Catalans simply want to vote and exercise their right of self-determination, argues Jaume Ventura of CREI; if they do not stand up for their rights, who else will?


While America is absorbed by its own tragedies, the escalating Catalonian crisis can break apart not only the Iberian Peninsula, but the whole European project. This confrontation has its roots not only in history, but also in economics and political economy. For this reason, we have asked two experts on different sides of the fence to explain what is going on. The following is an article by Jaume Ventura of the Centre de Recerca en Economia Internacional (CREI) in Barcelona. Read our article on the opposing perspective, written by Tano Santos of Columbia University, here.    



Photo by SBA73 [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

There were hundreds of people in the voting line. A line so long offered plenty of time to watch the disturbing videos arriving via WhatsApp—videos showing vicious police attacks on unarmed citizens standing in similar lines less than a mile away. Bloody and stunned old ladies, men and women thrown down the stairs crying in pain and humiliation, people lying on the floor hurting and shocked. There was a lot of fear in the voting line. There was also the immense certainty that, if we Catalans do not stand up for our rights, nobody else will.


There is safety in numbers, too. The brutality of 15,000 police officers cannot stop millions of peaceful but stubborn voters. Overall, 2.3 million votes were counted, about 43 percent of the census. Close to 90 percent of these votes supported Catalan independence. These numbers must be interpreted with care, though. Many votes were not counted because the police took away ballot boxes filled with votes. Many votes were not cast because the police closed polling stations before citizens could vote. Despite the efforts of the organizers, this referendum was not carried out under ideal conditions. On this, everybody agrees.


Catalonia’s imperfect referendum on October 1 was the latest milestone in a longstanding struggle between the Spanish and Catalan governments. To help you understand what is at stake, let us take a step back and recall two key principles that guide modern democracies: 


1. Consent of the governed: A government’s legitimacy and moral right to use state power is justified and legal only when consented to by the people or society over which that political power is exercised; 


2. Democracy: The consent of the people must be expressed by voting.

Many Catalans believe that the Spanish government lacks legitimacy because it does not have the consent of the governed. Other Catalans disagree with this claim, of course. There is, however, one simple and powerful idea that unites all Catalans: the need to settle this issue by voting. Polls suggest that 80 percent of Catalans want a referendum like the Scottish one three years ago. But the Spanish government has staunchly rejected the possibility.


To explain the current situation, it is best to follow a chronological order.


March 2004–July 2006: The 2006 Statute of Autonomy


Aware of widespread discontent with the limited autonomy provided by the 1979 Statute of Autonomy (the law that regulates the powers of the Catalan parliament and government), candidate Rodriguez-Zapatero promised to support a Catalan proposal for a new statute. Catalans responded enthusiastically in the ballot boxes, and Mr. Rodriguez-Zapatero won the presidency of Spain in March 2004.


The Spanish constitution requires a three-step process to modify the statute. First, a proposal was made by the Catalan parliament to the Spanish parliament (November 2, 2005). This proposal was backed by 120 votes in favor and 15 against. Second, the Catalan proposal was debated in the Spanish parliament and stripped of some key provisions dealing with cultural and economic issues. To the dismay of many Catalans, Mr. Rodriguez-Zapatero broke his campaign promise and did not support the Catalan proposal. This created division and resentment among Catalans. The third step was a referendum (June 18, 2006) in which Catalans were given the choice of either accepting the modified statute that came back from Madrid or retaining the old one from 1979. The new Statute was approved, but the low voter turnout (49 percent) was an early indication of Catalan disaffection.


Catalans were not the only ones unhappy with the 2006 Statute of Autonomy. The Popular Party, headed by Mr. Rajoy, wanted to further reduce Catalan autonomy. To achieve this, it challenged many of the provisions of the new statute before the Constitutional Court, arguing that they exceeded the amount of autonomy that was possible under the 1978 constitution. It took the court four years to rule on this appeal, and its ruling triggered the next set of events.


June 2010July 2012: The ruling of the Constitutional Court


On June 28, 2010, the Constitutional Court declared unconstitutional various key provisions of the 2006 statute, while providing a very restrictive interpretation of many others. This ruling seriously modified the statute, greatly reducing Catalan autonomy without the consent of Catalans. On July 10, 1.1 million Catalans took to the streets under the banner “We are a nation. We decide.” The feeling that the Spanish state lacks legitimacy appeared with force at this point, and it kept growing steadily over the following years.


During 2011 and 2012, grassroots movements demanding independence sprang up all over Catalonia. This was a process managed from below, run by citizens deeply disenchanted with the Spanish state. Catalan politicians (who ironically would later lead the independence movement) tried to stop the grassroots initiatives by asking for some concessions from Madrid. But their efforts were all in vain. Mr. Rajoy, who had become president on December 2011, closed the door to any such concession. The last (and highly publicized) effort by Catalan moderates to stop the independence movement was a fiscal pact proposed on July 2012. President Rajoy refused to even consider their proposal. Frustrated with this intransigence, Catalan moderates massively moved to the independence camp.


