The Catalan Crisis for Dummies

The Catalan government has systematically silenced more than half of Catalan society—the non-independentistas—and has imposed a unilateral path toward secession.

The Catalan Crisis for Dummies (as Seen From Madrid)

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

“An idealist is one who, on noticing that roses smell better than cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup.

—H. L. Mencken

MADRID—Your typical Spaniards are affable people, Mediterranean and Atlantic, passionate, and with a great sense of humor although, in the light of history one sees that from time to time they get a little overheated and blow up at their neighbors. In 1978 we reinvented democracy to avoid that sort of thing.

The political convulsions of the 1930s had led swiftly to division and confrontation between citizens, and then into a bloodthirsty civil war, which none of the sides can now be proud of. But nothing of the rebuilt Spain can be understood without taking that past into account: Families were divided, friends were betrayed, and barbarism spread throughout the nation.

After the war came the Franco dictatorship that ended up weakening right along with the failing health of the caudillo, who finally appointed as his successor Prince Juan Carlos. Unlike Fidel Castro, and perhaps because there was no Twitter, Franco only died once, and by all indications, forever.

With Franco gone and Juan Carlos I proclaimed king of Spain, the monarch pursued a reformist policy that had already begun in the last Francoist governments. The dictatorship disarmed from within. And in this climate emerged a fundamental transitional figure in the history of Spain: President Adolfo Suárez. A centrist with audacity and skill, he knew how to dismantle the old regime and bring democracy to Spain on the part of all parties: the rightists, the leftists, and Catalan and Basque nationalists. Thus was born the Spanish Constitution of 1978 (PDF).

National Reconciliation

The Constitution, approved in a referendum by an immense majority, promised peace, freedom, justice. Catalonia voted overwhelmingly in favor and voter participation in that autonomous community was higher even than the Spanish average.

The Fathers of the Constitution were seven: three centrists, one Socialist, one Communist, one Conservative, and one Nationalist; two were Catalans. No one side or faction was a winner, but all were, creating for the first time an integrated legal framework, a minimum agreement, that has allowed Spain the 40 most prosperous years of its history.

At last the grandchildren of combatants on one side of the war could drink, dance, and kiss happily in the clubs with the granddaughters of those who had fought on the other side. The Constitution, in a sense, was something typically Spanish: a very long fiesta.

Leaving the whiskey aside, the essence of the Constitution was: freedom, justice, equality, and political pluralism; national sovereignty residing in the people, a parliamentary monarchy—validated by the figure of King Juan Carlos I—and territorial organization based on autonomous communities sharing the principle of solidarity. In the words of one of the fathers of this magna carta: “The Constitution only closes one door: the one of the revolution.”

Catalonia is one of the 17 autonomous communities that make up the Spanish nation. Since 1978, Catalan nationalism—like Basque, Galician, or Valencian nationalism—has claimed its legitimate interests in the parliament of all Spaniards, and within the law. The state has made constant transfers of powers, especially to Catalonia. Spain is today the most decentralized nation in Europe.

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If All of Spain Is a Fiesta, What’s Going on in Catalonia?

In the last decade, corruption scandals and the loss of electoral power in Catalonia took the nationalists—who were until recently conservative—into some bizarre political alliances to stay in power. In the last elections, the coalition of five independentista parties obtained a small majority in the Catalan Parliament that allowed them to remain in power thanks to the support of the CUP, the Popular United Candidacy, which is not popular nor unifying and has the least parliamentary representation. The CUP is defined as an extreme left, independentista, republican, anti-European, anti-Spanish, feminist, anti-patriarchal, and anti-system party.

The government of Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has systematically silenced more than half of Catalan society—the non-independentistas—and has imposed a unilateral path toward secession. They cry “dialogue” before the international community but forget a small detail: They have put a pistol to the temple of the Spanish Constitution and then have exclaimed “let’s talk!”

Beware the dangerous rebirth of the nationalist ghosts that caused so many deaths and hatred in the last century.

They fine merchants who advertise their businesses in Spanish, they humiliate students whose parents do not support publicly the cause of independence, they paint targets on the houses of the opposition party, they teach in the schools an invented history about the nonexistent “Catalan countries,” and teach the schoolchildren to hate Spain.

