The Spanish interior minister, Juan Ignacio Zoido, described the response of the Guardia Civil and Spanish police in Catalonia on the 1st October 2017, as “proportional and professional”, this was not a view shared by many in Barcelona and the rest of Catalonia, and by those who saw the photographs of police shooting rubber bullets into crowds of people, seizing ballot boxes, smashing their way into polling stations, and doing all they could to stop Catalans voting in their referendum on the question of independence.
Arguably, the Spanish government, led by the Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, has mishandled the whole problem of Catalan autonomy, denying requests for the transfer of additional rights to the Catalan government, along the lines of those already granted to the Basques. The Catalan government, has also been intransigent, and has refused to bow to demands from Madrid, including constitutional court decisions, but the upshot is that on Sunday, 1st October 2017, a real social confrontation could be seen by the world on the streets of Barcelona. In politics, there can be much debate, verbal and written, but arguably, it is only when there is a physical confrontation, action on the streets, that genuine changes of direction take place. The actions of the Spanish riot police, will almost certainly achieve the opposite of the effect intended by Mr Zoido and his colleagues; this appears to be a pivotal moment, one which makes the declaration of Catalan independence far more likely, an event which may happen within hours the end of voting. What is ironic, is that before the most recent events opinion polls showed support for independence waning, but that a majority of Catalans in favour of holding a vote over Catalonia’s future. In contrast, the United Kingdom agreed to a referendum on Scottish independence, and despite strong pressure from the Scottish Nationalist Party, majority of Scots voted to remain within the United Kingdom. Canada has had to deal with similar problems in Québec, which remains part of the Canadian state.
However, Catalan independence, represents a far more serious problem for the Spanish state, than Scottish independence would have represented for the remaining parts of the United Kingdom, for a start Catalonia is the richest and largest province in Spain. According to the Financial Times, in 2016 Catalonia produced about €212bn of output, larger than most countries in the Eurozone, and similar to the economies of Finland and Portugal. Catalonia accounts for approximately 19% of Spain’s gross domestic product; only Madrid has an equivalent level of production. Catalonia received more than $43bn of foreign capital investment, the largest regional amount in Spain, and more than a quarter of the national total. Catalonia also played an important role during the Spanish Civil War, supporting anti-Franco forces, when these were defeated Franco enacted his revenge on Catalonia, banning the use of the language and abolishing Catalan institutions. Spain, also has a greater problem with regional separatism than is often understood by other European countries. If Catalonia succeeds in achieving its independence, it is unlikely that the Basques will be far behind, there is also a separatist movement in Galatia. The resulting diminished Spanish state, would be far poorer, with less influence in the world, and it is the poorer provinces of Spain which were worst affected by the economic crisis, brought about largely by the adoption of the Euro. Spain still maintains high levels of youth unemployment, and its economic growth has never really recovered from this shock; for the last four years Spanish growth has averaged approximately only 0.8%.
If this crisis is not handled properly, at worst we could see a return to civil war within Spain, a disastrous outcome, which the country is not equipped to deal with. Even, if there is a peaceful transition to independence, it is not clear what the ramifications within the European Union will be. A new state of Catalonia, would presumably have to apply for membership of the European Union, it is not clear whether it would be able to use the Euro, until its membership of the Eurozone was also agreed. The European Union, also fears separatism in its other member states, Belgium being an obvious example, but it is not inconceivable that at some time in the future Bavaria could decide to seek its own independence, particularly if the German economy is seen to be failing. Italy, of course has seen the Northern League, which has argued for the split of that country.
Bismarck, noted that politics is the art of the possible, he also said that, “The great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions … but by iron and blood.” It may well be, by the heavy-handed policing, imposed on Catalonia, by the Spanish state, we may have seen the moment when the future of Catalonia has been decided by iron and blood, that instant when people’s views changed, in the light of their experience of repression and violence; the black clad and helmeted figures of the Guardia Civil being the unlikely midwives of Catalan independence. Whatever happens, the future of Catalonia and of Spain will have been changed by the events of 1st October 2017.
Postscript: On the 2nd October, after announcing that approximately 90% of Catalan voters ticked the Yes box for independence Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s President said, “The European commission must encourage international mediation. It cannot look the other way any longer.”
The injured from Sunday’s clashes included at least 893 members of the public and 33 police officers.
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for Human Rights, said “With hundreds of people reported injured, I urge the Spanish authorities to ensure thorough, independent and impartial investigations into all acts of violence. Police responses must at all times be proportionate and necessary.”
© Andrew Palmer 2017, not to be republished without permission