The Catalan crisis has caught Europe by surprise. Some in Madrid may also have been unprepared. Yet most Catalans – regardless of their views on independence – were not startled at all. Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia (a region demographically equivalent to Austria or Switzerland, and economically to Portugal or Finland), has steadily been detaching from Spain’s central government and institutions, amid perceptions that these have been systematically siding with Madrid, Spain’s capital city. The irrational Catalan nationalism, has done the rest.
Central government for Madrid, regional government for Barcelona
The weight of the two metropolitan poles lends gravity to the crisis: Madrid accounts for 16% of Spanish GDP, while Barcelona accounts for 14%. Both percentages are miles ahead of any other city in the country. The corollary is clear: the Barcelona/Madrid duality must be governed delicately if Spain is to function.
The past decades have been fairly generous to Barcelona in absolute terms, but certain actions undertaken by the central government in Madrid have been bruising, both objectively and symbolically. The radial design of Spain’s unsustainable railway and highway infrastructure clearly favors Madrid over Barcelona, while Barcelona’s centrally governed airports and ports are a sad singularity in Europe, curtailing the Mediterranean city’s warranted self-governance. Politically, not one central government institution is headquartered in Barcelona, indeed all of their HQs are in Madrid.
From a symbolic point of view, it is astonishing how little the Spanish institutions uphold and celebrate the cultural and linguistic diversity of the country. Meanwhile, Spanish-Castilian language and culture are consistently praised and fêted – and the Catalans feel steadily disenchanted.
The Spanish state is controlled by a technocratic elite firmly based and socialized around Madrid. Insulated from the rest of the country, and in particular from Barcelona, this elite essentially pivots around the central civil service. Take the current government in Madrid, for example: civil servants understandably fill the administration ranks, but in a rather astonishing twist, ten out of the current fourteen ministers are in fact also civil servants, all on leave. Remarkably, this trend is also seen in the corporate world: the boards of Spain’s 35 indexed corporations in the IBEX-35 include, on average, three members who are civil servants on leave (note that for German DAX-30 corporations, this average is less than one).
On the other hand, it cannot be denied that Catalan nationalists’ conscious and stubborn efforts to decouple the Spanish and Catalan identities have also contributed to the current emotional confrontation. The Catalan nationalists have consistently avoided participating as members of the central government, and the dwindling influence of Catalonia in the central government has in turn been used both by Spanish and Catalan nationalists to pursue their separate agendas: central government for Madrid, regional (Catalan) government for Barcelona.
Technocratic nationalism in Madrid & populist backlash in Barcelona
One of the triggers of the current clash is the partial and humiliating annulment of Catalonia’s Statute (self-government charter) in 2010. After having been approved by the Spanish parliament and by the Catalan parliament (twice), and having found support in a confirmatory referendum, Catalonia had adopted this new Statute in 2006. Four years later however, following contestation by Spanish nationalists, the new Catalan charter was torn down by Spain's constitutional court (a court whose legitimacy was highly contested given a number of vacant seats and given that several of its members’ terms had in fact expired). The issues with most of the articles that were struck down – in particular those that justly rebalanced fiscal distribution and territorial investments – could have been addressed quite simply, by amending a law in the Spanish (as opposed to the Catalan) parliament. Yet the government in Madrid has refused to address the constitutional crisis lurking behind its technocratic legal wall. Despite the fact that a vast majority of Catalans supported finding a new fit with Spain, the central government has responded with condescension.
The unresponsiveness of the Spanish conservative government led the rightwing Catalan nationalists to change gears, upping their demands from moderate self-rule to full-blown independence. In doing so, an unthinkable pro-independence coalition emerged. It includes: anti-capitalists, the hard left, and free-marketeers. Moreover, the coalition has taken on a populist strategy, calling for a referendum and promoting the illusion of a smooth and peaceful transition into EU statehood without economic or social pain. The secessionists have shown they possess an effective political apparatus, fueled by their control of the regional government, a fiercely nationalistic public television station and a few radical government-funded civil society organizations.
