Upon request by the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, Moisés Jomarrón de la Cerda, Development Manager at the European Council on Foreign Relations (Berlin, Germany), reflects on the circumstances of the Catalan referendum. Moisés Jomarrón has authored this essay in his personal capacity. The opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer:
The Spanish Constitution of 1978 created a legal framework that has given to Catalonia one of the highest levels of regional self-government in Europe. Nevertheless, there have always been a sector of the Catalan society that would rather see Catalonia as an independent state, and not a part of Spain. This feeling has been incentivised by the economic crisis that has stroke Spain so hard.
A series of recent political developments ended up with a call for a referendum to decide whether Catalonia should be independent. The referendum was deemed illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court. Its legal framework was fast-tracked by the Catalan government and approved in a highly irregular and undemocratic procedure. The Spanish central government had warned Barcelona about the illegality of its acts. The Council of Europe had warned the Catalan government about the need to stick to the Spanish Constitution and applicable legislation to carry out any referendum. Previous to the announced date for the referendum, Spanish police detained several members of the Catalan government and seized materials to be used in the electoral colleges. The Catalan government exhorted nevertheless the population to participate in the referendum and to resist the efforts of the Spanish central government to prevent it from happening.
On 1 October 2017, thousands of Catalans went to the polls and protested against the police who blocked the access to many of them. The official response went very violent in several cases, as pointed out by international organisations. At least 130 legal procedures have been accepted in court from citizens abused or mistreated by the police forces on 1 October. Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan head of government, has accused Spain of undemocratic repression and violating Catalans’ fundamental rights. He has also called for external intervention of the EU and has claimed the results of the referendum give the right to Catalonia to be independent. International observers say that no proper referendum took actually place. The European Parliament has univocally made clear its support to the Spanish democratic order and Constitution.
Since then, situation has even further escalated. Demonstrations for and against independence have filled the streets of Barcelona. Large and small companies have massively fled the region, causing great fears of economic recession to follow political unrest. Harassing the “other” has become a common practice for both sides and society is entering an Ulsterisation process. The leaders of the two main civil society organisations supporting the independence have been prosecuted and preventively jailed for harassing police investigators during hours, while they conducted a search in a building of the Catalan government. These leaders widely justified their actions on the basis that only by disobeying and resisting Spanish ruling, Catalonia can be free. They also called their fellow citizens to follow their lead.
On 21 October, the Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy invoked Art. 155 of the Constitution that allows Madrid to remove the Catalan president and reduce the competences of the Catalan Parliament. For the first time in its democratic history, Spain intervenes a regional ruling and limits its powers.
It seems to be easy to agree that dialogue is the only way forward. However, the dialogue must happen first within the Catalan society and not between Catalonia and Spain. Spanish investigators have made public a road map seized to the secessionists in the Catalan government. This document shows how independentists acknowledge that Catalan independence was not supported by the majority of Catalans. And here, to my eyes, lies the core of the issue: instead of working to build a better future for all people living in Catalonia, the ruling elite, as well as part of the civil society, has been working to achieve a victory that most of their fellow citizens do not want to achieve. Perhaps, a better way to serve the Catalan people would be to acknowledge the need to improve the quality of the self-government Catalonia already has. By blaming Spain for all their troubles, the Catalan political elite has attempted to shift responsibilities they have failed to comply with. The European Quality of Government Index has consistently placed the quality of Catalan administration below the EU average. Remarkably the Index includes regions in much poorer countries, as Romania, Bulgaria, or Portugal.
The Catalan society must find a way to promote a more plural and participatory dialogue that sets the basis for further claims on how to improve its relationship with the whole of Spain. Despite the communication campaign in the last few weeks by the Catalan government, Spain is a democracy, even if it is not exempt of flaws, and there are ways to influence its regional self-ruling structure. The Spanish government, backed up by the large majority of political parties in the Spanish Parliament, has already offered to negotiate a constitutional reform, on the condition that Barcelona comes back to the respect for the rule of law. The chances to set up a new framework in which Catalonia could further prosper do exist in the reigns of Spanish politics and the respect for the rule of law.