In English Voices From Spain

Seven viewpoints on 1-O

Published originally in Spanish. Politikon.

Considering the exceptional moment we are in, seven editors of Politikon pour their different viewpoints regarding the vote on October 1st, what has happened up to now and what is yet to come.

Elena Costas Pérez. Four days before the referendum in Catalonia any diagnostic is bound to be tragic. It seems that we are in game of chicken where there is no possible cooperation between the Catalonian and Spanish governments. By now the only alternative for each side is to push forward, hoping that the opponent will back off eventually. But once this point has been reached, none of the participants has incentives to stop.

The collateral damage is a society, the Catalonian, split in two and asked to choose a side in an extremely polarized context: either support the status quo or move towards independence.

The problem is that, on one hand, to achieve that independence seems to be something to do at all costs, and is not backed by a social majority. On the other, the status quo has been rejected by a considerable part of Catalonians for years now. If the results from both polls and elections are to be believed, there is a social majority demanding more self-government, but inside the framework of the Spanish Constitution. To disregard this demand has only fueled the pro-independence option, even to the point of justifying as legitimate the unjustifiable appropriation of public institutions to put them outside the law.

As in any non-cooperative situation, there is no room for communication unless the rules of the game say so. Therefore, the best possible outcome right now is to hope that October 1st goes by peacefully, without political chaos or social turmoil. From there on, it will be needed to define rules inside the current legislation where the players stop being hostages of their own strategies. These rules should allow the Catalonian society to express with guarantees, in a clear and agreed way, both their desire for change in the degree of self-government and the direction of such change.

To find a cooperative exit to the Catalonian political dilemma it is required to break the logic that has dominated up to now. This conflict is often seen as a zero-sum game: what some win, others lose. But we must remember that in fact it is worse, this is a game in which everybody loses. The defeat of a side will not be the victory of the other. The join losses will be much greater than any possible gain expected, not only for Catalonians but also for the whole of Spanish society. And for this reason there is no other option than looking for options that are possible even if they are not perfect.

Roger Senserrich. The political debate over Catalonia has not been too subtle during the last years, but these last months politicians in both sides have crossed the border from raucousness to irresponsibility.

We have replaced the discussion over symbols, financing, languages and social services with an escalation of red lines and inflexible positions about the core itself of the coexistence rules. Public debate has moved on from subjects were figures had capital importance and it was possible to negotiate medium-term agreements to politicians branding “traitors to the land”. Disagreements are no longer about which public administration is more capable to improve the life of the citizens in a particular subject and how much money they need to apocalyptic statements over the end of democracy.

Catalonia has had a clear political constant for forty years, with nationalists and non-nationalists (or Catalonian nationalists and unionists, or separatists and unionists, or whatever else –all idioms have become toxic) with roughly half of the votes each. In the past, when both groups had people willing to negotiate and accept that they didn’t have a majority, we saw governments formed by coalitions of parties of both sides.

Nowadays this kind of agreements seems impossible, though. The growing internal competition inside the Catalonian nationalist parties brought an escalation of demands that resulted in the current confrontational strategy. Far from accepting the persistent stability of the Catalonian Society and keep on trusting on small incremental changes and consensus, the secessionists have committed themselves to instrumentalize the institutions in an agenda of radical changes, actively excluding half the Catalonians. This escalation has degenerated in the current growing social fracture.

Although the Government led by Mariano Rajoy has committed severe errors, the pro-independence parties, as driving force behind the referendum, bear the highest responsibility. Words and rhetoric have consequences. The social fracture in Catalonia is becoming deeper and deeper, and the Catalonian Government, far from trying to contain the demons of division, has increased the level of confrontation, hoping for an overreaction from the Spanish Government to justify itself. Instead of trying to limit the reach of the conflict, they are trying to stir it up without regard for the consequences.

The risk is clear. The conflict can become entrenched, making these social divisions permanent. The social fracture would only get worse. Catalonia is getting dangerously close of the abyss of becoming Ulster-like, of a civil conflict occasionally violent, toxic and intractable. And it is doing so not for reasons of social justice, democracy, or any other assorted heroic rhetoric, but for the tremendous irresponsibility of a local political class that seems to have forgotten that the nation is more than just them.  

Berta Barbet. October 1st is the result of 7 years of doing politics focused on one’s own project, disregarding other proposals. It is the result of an attitude in which dialogue is only useful if it can achieve the desired outcome but not to negotiate alternative solutions. It is a way of doing politics that is sometimes highly successful, of course. After all, there is a reason we call them ¨political leaders¨.  Nevertheless, in highly polarized contexts and with very incompatible preferences, thy way of doing politics has taken us to a situation of stalemate and tension that will take years to undo. Independently of how good any of the advocated projects are, pursuing them has left us farther than ever from finding a solution to fit politically Catalonia inside Spain.

