Catalonia Isn't Ready for This Fight

Declaring independence is just symbolism now. But a heavy Spanish hand could change the game.

"They like to feel good about themselves."

Photographer: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Catalonia's declaration of independence from Spain, passed by the Catalan parliament on Friday, is a largely symbolic gesture as far as true independence goes. It will, however, require all of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's experience and skill to defuse this situation. 

Catalan Parliament Votes to Set Up Independent State

These last couple of days, I've been in Barcelona trying to make sense of the complex game that's been playing out here and the motives underlying it. For most of the day on Thursday, Catalan First Minister Carles Puigdemont appeared likely to backtrack on independence and call a regional election within the Spanish constitution instead. When reports of this came in, Antonio Banos, a leader of the most pro-independence party represented in parliament, the far-left CUP, changed the picture on his Twitter profile to an upside-down photo of Puigdemont, accusing the first minister of treachery. Pro-independence students started to gather by the government building to protest. Puigdemont's speech was pushed back and finally canceled. Banos turned the photo on its side. Finally, the first minister made an announcement: He was not calling an election after all. Instead, called on parliament to decide whether or not to declare independence. Banos turned Puigdemont's picture the right way up.

Puigdemont's dithering was actually an attempt to avert Rajoy's next move -- Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which allows Madrid to impose direct rule on a region. Rajoy's government refused to back off: It let Puigdemont know an early election wouldn't change its plans to remove his government. Puigdemont ended the day with nothing to lose. As he left the decision to parliament, in which his electoral bloc and CUP together hold a majority, he knew it would pass the independence declaration; he chose to go down fighting.

Spain will make its promised moves in the next few days: the Spanish Senate voted Friday to use Article 155 for the first time. Immediately after the Catalan parliament's decision, Rajoy promised to "restore legality" in Catalonia. While thousands of people, gathered on the edges of the park in Barcelona where the parliament building is located, wrapped themselves in Catalan flags and celebrated the historic vote result on Friday, there is no will in this sunny, carefree city to fight for independence. Even the independent supporters I spoke to rule out a violent scenario.

"I will not die for a flag, for a country," Jordi Sellas, who was in charge of cultural projects in the previous Catalan government and now works as strategy director for TV production company Minoria Absoluta. Though Sellas is a strong independence supporter who'd attended all the secessionist rallies and who marked the vote with a jubilant tweet, he told me Catalans were a trading nation, not a fighting one, and its independence drive would always be peaceful. "People will never fight," he said. "It's not worth a single death."

That's not the kind of attitude I've seen in other secessionist regions or in countries determined to take their fate into their own hands. Barcelona in 2017 is not Kiev in 2014, where people were willing to die -- and did -- for Ukraine's European choice. That's why Alfons Lopez Tena, a lawyer who used to lead a secessionist political party and was a deputy of the Catalan parliament between 2010 and 2012, dismisses the Puigdemont government's moves as "slapstick."

"Catalans do not want independence, they wish independence," he told me. "They like to feel good about themselves, and being victims for a good cause gives them this feeling."

That's one reason why the independence declaration is not a final break with Spain. Another is that even the secessionists understand their new nation lacks a critical element of sovereignty: international recognition. Nobody in Barcelona except a handful of far-left hotheads wants to live in an unrecognized state.

Since the pragmatic Catalans want their nation to be part of the European Union, and EU officials and member states have firmly aligned with Spain, international support is unlikely. The Puigdemont government's goal has been to force the EU's hand so it would interject itself between the sides. Sellas says that's not going to happen. "Nobody in the EU has ever discussed what could be done about a new non-EU state with 7.5 million EU citizens."

The EU, however, doesn't want a problem with one of its biggest member states. Friday's independence vote has only slightly more legitimacy than the Oct. 1 referendum Puigdemont held despite an interdiction from the Spanish constitutional court. Secession was approved by only 70 of the 135 legislators, with the pro-Spanish parties walking out of the chamber after arguing passionately against the move; even that was only possible because the electoral system in Catalonia is skewed toward the less densely populated communities where Catalan nationalism is strong. There's no legal reason and no incentive for the EU to soften its pro-Madrid stance.

The Spanish prime minister, however, must not repeat the mistake of Oct.  1: Spanish police used disproportionate violence against the referendum voters, sparking anger in Catalonia and sympathy for the secessionists elsewhere. More of this might play into the separatists' hands. As he moves to take over the Catalan government, Rajoy needs to act with lenience. Though Catalans aren't likely to put up a fight even if arrests are made among secessionist leaders -- they protested peacefully, as usual, when some referendum organizers were arrested -- if Rajoy intends to keep his government's threats to bring sedition charges against the separatists, he will have to do it in a way that rules out clashes with protesters. The secessionists are extremely well-organized, and as their final weapon, they can resort to crippling strikes in a region that accounts for about a fifth of Spain's economic output and a quarter of its exports.

This time around, Madrid will also need to invest more resources into the next regional election, making a bigger effort to explain the economic disadvantages of secession, a powerful argument for well-to-do, hard-working Catalans, but one that hasn't been made to them convincingly enough. 

Ideally, the Spanish government should also consider federalization to defuse the tension. But nobody in Barcelona expects Rajoy to take that path because it's something his core electorate passionately opposes. Attempts at longer-term resolution will fall to future governments not run by Rajoy's People's Party. All this Spanish prime minister can be expected to do is go easy on hopeful Barcelona lest it turns into a city more like Kiev in 2014, only with palm trees. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Leonid Bershidsky at

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