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Catalonia Secedes from Spain: Unprecedented Political Crisis

By Prabasi Nepali
Last Friday, the parliament of the autonomous north-eastern state of Catalonia voted to declare independence from Spain. A motion to declare Catalonia a “republic” was passed with only 70 votes out of 135 in the regional parliament, where pro-secessionists hold sway. As an immediate reaction, the Spanish Senate, the upper house of parliament voted to trigger Article 155 of the constitution which allows the central government in Madrid to impose direct rule. A week earlier nearly half a million people had demonstrated in the regional capital Barcelona for independence. A few days earlier, an ultimatum given to the regional head of government by the Spanish prime minister to clarify Catalonia’s intentions had expired.
Spain’s central government thus moved immediately to proclaim direct rule over the break-away region, replacing its chief executives and top officials to nullify an independence campaign that has pushed the country into uncharted waters and sent shock waves through Europe. As thousands rallied in Madrid in support of Spanish unity – with loudspeakers blaring the popular song “ Y viva Espana” (Long Live Spain), a government notice officially deposed regional president CarlesPuigdemont and his deputy OriolJunqueras. Madrid also dismissed regional police chief JosepLluisTrapero, seen as a supporter of Catalonia’s separatist leaders und put the central interior ministry in charge of his department in a move likely to further exacerbate tensions in Spain’s worst political/constitutional crisis in decades. Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria was placed in charge of the administration of Catalonia. This was the first time the central government has curtailed autonomy in the region since Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s authoritarian 1939-75 rule (he also restored the Spanish monarchy).
Moving to countermand what he termed an “escalation of disobedience”, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy responded to Friday’s Catalan vote by assuming sweeping powers granted to him by the Senate under the never-before-operated constitutional article 155 designed to deter secession among Spain’s 17 autonomous regions. He discharged the government and parliament and called elections on December 21 to replace them. The question now is whether Puigdemont and his group will willingly step aside for caretaker administrators from Madrid at the seat of the ‘Generalitat’, the name for the regional government.
On Sunday, the initiative shifted to the proponents of national unity/the opponents of secession. In the morning, hundreds of thousands rallied in Catalonia’s capital Barcelona, waving national and European flags chanting “Viva Espana! ” to denounce Catalan lawmakers’ vote to severe the region from Spain. Demonstrators surged, singing and clapping through the streets in a sea of red-and-yellow Spanish flags, flourishing placards displaying “De Todos” [‘It belongs to all of us’, meaning, of course: Catalonia]. By lunchtime, the crowds had swelled to nearly a million at the city centre. A massive banner proclaimed: “We are all Catalonia” and marchers, young and old, chanted “Prison for Puigdemont”, and “Long live Spain, long live Europe, long live the King!” – an impressive manifestation by the previously ‘silent minority’.
The separatists’ actions were perceived as shameful and many thought that the right thing to do now was to beat them at the polls. In any case, the various protests and demonstrations indicated that Catalonia was a deeply divided society. The Spanish constitution does accept that there are diverse national identities, and that is why there are 17 autonomous regions in the Spanish nation-state. But the secessionists want to establish a separate ’nation-state’ against the wishes of a substantial percentage of its own population, and also against the will of Spain itself. A similar attempt by the neighbouring Basques failed. Perhaps the election in December could be construed as a referendum – like the one in Scotland – and a two-third majority for secession deemed binding on all parties. The European Union would have to abandon its policy of ‘non-interference’ and take the initiative to guarantee a peaceful outcome. Otherwise unnecessary violence on both sides cannot be ruled out. After all, Ines Arramadas, leader of the anti-secessionist Ciudadanos party, said at the massive demonstration that most Catalans wished to “recover our future” and that “The majority of Catalans feel Catalan, Spanish and European” – a very healthy standpoint embracing many identities.
Besides this psychological viewpoint, there are indeed many factors that contradict the viability of Catalonia as an independent nation-state. With 32,114 sq.km (6.3 percent) of Spain’s territory, it is indeed larger than many other member states of the United Nations. With a population of 7.5 million (16 percent of Spain’s), it is also larger than many of them. With a whopping US Dollar 250 billion of GDP (20 percent of Spain’s), it puts many other countries economic output in the shade. It hosted 18 million foreign tourists in 2016 (20 percent of Spain’s total) – what most countries (including Nepal) can only dream of. Its exports accounted for US Dollar 76 billion, comprising 25 percent of total Spanish exports. It received US Dollar 43 billion in foreign investment, amounting to 25 percent of that obtained by Spain in total. And its unemployment rate of 13.2 percent was lower than that
of Spain at 17.2 percent. All the economic indicators point to the fact that Catalonia contributes more to the national exchequer than it receives back (‘fiscal deficit’). But do these alone bolster the argument for secession? The protagonists forget that ‘national sovereignty’ has become outdated in a globalized, inter-connected world.
An ‘independent’ Catalonia would have to struggle for its very existence from day one on many myriad fronts. First, there would be massive resistance from a substantial part of its population, and this would not bode well for the future. Second, it would automatically also secede from the European Union with massive negative ramifications, whose outcomes are difficult to predict, but which finally would be the death-knell of the would-be new nation-state. According to experts, the so-called ‘independence’ would result in a catastrophic reduction of the GDP by 25 to 30 percent, and double the unemployment rate – a sure portent for social unrest. Third, the new state/government cannot expect to get quick official recognition from other countries, or at least from those that count in international affairs. This means that its external affairs, especially membership in international organizations will be an uphill task. Fourth, consolidating domestic and external security in the age of international terrorism will be highly daunting. The total costs in soft and hard power will be just unimaginable.

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