The most dangerous of nationalisms was born legitimately within the constitution, taking advantage of its ambiguities and the good faith of the Generation of ’78, and now seeks to destroy it for its final solution: independence.

‘Perhaps we can remain friends...’

On Sept. 6 and 7, the Puigdemont government crossed the red lines, passing in the Catalan Parliament its laws concerning the referendum on self-determination and legal transition: autonomous laws that contravene the Constitution and the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, and impose a parallel legality. They did so by employing their parliamentary majority but bypassing all the procedures to which the deputies are entitled before any legislative initiative is taken, and disregarding the criteria of lawyers.

Everything that has happened in Catalonia since that day is outside the law, as the courts have pointed out repeatedly. Puigdemont invented a new type of coup d’etat: the coup of “the revolution of the smiles.”

The independence referendum on Oct. 1 had been banned as illegal. The judges ordered that it be prevented, but Puigdemont had already endorsed a CUP motto: “Disobedience!” which sounds nice but raises some issues of public order.

Beyond nationalist romanticism, Catalonia is today a limbo of legal uncertainty. That explains the massive hemorrhage of companies and citizens of the last days.

Why hasn’t the Spanish government done more to stop it?

When the president of an autonomous community goes crazy, the main mechanism in the Constitution designed to deal with that is article 155: the total or partial suspension of autonomy to restore law and democratic normality.

As an exceptional measure, Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has given repeated extensions to allow Puigdemont to turn back and return to the dialogue, but within the law. Once these deadlines have expired, there is nothing left for the government to do but comply with the constitutional mandate that obliges it to return to the Catalans their legal security and freedom. In a word: restore democracy.

Independentistas have never been deprived of their freedom of opinion and parliamentary participation; they are only required to do so within the rules of the game.

It is worth mentioning something about Rajoy. Centrist, moderate, open to dialogue, and exasperatingly prudent in his determinations, until today there are only three loyalties which he is not willing to yield: to the Constitution, to the law, and to the crown. Many criticize him for not having cut off the totalitarian movement in Catalonia, letting the independentista wave grow. He has preferred appeasement. All his decisions on the Catalan crisis have sought the greatest consensus with the centrists of Ciudadanos and the socialists of the PSOE—and the international support of all the European Union.

A threat to Europe

The rupture of Spain would mean the rupture of the European Union. We must beware the dangerous rebirth of the nationalist ghosts that caused so many deaths and hatred in the last century. And locally, it would mean the ruin and isolation of the region of Catalonia, with at least half of its citizens, who feel both Spanish and Catalan, handed over as hostages to the supremacist delirium of a man like Puigdemont, for whom the law seems to be an inconvenience without importance. Two million Catalans cannot and must not decide the future of 7 million Catalans.

On the other hand, in Spain the separation of powers and the rule of law are still in effect. That is the only reason why the two leaders of the independentista mobilizations that tried to obstruct the actions of police deployed to stop the illegal referendum have entered prison as a precautionary measure decreed by the judge.

Something about all this reminds me of the old quotation from P.J. O’Rourke: “There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please.”

The images of police confiscating ballot boxes from the illegal referendum and using force in Catalonia gave to social media exactly what Puigdemont wanted, the image of a supposed oppressive state. But it is a mirage: The Catalan government said that there were more than 800 injured and many international media went with that. Of course, we have all seen the videos—and there were some civilians injured, as well as many policemen.

But a few hours later you could count on the fingers of one hand those who were hospitalized. The Guardian’s columnist Peter Preston wrote on Wednesday that no service was done to journalism by picking up uncorroborated information from the Catalan government, or, worse, postings on social media. But there is no question that the network of digital propaganda woven by the Generalitat worked, and worked very well.

Some independentistas say they are fighting for a so-called right to decide to avoid talking about a “right to self-determination,” which is secession, which is their true purpose. And they do it because they know that the right to self-determination of peoples recognized by the United Nations is for colonies and peoples oppressed by third parties where human rights are violated. No one who is not under the effects of marijuana could apply that to the case of Catalonia.

In summary, and in the face of the international community, few have drawn a better analogy than Foreign Policy: “Catalonia Leaving Spain Would Be Like Illinois Leaving the United States.” It sounds like a joke, but it’s one that stops being funny as soon as you realize what’s at stake is in fact your freedom in a nation of laws, not of ambitious little men like Carles Puigdemont.