Driving around Spain, you could be forgiven for asking yourself how such a diverse country holds itself together. Spain is made up of 17 autonomous regions, each with its own education system and health service; separate regional police forces in the Basque region, Catalonia region and Navarra region; over half a dozen languages spoken among a population of 46.5 million. In the case of the Basque Country, by all measures one of the wealthiest regions in Western Europe; and neighbouring Navarra, their governments even raises its own taxes, paying a part of it to the central government coffers and keeping the rest to spend more or less as they choose.
In the current debate, many UK commentators brush aside the historical differences between Scotland and Catalonia. For example, the fact that Scotland was an independent state that voluntarily entered into a political union with England. The closest Spanish comparison would be the union between Castile and Aragon, Catalonia being just a part of the latter, albeit having its own individual identity along with a historical grudge against the Bourbon dynasty after Felipe V ended the region’s autonomy in revenge for their fighting alongside the Hapsburgs in the Spanish War of Succession. Moreover, analysts are often surprisingly quick to admonish Spain’s central government for refusing to hold a referendum to settle the current dispute, oddly enough given how the recent Brexit referendum did so little to settle the matter of the UK’s EU membership.
What they nearly always miss however is that unlike the highly centralist UK, where the unwritten constitution allows the country’s leaders to, in theory, act pragmatically; Spain, in spite of its diversity, continues to be united thanks to a continental European style constitution in which sovereignty is vested in the people on the basis of equal rights for all and in which no individual part of the country can vote unilaterally in favour of independence.
Over the past 40 years since Spain’s transition to democracy, the country’s pioneering level of devolution has been its strength however in it can also be found its weakness. The system has the appearance of the German federal system, however the status of the Autonomous Communities bare striking differences to that of the German Länder, first and foremost their varying levels of autonomy.
The Catalans and the Basques, for historical reasons, have always defended their exceptionalism and so the result of the successive Spanish governments’ tradition of offering café para todos (coffee for all), in which the different regions all competed for ever increasing levels of self-government, has been the opposite of the principle enshrined in the Treaty of Rome of ever closer union. In Spain, should things continue the same way as they have over the last four decades, disintegration is inevitable regardless of the ongoing debates about the constitutional rights and wrongs of referendums or unilateral declarations of independence.
This is essentially where we are now. The German, French, Italians and even the US constitution are all just as forthright as that of Spain in enshrining their respective countries’ unity in law. There is nothing Francoist in defending Spain against political decisions that would divide and confront citizens not just nationally but in each of the country’s regions where the indigenous population coexists with people from all around Spain, all of whom have contributed equally to the country and their respective regions’ development. However, perhaps ironically, a political system that was built to create the flexibility that would prevent the country from repeating past conflicts while at the same time holding it together contains the seeds for its downfall. Not least when each region chooses its own education system, and consequently how it interprets its own history.
So where do we go from here? Clearly the ideal solution would be a genuine federal system in which the relationship between the state and the regions were clearly established, creating clear boundaries between competing laws and recognising the individual identities and traditions of each region. The key question is whether that would be good enough for the Catalans whose leaders, whatever is agreed, do not want to be treated equally to Andalusians or Valencians. And if they ultimately got their way, would that really be fair to everybody else, or compatible with European principals of interregional solidarity?
This is the conundrum that Spanish political leaders face in 2017. An understanding of that is the ideal antibody for those looking to offer simplistic solutions to Spain’s political leaders who are no doubt more qualified than anyone else in the world to reach their own conclusions about the way forward. That said, mediation is not a word on the lips of politicians in Madrid today however clearly something needs to give in order to even begin settling an issue that will clearly not solve itself.
Adrian Elliot, Public Affairs, Grayling Spain
Catalonia – how events unfolded
6 September – The Catalan parliament approves the referendum law with the absence of the opposition parties from the chamber in protest at a bill that defies the Spanish Constitution and the Catalan Statute of Autonomy.
7 September – Spain’s Constitutional Court suspends the referendum together with the previous day’s decree.
20 September – Spain’s Civil Guard police force arrests 14 members of the team organising the referendum.
1 October – The referendum is held although no proper democratic guarantees are provided and the data on participation and the results provided by the Catalan government lacks credibility. After the Catalan police force defies a court order to prevent voting from taken place the national police move on to attempt to prevent voting. Images and videos of heavy handed police tactics damage Spain’s case and lead to strong media condemnation although the EU continues to uphold Spain’s position.
10 October – The Catalan president is expected to declare independence unilaterally however after a one hour delay he finally makes an ambiguous statement declaring independence and almost immediately suspending the application of the decree. An increasing number of Catalan based businesses and financial institutions announce plans to move their official headquarters out of the region.
11 October – The Spanish government demands clarification on whether or not the Catalan President has in fact declared independence with a deadline of 17 October and, if so, that he withdraws it by 19 October if he wants to prevent the government proceeding with steps towards ending Catalan self-rule.
17 October – Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, tells Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont that if he calls elections self-rule will be maintained. Puigdemont refuses and states that if self-rule is applied, the suspension on independence will be lifted with immediate effect.
19 October – The government announces that in the absence of a satisfactory response from Puigdemont, the government will proceed with enacting Article 155 of the Spanish constitution in order to govern Catalonia directly from Madrid.
27 October Following approval by the Senate and a subsequent meeting of the Cabinet, Prime Minister Rajoy dissolved the Catalan parliament (all 17 regions in Spain have their own regional parliament) and called for “free and fair” regional elections for December 21, arguing the Government “never wanted to come to this”. At the same time, Mr Rajoy suspended regional President Charles Puigdemont, Deputy President Oriol Junqueras and all of the other regional counsellors in the Catalan government. The Spanish government has ordered the closure all Catalonia’s offices of representation outside Spain, along with the region´s publicly funded diplomacy service and has suspended the region’s police chief, Pere Soler.
The Prime Minister has assured that the Spanish government has enough resources to bring Spain back to normality and Catalonia within the law.
The Spanish Attorney General is preparing law suits against various former Catalan officials with charges of rebellion. Meanwhile, nationalist politicians are weighing up the pros and cons of participating in regional elections organised by the Spanish state from which they claim to have declared independence.
No EU/major international power has as yet recognized the Unilateral Declaration of Independence.