Catalonia is and will keep on being a diverse society in which neither the preference for independence nor the preference for the status quo are going to achieve a majority wide enough to be applicable without dialogue with the other. The national conflict is a clash of identities, and national identities in Catalonia are still diverse. The focus of the different leaders in proving that they were right in advocating their own project, which they surely were, not only has blocked the conflict, but it has also generated group-thinking dynamics and so the preferences of members outside the group are no longer relevant. The announcement of the referendum on October 1st and the subsequent response from the Spanish Government are just one step further in this drift in which all sides just want to be right. No matter who wins the battle, no situation in which half the population has been ignored and defeated can generate a durable equilibrium.   

October 1st is a failure of political dialogue; a failure emerged from the realization by many Catalonians that “it is impossible to negotiate with Spain”. This realization was based on the famous failure of the Self-government Statute and that the Spanish Government has reinforced with its negative responses and full of contempt that left no options to the independence supporters. But in the Catalonian social context and the current structure of national and European institutions, solutions that are not shared and negotiated have enormous costs. Unilateralism and lack of dialogue not only have generated political instability, they are also breaking up the Catalonian society in two. Sometimes, political leadership is also understanding that is not always enough to be right, sometimes it is also required that others agree with you on that.


Pablo Simón.

With the passing of the referendum and disconnection laws the Catalonian Government not only put itself outside the law, it also declared itself a constitutive body. In view of this, only the balance of power matters. The Catalonian Government only has the support of one half of the population (although very motivated), and no international support whatsoever, so it would be difficult that it could win against the State (of which it is part and, at the same time, isn’t, as Schrödinger’s cat). It is not enough for a unilateral attempt. Nevertheless, this conflict has been going on for years, and will not stop here.

The secession movement has achieved three victories, though. First, it has fueled the idea that Catalonia is oppressed by generating a reaction from the Spanish Government, whose image has deteriorated both inside and outside of Catalonia. Second, it has moved the center of gravity of the independence debate towards the referendum, something that not only captivates part of the Spanish left-wing but is also an easier sell. Last, it has generated a reaction on the emergent Spanish nationalism, also in Catalonia, which allows them to reinforce the cliché of a Spain that can’t be reformed. To achieve these three goals they have put no limits on the political cost they were willing to accept, and have used a well-oiled machinery of social organizations and institutions set up during more than five years.

The Spanish Government has allowed itself to get trapped in this scenario designed by its rivals, and has tied itself to the legalist mast. It has followed three principles in its actuation: being reactive, incremental and proportional. Nevertheless the end result has been something else. In terms of incrementalism it has opted for measures such control of public bank accounts or the coordination of the Mossos to avoid the political cost of applying the article 155 of the Spanish Constitution –which paradoxically it is something that the secessionists have been demanding to happen before October 1st. In terms of proportionality, the Attorney General exceeded the threshold by pressing charges against the majors of several hundred municipalities, or by threatening citizens that take place in the polling stations.

Despite this, it is the pro-independence block that has made impossible to combine two elements at once; get the Catalonian Government back into the Spanish legality and finding a political solution to the territorial issue in Spain. Doing the first makes more difficult the second in the short term. This has been the adopted strategy.  

Which is the most probable scenario from now on? The one dreamed of by the Spanish Government includes snap regional elections and a government in minority of ERC in a cold war with the state. The one looked forward by many in the secessionist movement is a unilateral declaration of independence, or a parallel Parliament with a disqualified government and the application of article 155. I believe that the latter is more probable since after all, it feeds even more the secessionist narrative. The practical outcome of this scenario will be an unprecedented reduction of the self-government in Catalonia, and a coercive stance prolonged in time in an irredentist Catalonia. The Spanish Government may very well accept political costs now considering that it might work in the medium term for when (or if) it decides to use the carrot and not just the stick.

Since all involved are assuming that Catalonia is broken and the situation can’t get any worse, all they want is to crush the opponents of their cause. Those of us with an imagination, though, are not optimistic.


Sílvia Clavería. 

There was a concern and critics that the referendum of 1-O was a new 9-N, that is, some kind of civil mobilization without significant political consequences. Even though the Catalonian Government has involved itself as a major actor in the 1-O, this is on its way to become once more something closer to a mobilization than a normal referendum. Coercion by the State police forces, the impossibility to add all the Catalonian actors and the technical problems are going to make very difficult the potential participation of al Catalonian citizens. This will make very hard to read and interpret the results. Nevertheless, this same reaction of the state has been the catalyzer for many sectors of the country that seldom participate in this type of demonstrations to implicate themselves in this occasion. Also the dock workers have joined in, denying assistance to the moored military boats; the student movement, reinforced by the paper played by the heads of the different Catalonian universities; En Comú-Podem, taking part in the referendum on 1-O –even though it supports an agreed referendum; and even labor sectors, considering the possibility of calling for a general strike. These facts contribute even more to the crisis of legitimacies. Nevertheless we must not forget that even though the referendum is amply legitimated by the Catalonian population, their territorial preferences are divided, making evident that negotiation with the state is important to reach a more optimal agreement. The degree of mobilization on October 1st can be key both to be able to open up a posterior negotiation with the state and to know the weight of Catalonia in that negotiation. Right now, 1-O looks more a demonstration than a referendum, but the political and civil implications are already very different to those of 9-N.