Recent trends in the EU have also, somewhat paradoxically, incited the Catalan pro-independence movement. During the financial crisis, the EU arguably took an intergovernmental turn, with the Council becoming the hub for crisis management: holding a seat in the Council (a right reserved solely for heads of state and government) thus became paramount. Additionally, certain Spanish positions in the Council, such as Madrid’s lack of support for the “the Mediterranean corridor”, which is of vital importance to connect Barcelona (especially its port and airport) by rail to continental Europe, have strengthened the Catalan push for EU statehood.
Moreover, during the harsh financial crisis and the subsequent bailout, the central government in Madrid kept most fiscal space for itself, drawing on its centralized revenue and fiscal management (which stands in stark contrast to the country’s administrative decentralization). Meanwhile, the fiscal space of the regional governments and municipalities was scaled back heavily.
All of these factors have combined to form a crisis that is coming to a head: an unlawful referendum was held on Sunday, October 1st. Despite holding but a simple majority in the Catalan parliament (which is actually a minority in terms of the popular vote), the pro-independence parties did not shy away from calling a referendum – a power Catalonia’s parliament has, incidentally, never held. In doing so, the pro-independence parties explicitly breached the rule of law and in turn humiliated their fellow Catalans who were not in favor of the illegitimate referendum.
The so-called referendum results are now well known. The central government in Madrid suddenly awoke to the fact that enforcing the rule of law in a territory whose population negates its legitimacy is a daunting task in the 21st century. The moderate use of legitimate violence by the central police can quickly become disproportionate. In terms of turnout and voting, the referendum painted a Catalan Trumpland: the districts where over 50% of the electorate voted for independence were all landlocked, and moreover, they included just one single city with more than 20,000 inhabitants. Admittedly, these numbers come with the caveat that the disorderly developments of the day likely did not make for a fully representative voting picture.
From a strategic point of view, it is despairing to see so much self-harm. Spain is seeing one of its systemic and constitutive components drift away, while the Catalans observe the split within their own society widening by the minute.
The way forward
Complex environments require complex organizing systems. The Iberian Peninsula, with its mountainous geography and its millennial migratory fluxes, is no exception. Plurilingual Spain and diverse Catalonia require complex governance beyond a unitarian monolithic system. It is time to govern the Madrid/Barcelona bipolarity intelligently and to move beyond the foolish premise of "one nation (Spain vs. Catalonia), one language (Castilian-Spanish vs. Catalan), one single sovereign authority (Spanish vs. Catalan parliament).” Complex governance requires an unbiased central governor, a basic agreement which sustains unity while promoting diversity, and adequate structures that allow the different levels and constitutive parts to interact.
Notwithstanding the Lisbon Treaty’s Westphalian article 4, the EU is right to denounce the tyranny of the pro-independence parties’ simple parliamentarian majority; yet it should also keep on signaling to the Spanish government that it should sit down with the Catalans to re-examine Catalonia’s fit in Spain. Catalans have been calling for this reconsideration for fully seven years. The status quo is clearly dysfunctional, and Catalonia must be given an alternative. This is a Spanish issue – but as the first week of October revealed, it could quickly turn into a European one.
Angel Saz-Carranza (Barcelona, 1976) is Director of ESADEgeo Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics in addition to being Associate Professor of the Department of Strategy and General Management. He earned a PhD in Public Management from ESADE as a Visiting Scholar at Wagner School of Public Service (New York University) where he spent three years. Previously he earned a Master's degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Imperial College (University of London). A beneficiary of La Caixa and Fulbright scholarships, he has managed several European Framework Program research grants. His research has been published in the Journal of Public Administration and Theory, Public Administration Review, Administration & Society, International Journal of Public Sector Management, Public Management Review, Global Policy and in numerous Spanish-language publishers and journals. Additionally, he also works and consults with several non-profit and governmental institutions in Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia.