What is happening in Spain?

Published 02.10.2017 19:43

Visca Catalunya! ... Long live Catalonia... This is how Xavi Hernandez, the legendary midfielder of FC Barcelona and Spanish National Soccer squad ended his declaration in a social media video he prepared himself and uploaded. What is happening in Spain? Why the separatist movement in Cataluña (in Spanish) is taking such magnitude? What do the Catalans want? Most of these questions remain unanswered in the media. ... When the images of harsh repression of Catalan voters by the National Police appeared on screens, international public opinion was unprepared. Since the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, Spain has established a rock solid democratic bedrock.

The centralist, nationalistic system of Franquist Spain has disappeared incrementally, with regions given more and more autonomy to various degrees. Spain, a constitutional monarchy, has established what is called in Political Sciences jargon an asymmetric devolution: Some regions have more autonomy than others do. This is mainly the case of the Basque Country and Catalonia; the overseas territories of Spain also have varying degrees of autonomy.

Catalonia has its own local parliament (the Generalitat), its local police forces (Mosses d'Esquadra), and its institutional "regional political forces;" it has all the possible and imaginable liberties regarding the use of the Catalan language. Its culture is flourishing, its capital city Barcelona remains one of the main tourist destinations in the world, and its economy is one of the best among Spanish regions.

The Spanish economy is plagued with very high unemployment. It is not new, since the accession of Spain to the EU in 1986; unemployment figures have been constantly much higher than the EU average. There is also a striking dichotomy between the regions in terms of economic development. These dynamics have unclenched a desire to "get rid" of the poorer regions of Spain and enjoy much better wealth among a certain population in Catalonia.

The "independence" referendum, sought by a number of political forces in Catalonia is far from being a very common stance for all Catalans. However, the Spanish central government of Mariano Rajoy has been extremely irritated by the political maneuver put in place by Carles Puigdemont, president of the Generalitat, who did everything in his power to organize a referendum, basically to provoke the central government.

Why a provocation? Obviously, the "yes" vote, in a full-fledged electoral contest, would have had little chance to win. But the irritation of Premier Rajoy and his insistence on preventing the holding of such a referendum gave different ideas to Catalan irredentists; they insisted on holding the referendum (by the way non-constitutional), to increase tension. The Spanish government ordered the dismantling of polling stations and ballots. There the trouble began, as judicial authorities ruled basically in line with the central government admonitions; however, local authorities and more importantly local police forces did not follow the injunctions.

This created an immense tension whereby "independentist" masses started to stage demonstrations and protests, and local police hardly intervened. Therefore, holding the referendum turned into a totally messy popular uprising. National Police forces have been sent to Catalonia, consolidating the feeling that the central government is forcing local voters not to go to the ballots.

Demonstrations against the National Police turned into scenes of bloody street violence, the whole referendum has gotten out of hand, and Rajoy has fallen in the trap set by Puigdemont. The first results of the referendum in which only the supporters of the "yes" vote participated, shows a "yes" result totaling 90 percent of votes cast.

Institutionally speaking, this vote will have little effect; politically, this is a total mess and a slap in the face of Rajoy's government. A popular vote was sabotaged by a democratic government using police violence. This is how the whole thing will be remembered, and the struggle for Catalan independence has been visibly reinforced after this messy weekend.

A number of important conclusions can be drawn: First, this is not an uprising of an oppressed minority by an authoritarian central power. Catalonia is a free region, enjoying all possible institutional, political, cultural and linguistic liberties. What the "independist" bloc wants is not to show solidarity to poorer regions of Spain and enjoy a better living. As crude as it sounds, this is unfortunately the reality.

Second, using police violence or any kind of violence against regional irredentism is indeed a very bad idea, the only visible result being the reinforcement of the "regional" identity and hatred against the central power.

Third, and perhaps most important, it is pure illusion to think that "alone," a region would enjoy better development, increased wealth and less unemployment. In an ever-globalizing world, this temptation to "protectionism" is extremely dangerous and illusory. World War II happened because in the aftermath of the 1929 crisis, most countries thought it would be a good idea to return to "protectionism." This example alone shows the dangers of the game played by regionalists in Spain (and elsewhere). Fourth, very large dimensions of freedom are definitely needed in regions with particular identities in terms of local authority, local police and cultural and linguistic liberties. Whether such "autonomy" will be sufficient is another debate; the example of Catalonia and Scotland show us that the debate of regional identity is only beginning.

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