Photo by Carson Arias on Unsplash

Originally published in Spanish. Anatomía del ‘procés’. Elisa de la Nuez. El Mundo.

17th July 2018

A few days ago I had the opportunity to meet a group of experts (sociologists, political scientists, jurists, economists, historians, diplomats, journalists, businessmen and even psychologists) in a seminar held at the International University Menéndez Pelayo under the name “Anatomy of the procés[TN: The Catalan independence process]. The level of the contents and the interest raised in the audience was very high, as the issue deserved. As Manuel Valls -also present at the seminar- stated, there are probably many things at stake in Catalonia at once: the future of liberal democracy (or of the only kind of democracy known up to now, except the brief experiment of Athens in the fifth century before Christ), the Rule of Law and even the European project. In short, modernity is at stake. That is why it is such a fascinating phenomenon from an intellectual and moral point of view. But, above all, we must not forget the concrete people who suffer every day the rupture of coexistence in Catalonia, more pronounced in the small and closed towns but which is also spreading to the big cities. Many of the Catalan speakers in Santander told stories not very different from those we have heard or read about other countries where there has been a civil fracture: the spiral of silence extends, those who do not think the same are singled out and the institutions no longer protect a very important part of citizenship. They are not neutral institutions, only of and for the independence supporters.

It is worth mentioning this point after the events of the last few days, the meeting between the President of the Government and the President of the Generalitat [TN: The Catalonian autonomous government], and the decision of the German Court of Sleschwig-Holstein over the extradition of Puigdemont and its fishy use by the Government of the Generalitat. This decision is obviously nothing close to a validation of the secessionist theses of the “political prisoners” nor a delegitimization of the investigation of the case by the Spanish judge, much less a “humiliation” of the Spaniards as a whole. We jurists know that judges disagree many times and that contradictory decisions abound. The rule of law has its mechanisms to solve these problems, even in the case of the European Arrest Warrant, although they are a bit more complex than those of national law.

It is true that Spanish institutions have also traditionally been occupied by the political parties of the moment, which has led to a degree of politicization, with consequent inefficiencies. Having neutral and professional institutions is a fundamental requirement of a modern democratic State and a very important guarantee for the market economy. The professionalization of the public function has precisely that objective; officials objectively serve general interests, which are those of all citizens, and which cannot be confused with the interests of a political party. Of course, in practice, there are grey areas, in particular where there are too many officials who enter politics and when civil service careers depend more on political favour than on merit and ability. But in Catalonia the institutional occupation is absolute and total -perhaps because always the same people has held the power there-, which represents a qualitative leap, to the extent that it is assumed that half of the Catalans simply do not have the right to their own institutions.

Indeed, in other parts of Spain it is unthinkable that State officials could welcome a new PSOE minister at the door of a public building waving pennants with the initials of the party. Or that the logo of the PP could hang on the facade of a Provincial Council or a Council of Castille and Leon. In Catalonia, it is possible. Something similar can be said about the public media; It is true that political parties have a hard time releasing control and we have the last example in RTVE [TN: The public Spanish broadcaster]. We already know that the road to institutional neutrality is long and twisted. But at least there is a growing demand for neutrality by both workers of the public media and citizens. And it is not reasonable to pay with the money of everybody the institutions of a few. But the occupation of TV3 [TN: The public Catalan broadcaster] has not been discussed until relatively recently, and only very timidly. The same applies to each and every one of the Catalan institutions, from the Síndic de Greuges to the Parlament.

The underlying problem is simply the resistance to recognise counterweights or check and balances (which in democracy are an integral part of the exercise of power) by elites very used to doing as they pleased for many years. As Montesquieu said, it has always been known that every man with power tends to abuse it. With the aggravating circumstance that in a relatively small society, such as the Catalan one, this exercise of political power practically without restrictions and without accountability can result suffocating if it extends, as it has happened, to practically all areas of life -economic, cultural and social- and is promoted from the public institutions and using public money. The fact that this practically uncontrolled exercise of political (and largely economic and social) power was carried out following nationalist guidelines made it easier for any type of opposition to be branded as “anti-Catalan”, which puts citizens who demanded more professionalism, more transparency, less corruption and less impunity in a very uncomfortable position.

For many years the dominant ideological discourse promised that the transfer of this huge power in Catalonia to its traditional elites was what ensured the inclusion and economic and social progress of all citizens, both of the descendants of Catalan parents who had Catalan as their mother tongue, as well as the descendants of immigrants from other Spanish regions whose mother tongue was Spanish. Undoubtedly, the second group had, at least initially, less economic and educational resources than the first, and was also much less mobilized in the regional elections. The panorama is completed by the withdrawal from the public spaces in Catalonia by the Spanish institutions as a result of a number of agreements with Catalan nationalists to secure the majority in the national Parliament.

This narrative and this model has been terminated by the independence process. The exclusion of political, social and economic power suffered by a large part of non-nationalist Catalans has manifested itself very clearly, as well as the xenophobic and identity component of the independence movement. In that sense, the election of President Torra makes this fracture perfectly visible. In short, what we are seeing in the independence movement is the nostalgia for a past where “the one Catalan people”-or, to be more exact, its elites- could do whatever they wanted without anyone protesting too much, and in particular not the Catalans arrived from outside. In that sense, the longing for a small identity-based nation reminds that of the brexiteers for the lost empire or that of the Trump voters for a strong, masculine and white America. None of that is going to come back because History is moving in a different direction. Fortunately, the new Catalan society is more open and diverse, and Catalans from different backgrounds claim the political space that corresponds to them. In that, at least, nationalism has been successful, although perhaps not in the way it was imagined.

The problem, of course, is that the fact that the past cannot return does not guarantee that the future will be better. Western societies such as ours are already diverse, plural and open, and in them the only way to resolve conflicts between citizens who consider -without many objective reasons, to be honest – that they have few things in common is through the mechanisms of the old liberal democracies, more necessary today than ever. If one community tries to impose its will on the other (in particular when, as in Catalonia, the two represent more or less half of the population) the so-called illiberal democracy model becomes the only option. This is nothing but an euphemism to refer to autocracies with elections of the type of Hungary, Turkey, Poland and others. In these models, the plurality and real diversity of their societies have to be removed or, at least, silenced because they do not conform to the ideal model that their rulers would like. Another possibility would be to renounce the imposition of the preferences of one community over the other and opt for the model of two differentiated communities, each with their own institutions, implemented – more or less explicitly – in countries such as Belgium.

What is clear is that either of those two models is infinitely worse than what we still have today in a few lucky countries, including Spain. Our democracies and the institutions that go with them may be imperfect, but they are also enormously valuable. They represent the best formula that human beings have been able to design to prevent mistaking intellectual errors as moral errors or political adversaries with enemies. And, paraphrasing David Rieff, a demoralising diversity will always be preferable to a unifying falsehood.