Luis Abenza. At least since the debate between Luxemburg and Lenin on the national question, the Left has had a difficult relationship with the management of identities. Sometimes this have been uses as a mechanism for mobilization and liberation of oppressed minorities (black people in USA); in others they have been used to take out of the agenda the probles of equality and social justice. In which of these two schemas fit the Catalonian case?

In the social lottery, Catalonia is one of the best places in the world to be born. It is in the top three of the regions with less poverty and more per capita income of Spain, a rather prosperous country itself. Its unemployment rate is a bit over half of that in Extremadura or Andalusia. Being Catalonian can hardly be seen as a natural disadvantage in life, at least not in comparison with other regions in Spain.

Catalonia is a region historically dominated by a specific group, the Catalonian bourgeoisie. This is apparent just by looking at the class composition of the political spectrum: the nationalist parties, in which upper classes are overrepresented (both electorally and in the elites, from Cambó to Junqueras), have governed the region for most of the democratic period. And all the minority Governments in Spain, including the current were built under the veto power of a member of the Catalonian bourgeoisie. But it is also evident if we look at more subtle aspects such as its matrimonial market or its culture. Although Telecinco is (or used to be) the TV channel with the most audience in Catalonia, we don’t identify it with Catalonia. We link the Catalonian culture with a series of elitist and bourgeois symbols, such as Gaudí, the house Batlló, the Liceu, the Primavera Sound festival or TV3.

The electoral system was designed with a bias that limited the influence of the urban working masses. The great demands of the nationalist movement are also characteristically bourgeois. The idea of a ‘fiscal plunder’ over an industrious and entrepreneur group is a clear example. When we read the roadmap of the pro-independence economists it is evident that they see independence as an opportunity to apply an agenda of liberalization reforms that they couldn’t otherwise. Considering this pattern of political hegemony and recent history, it seems probable that more self-government would result in even more political influence for upper and middle classes and the political parties that represent them.  

At some point, as they say, we will have to sit down to negotiate how to move forward. Concessions will be needed in both sides. But when we do, it will be important to keep in mind that what the independence supporters demand is, ultimately, political mechanisms that protect pharmacists and lawyers from Barcelona from the oppression from the Andalusian unemployed and the users of the Extremadura health system. That image is what we should be thinking about when we talk about self-government.

Jorge Galindo. A few days ago Miguel Aguilar wrote in Letras Libres that it was needed to differentiate between two combined problems inside the “Catalonia question”: on one side, the political fit of Catalonia inside Spain; on the other, the referendum of next Sunday. I agree that it would be useful to keep both challenges separated, both from an analytical as well as a normative viewpoint. Nevertheless I’m afraid this will no longer be possible.

Whatever happens on next Sunday (or even more important how it happens) as well as what has happened in the last weeks will largely define the original problem. This, in essence, starts with a crisis of credibility and compromise between both sides. The Catalonian pro-independence movement is now convinced that neither PP, C’s, PSOE (and for many not even Podemos or its associated parties) are in position to offer a higher level of self-government, not to mention an agreed referendum. With that they have lost the trust in the framework that up to now was the accepted reference for everybody: the Constitution of 1978 and the subsequent developments, such as the first Self-Government Statute (see this article by Cesc Amat on this regard). On the other hand, the Spanish Government thinks that being the Catalonian Government disloyal to that framework, it can’t be considered a valid counterpart either. The referendum called for on 1-O and its prelude are nothing but the last step in this rupture process, that leads into trying to maintain two legal and institutional structures confronted. The secessionists use the state action as last and perfect proof of the impossibility of trusting the other side. And for this other side, the attempt to call for an illegal referendum through a parliamentary process of questionable democratic quality is the best possible example of its own argument.

Considering this, in order to address again the higher issue of the legal fit of Catalonia and Spain it would be required to rebuild the trust and credibility of both actors first. But only 72 hours before reaching the summit, the dynamic is just the opposite: constant mutual delegitimation, reinforcement of one’s own position and therefore consolidation of the relation between whatever happens on October 1sr and everything that has happened before and whatever happens after. There is little that can be done now to avoid the slide (or the cliff) that is intuited at the other side. We still don’t know how the costs of such a fall will be distributed.

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