Catalonia, the Spanish view: 'The most painful thing is how preventable it's been'

Catalonia declared independence in suspense on October 1

Catalan separatists hold signs bearing the legend 'we must defend the Catalan republic'

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Alvaro Romeo, Spanish editor on our sister station talkSPORT, has written a moving piece about the anguish he feels at the prospect of Catalan independence.

You can find out more about Alvaro on Twitter @Alvaro_Romeo or check out talkSPORT's Spanish page by clicking here.

"I saw it coming."

Over the last week, this phrase has been the starting-point in my strained attempts to explain the current conflict between the Cataln Govern and the Spanish Government to my English colleagues.

This muddle, this mess has been dominating the Spanish news agenda since the summer of 2010, when the Constitutional Tribunal limited the autonomy of Catalonia by declaring part of what was going to be Catalonia's new statute of autonomy unconstitutional. This statute had been a promise from the old Spanish president, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, to endow the Catalan government with more powers. Or, said another way, to give it more self-government.

The Popular Party, which is in power now but was in opposition back then, submitted a demand which ended up succeeding in depriving the Catalans of this greater independence, an independence they thought they had already secured. It's no exaggeration to suggest this was the trigger, the start of the inexorable escalation of tensions between Spain and the Catalan Govern.

Twelve days after the judgement of the Constitutional Tribunal, a large number of citizens (the figure ranges from less than 500,000 to 1.5 million, depending on who you believe, but it's a notable number in any event) took to the streets of Barcelona against the resolution. It was Saturday July 10, 2010. Just a day later, a goal from Andres Iniesta, a midfielder from FC Barcelona, give the Spanish national team its first World Cup.

Six Catalans took part in that final, the one that Iniesta won. When the final whistle blew, thousands of people celebrated Spain's triumph in the most emblematic parts of Barcelona, including Plaza Catalunya. That night there were no great arguments. But that was 2010. Everything has changed since then, and it's changed dramatically.

You should know, first of all, that Spain is a state formed of 17 autonomous communities and with four official languages (Spanish, Catalan, Galician and Basque), in which every autonomous community possesses certain powers in key areas such as education, culture, transport, healthcare, agriculture, language and the environment. Those are very important departments in a country’s organisation. 

Add to this a concept maybe not too familiar in Europe, but very prominent in Spain: la plurinacionalidad, or multinationalism. In two of the country's most prosperous autonomous communities, Catalonia and the Basque Country, both of which enjoy a per capita income higher than the EU average, elections are almost always won by nationalist-style governments (and by nationalist, I don't mean separatists).

The sending of money from Catalonia to Madrid, for its redistribution in the poorest parts of Spain, has been an argument deployed by the Catalan independence brigade to whip up secessionist fervour. And then there are the allegations of pro-Catalan bias in the teaching of history in some Catalan schools: many Spanish point to the supposed indoctrination of Catalan people, an indoctrination which begins from the cradle, as an engine of secession.

Economy, education. And so on to many other subjects.

It's hugely exasperating to note that this problem has been kicking around for seven years and three months. It's irritating, like a rash, to turn one's memory back and see just how inept the Spanish government has been, how utterly incapable it has been of offering Catalonia a project for the future. It's painful to see how the Catalan separatists have constructed their own pseudo-narrative from truthful media stories, historical grievances and state rivalries to nourish the cause they espouse. And the most painful thing of all is how preventable it has all been.

Before we arrived at the illegal referendum and at a unilateral declaration of independence 'in suspense', the Catalan community could have been offered a more decentralised relationshuip with Spain, greater autonomy in terms of its powers, or, ultimately, a legal referendum, one whose bar for victory was set high. The prerequisite for a 'yes' victory, the benchmark for secession to proceed, could have been set at 90% turnout and a 66% vote in favour of independence. The post-Brexit chaos is still fresh in people's minds; the Spanish government could have reminded Catalan voters of the consequences of voting 'yes' to independence so freely.

For its part, the separatists should have stressed to their mass of voters that the European Union would not, will not recognise Catalonia as an independent state, because unanimity of all member-states is a sine qua non for that to happen.

But this has not happened. There has been much retrenchment, much politicking. And I ask myself: if we don't pay our politicians to negotiate their way out of problems like this, what do we pay them for?

The Catalan word parlem (let's talk) is now a trending topic in Spain, a call for rescue designed to make the top brass from both sides meet after the crazy 'suspended' independence declaration proclaimed yesterday by the President of the Catalan Generalitat, Carles Puigdemont, under pressure from those internal factions which want independence now, the European Union, and the companies based in Catalonia which are now mulling whether to move their base to another Spanish city.

The mere concept of a declaration of independence 'in suspense' highlights the internal divisions at the very heart of the independence coalition. On the other hand, there is unity on the Spanish right, in whose hands rests the option of activating Article 155 of the constitution, the one that authorises the Spanish government to adopt 'necessary measures' to oblige an autonomous community to comply with 'its obligations'. 'Necessary measures' is a vague definition, but one that opens the door to starting forceful action. 

If various generations of Spanish people have been left scarred by what has taken place over the last two weeks, I don't want to think of what would happen if a forceful response is called upon, and 'necessary measures' are taken in Catalonia. 

I hope that it will not come to that. I want to believe that el Govern y el Gobierno, the governments of Catalonia and Madrid, will sit down to talk. We still have time to stop this madness, to tame the worrying outbreaks of nationalism that are presently flourishing in Spain, to give voice to the millions of Catalans who don't support independence and never voted. To get back to politics.

But I am not optimistic.