Alfred Bosch is the leader of the ERC ( the Republican Left of Catalonia) in the Spanish Parliament
As a Catalan pro-independence advocate, I would like to do things the British (or Scottish) way. Experience and current events prove, however, that Spain is not easily politically comparable to the United Kingdom. There are three outstanding obstacles in the way of free determination for Catalonia; they derive from age-long stigmas of Spanish power, and need to be confronted.
The first barrier could be defined as “Democratic shortage”. Spain is a very young democracy, with less than 40 years of ballot tradition but burdened with a previous historical legacy of bullet tradition. The army is still considered a guarantee of territorial unity; the monarchy heads the military structure; the king is legally unaccountable and unchallengeable, minorities have few safeguards and the bipartisan pattern of Spanish politics often leaves Catalans lost in the political wild.
Democratic malfunctioning leads to huge frustration, as was the case of the 2006 Home Rule Charter (Estatut) of Catalonia. This text was approved in (the Catalan autonomous) parliament and endorsed in the polls, only to be cut down by the Spanish legislative and eventually torn to pieces by the highly politicised Spanish Supreme Court. Mistrust regarding Spanish power and Spanish institutions, seen as grossly biased, are now a strong driving force behind freedom movements.
One of the main functions of Catalan politicians in Madrid is the patient, stubborn denunciation of abusive state practices. From a reformist point of view, such a job is clearly exasperating and futile; but for champions of independence it can be a blessing in disguise. The realization that Spanish rule is anti-democratic heightens the need to break with a rigid system. It dissipates hopes of changing Spanish power to a kinder, milder reality and therefore pushes minds and hearts towards rupture. It is not rare to meet people who have only embraced Catalan independence out of despair with Spanish political ruthlessness.
The second obstacle could be defined as “Legal blockade”. The argument that something is not legal, or even illegal, is endlessly exploited by Spanish advocates of the status quo. It has been sustained against any measure of devolution to Catalans, be it economic, political or cultural. It is in fact the main stumbling block upheld against self-determination or independence. It is not much of an argument, since nothing is legal until it is enacted, and Catalan independence has obviously not been enacted – for if it had been done, nobody would demand it. Looking back at history, processes of independence that occurred in the world have very rarely been fully in accordance with established legal procedures, and have required a certain degree of creativity.
But the constitution and other major Spanish laws have been presented as a conservative cage designed to prevent change, rather than a house of liberties. Proposals for self-determination have always met a vicious circle: the law is the law, and it must be abided. New developments are not possible because they are not legal, and if they are not legal, they cannot be developed. This has been repeated hundreds of time in the Spanish Parliament, ignoring the obvious fact; that MPs are not Robocops, but legislators elected to set new rules and adapt them to evolving times and troubles. The function of legislators is precisely to make useful laws, and trying to respond to peoples’ demands.
The same day that the UK government delegated in the Scottish autonomous government the power of holding a referendum for independence, in 2012, our party (ERC) proposed exactly the same method for holding an identical poll. The proposal was defeated on the ground that it was not legal, when there is a specific article in the Spanish Constitution that allows for such a delegation – which has been used in the past for devolving, for instance, police capacity to the Catalan administration. Other similar and imaginative resources have been suggested (up to 14 in two years), and the reply has always been the same; non-legal devices cannot be accepted. The vicious circle is shut and there is no predictable majority for opening it.
The situation can only be by-passed engaging in two alternative paths; international law and (new) Catalan legislation. Global treaties and charters accept self-determination and the rule of democratic mandates, two principles which all Catalan pro-independence parties embrace at heart, and which, by the way, are fully recognized as part of the Spanish legal framework and as binding under Spain’s Constitution. There is, therefore, an option which would enable the breaking of the aforementioned vicious circle; namely drafting specific Catalan norms for holding a poll on independence and appealing, in parallel, to international mediation.
The third hurdle is economic stranglehold. For decades, and some would rather say for centuries, the Spanish government has lived partly out of Catalan wealth. Being the powerhouse of Spain, and with a highly productive economy, Catalonia has paid a disproportionate share of Spanish bills. In the last 30 years, about 50 per cent of Catalan taxes have not been returned as services or social benefits; more than double the amount delivered by the EU to Spain during the same period. With 16 per cent of the population, Catalans account for an average 22 per cent of revenues. This has been tolerated with compliance in times of fortune, but in years of crisis the burden has proved unbearable and has caused a great deal of anger. The general feeling is that Catalans are being plundered by Madrid, and that this constant pillage chokes the economy.
Many different solutions have been offered. The most obvious is copying for Catalonia the fiscal arrangement which is in place for the Basque country and Navarre, known as economic concert, and which implies fiscal sovereignty – i.e, collecting taxes and then negotiating the share that Madrid takes. This, however, has not been accepted by the Spanish government and most surely never will, as it would stop a major flow of taxes into Spanish depleted coffers. Other attempted deals have turned sour in the short run, clashing against a stubborn reality; Madrid will not devolve tax control to the Catalan administration.
Experts believe this is the main obstacle for Catalan independence or just for higher levels of home rule. Spain simply cannot drop its main sources of cash, and will fight tooth and claw to preserve them. Even if we ignore the undemocratic nature of such reasoning, we have to admit likewise that this stranglehold also provides a vigorous driving force behind the urge for independence, as it turns a matter of Catalan national spirit into a matter of life and death. It is true that Spanish power will make a fierce stand against the loss of Catalan funding; but we must concede as well that prospects turn gloomier by the day, and that bare survival increasingly requires an economic liberation.
Catalan pro-independence feeling was not among the most relevant national issues in late 20th century Europe. Commencing the second decade of the 21st, it was clearly the most outstanding on the continent. The Spanish ruling style probably explains a lot about the progress of the mood for independence, and the conversion of a relatively harmless linguistic and cultural claim into a mighty democratic, moral and economic mass movement.