain is singularly unhelpful in that context. Europe and the world will be glued to their television sets until the snap election takes place.
• Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources
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