I believe that this was the point of no return in this conflict. Before July 2012, the conflict could have been resolved (or perhaps, more accurately, pushed forward a few years) with some strategic concessions and a show of empathy for Catalans. After July 2012, the conflict could only be resolved with an independence referendum.


September 2012present: Diades and referendums


Starting in the fall of 2012, all communication between the Spanish and Catalan governments effectively stopped. Since then, the Spanish government has tried to further reduce the autonomy of the Catalan government, while the latter has tried to organize a referendum.


Grassroots movements showcased the Catalan desire for independence by holding a series of massive pro-independence demonstrations on the Diada (Catalonia’s national day) every year from 2012 to 2017. The most impressive (but not the largest) was the Via Catalana in 2013, when 1.6 million Catalans held hands together over the whole 217 miles that run from the border with France in the north, to the border with Valencia in the south.


The Catalan parliament formally asked the Spanish parliament for a referendum on April 8, 2014. The request was denied. The Catalan government then decided to hold a non-binding consultation. After an appeal from the Spanish government, the Constitutional Court chose a restrictive interpretation of the law and declared such a consultation unconstitutional. Undeterred by this ruling, the Catalan government conducted the consultation anyway using some legal tricks on November 9, 2014. Despite the simultaneous boycott of the anti-independence camp and a fraction of the independence movement (who thought that the consultation should be binding), more than 2 million Catalans voted overwhelmingly for independence. The organizers of this consultation are now facing charges in courts.


Since then, the confrontation has escalated. Catalan elections took place on September 27, 2015. The results were telling: 48 percent of the votes went to parties that had promised a unilateral declaration of independence; 39 percent of the votes went to parties that were against independence; the rest of the votes went to parties that did not state their views on independence. They did, however, express their support for a referendum, and their lack of support for a unilateral declaration of independence.


These results gave parties promising a unilateral declaration of independence the absolute majority in the Catalan parliament. Many expected them to declare independence right away. But they did not. Not having 50 percent of the popular vote, newly elected Catalan president Puigdemont surprised many by choosing instead to set a deadline to negotiate again a referendum with the Spanish government. Not surprisingly, negotiating a referendum with Mr. Rajoy’s government proved impossible, the deadline passed, and Mr. Puigdemont announced the October 1st referendum. Not surprisingly, again, the Spanish government challenged this referendum before the Constitutional Court, and it was ruled illegal.


Mr. Puigdemont organized the referendum anyway, arguing that he was following a legitimate mandate from the Catalan parliament. Unlike the Constitutional Court, Mr. Puigdemont said, the Catalan parliament has been freely elected by all Catalans and it enjoys the consent of the governed. Mr. Rajoy tried to stop the referendum unsuccessfully, eventually resorting to police brutality. He has not apologized for this, arguing that he was simply following a mandate from the Constitutional Court and doing what was needed to implement it.


So where are we now? The Spanish government insists that Catalans are breaking the law and that the only course of action is to let courts (harshly) deal with Catalan leaders and all of those that helped organize the referendum. The Spanish government is under tremendous pressure to suspend Catalan autonomy and jail the whole Catalan government and some key members of the Catalan parliament. The Popular Party has been feeding from a constituency that favors being tough on the Catalans, and the stability of Mr. Rajoy’s government rests upon their support.


The Catalan government insists that Catalans have earned the right to form a new state after the referendum. The Catalan government is also under enormous pressure to declare independence quickly and start building the new Catalan state. Anything short of this will disappoint many people who voted on October 1 and strongly support Mr. Puigdemont.


Many expected the European Union to step up this week, provide mediation and help find a negotiated exit to this situation. It did not happen, and this was disappointing. The next confrontation is likely to be more serious. Will Europe act then?


Let me conclude by taking a step back again. The current international regime, born after World War II, was built on two principles that are instrumental in enforcing the notion of consent of the governed:


1. Territorial integrity: States should not attempt to promote border changes or secessionist movements in other states. This principle endorses the legitimacy of existing governments that have the consent of their people, and protects their peoples from foreign aggression.


2. Right to self-determination: All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. This principle strips away the legitimacy of governments that do not have the consent of the governed, and protects peoples that are governed without their consent.

Catalan demands are consistent with both principles. No foreign power is using force against Spain, and no foreign power is suspected of instigating the Catalan independence movement. Thus, the principle of territorial integrity is respected. Catalans simply want to vote and exercise their right of self-determination. Applying these two principles in 21st century Europe should not be that difficult, should it?


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