The current situation in Catalonia has been described as a clash between legality and legitimacy. While there are cases in which there might be a conflict, it is not usually the case in modern, liberal democracies. After all they are defined by having mechanisms so that with enough legitimacy -enough votes- it is possible to adapt the legality to match. No, there is no conflict between legitimacy and legality. It is actually a conflict between two groups that believe that legitimacy is on their side.
The claim of the Catalonian secessionists rests on the wishes of a significant fraction of the population of Catalonia, a little less than half of it according to most polls. For many years there has been an independentist movement in the region, as in other parts of Spain and Europe, but the percentage of the population supporting it was moderate until around 2012. I will not pretend to have the absolute truth about the causes for this increase, but the economic crisis, a serious mismanagement of the approval process of Catalonia self-government Statute between 2006 and 2010, and the loss of influence of Catalonian nationalist political parties in the Spanish parliament after the majority obtained by the right-wing Popular Party in the 2011 elections, seems obvious candidates.
Whatever the reasons, independence is currently the preferred option for several millions of Catalonians, and that is something to be considered. But it is also true that a roughly equal number of Catalonians want to remain as part of Spain, and that the secession of Catalonia would also affect the rest of the Spaniards, who overwhelmingly reject the possibility.
Such conflicts are not uncommon. Democracy is not the eradication of conflict, but the establishment of procedures to deal with them peacefully and preventing the abuse of one group over another, no matter their strength. For this reason, the Rule of Law must be absolute. In this respect, the Spanish Constitution (which was also voted and massively approved in Catalonia in 1978) states clearly where the sovereignty and legitimacy resides: in the whole of the population of Spain.
In an ideal world, the wishes and aspirations of several millions of Catalonians should nevertheless have been listened to by their fellow Spaniards, discussed and, if an agreement was reached, laws could have been changed accordingly. Actually, this has been happening for decades, in which insufficient majorities of both the main left and right-wing parties needed to be complemented with the votes from the nationalist MPs. The independentist claim that Catalonia has been systematically discriminated by the central Government should be balanced against the perception in the rest of Spain that they have actually been accumulating privileges compared to other regions for years due to this circumstance. Negotiation and agreements have been the rule until the nationalists in Catalonia demanded things that a Spanish Government can’t agree legally to concede, either independence, explicitly forbidden in the Constitution as in many other countries, or a referendum leading to that same end.
For many Catalonians, the secession means freedom. For many Spaniards, it means a threat, blackmail and disloyalty. In the best case it is considered an impolite way to extract further concessions from the Spanish Government, while in the worst it is akin to the richest 10% of the population joining together and deciding unilaterally that they do not want to pay taxes since they can procure private education and health insurance for themselves. After all, the independentist parties have spent years spreading slogans such as “Spain is stealing from us” and “The unproductive Spain is living off the productive Catalonia”. Not exactly the kind of messages aimed at sparking goodwill outside their limits, while non-independentist Catalonians don’t fare much better usually, being labelled by some as “botiflers” (“traitors”).
The objective truth is that Catalonia is, and has always been at least since the restoration of democracy 40 years ago, fully represented in the Spanish Parliament, and has had indeed notable influence in the politics of the country. It enjoys a great deal of self-government, more than other regions in Spain and arguably more that some states in federal countries. The list of attributions (both shared and exclusive) of the Catalonian Government is listed in its own webpage so that the reader can decide for him- or herself.
This doesn’t mean that Catalonia doesn’t have reasons for complaining. The financing system of the Spanish regions, for instance, is a hodgepodge of deals, exceptions and adjustments that could be seriously improved. But it is also true that “Madrid”, meaning the Spanish Government, has been a convenient scapegoat for many subjects, even for problems that are actually responsibility of the Generalitat, the Catalonian Government. One the most cited grievances, the changes introduced in the Catalonian self-government statute by the Constitutional Court in 2010 to make it fit into the constitutional framework, were actually reasonable. Any law voted in Spain must of course comply with the limits imposed in the Constitution, as in any modern democracy, and it is not unheard of that new laws are amended to this effect after they are enacted if the Constitutional Court so dictates. But the extent of these changes in this case was overstated and the whole affair labelled as treason to the will of the Catalonian people by some. Seldom is it noted that the Catalonian Government (as well as other regional governments) routinely does the same with laws enacted by the Spanish Parliament that they believe that infringe their own attributions. While it is true that some minor point of those nullified by the Constitutional Court are similar to those in force in the equivalent statutes of other regions, that is not because justice has ruled out in a different way for them, but just because nobody has requested a ruling about the others –and probably that wouldn’t have happened with the Catalonian Statute either if it hadn’t contained other, more relevant and controversial points.
Now the situation can’t be characterized as anything less than a gigantic, utter mess, whose consequences will be paid for dearly. Lies, in some cases blatant, have been told. Positions, in both sides, have been polarized. Trust is destroyed to the point that arguments and facts are discarded out of hand. Feelings have been hurt during this whole process, and not only in Catalonia. This is no longer a dialogue where reason can help to find a way forward, but a clash of emotions and wills. Reforms are possible and desirable, but it would close to impossible that both sides, and others that could be affected, could sit down together to discuss them with a level head. As in the Chinese curse, we in Spain are bound to live in interesting times for the years to come.