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What Is Happening In Catalonia?

An impossible referendum is causing a social and political crisis between Spain and Catalonia.

23/09/2017 15:14 BST

Recipe for this Autumn’s cocktail: in a glass, mix powerful emotional concepts like rebellion, democracy, disobedience, independence, and “we want to vote.”
Add a splash of a good Catalan cava. Shake it well, and voila! Serve it in a
cold glass: it’s invigorating and bubbly, the perfect flavor to leave your daily
problems behind, forget about the past, and smile toward the future. Be
careful, because it’s also flammable: if the amounts aren’t exact, or if the
bartender is heavy-handed, it could turn into a Molotov cocktail.

Spain is experiencing highly charged political and social days leading up to
October 1st, the date that Catalans have been summoned by their
government to vote if they want to break off from Spain and create an
independent republic. With this, there are similarities to other secessionist
referendums, like Scotland’s in 2014, or Quebec’s in 1995. Everything else
surrounding this vote is completely abnormal.

NurPhoto via Getty Images
One million people demonstrated in Barcelona supporting the Catalonia's independence referendum

It’s abnormal because the referendum has already been canceled for its
foreseeable illegality by Spain’s highest court, the Constitutional Court.
Because nobody knows if there are ballot boxes, except the Catalan
government, which says it has them hidden somewhere (the police are
looking for the ballot boxes and ballots, another thing nobody knows the
location of, with what money they’ve been paid for, or if they even exist).
Because nobody knows where they will be voting, or who will oversee the
process; civil servants can’t legally do it, so it will be volunteers, the Catalan
government says. Even more Kafkaesque: because nobody knows which list of registered voters the government plans to use. The central government
keeps the current list of voters under lock and key, because it’s their
responsibility.

To all these ingredients, we add the original sin: the Referendum Law that
should give legal cover to this strange performance was created at the
beginning of September in a stormy session of the Catalan parliament, in
which the secessionist majority twisted the legal deadlines and the
parliamentary procedural agreements, leaving the opposition parties without a
voice. It’s important to remember that the votes of this “minority” add up to
more than 50% of the popular vote.

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
In a stormy session on September 6, the Catalan parliament approved the Referendum Law. In the photo, the leader of the Citizens party, Inés Arrimadas, speaks during the debate.

But the key is not in the Referendum Law; it’s in the Transience Law,
approved by the same procedure, which permits the proclamation of a
Catalan republic if the ballot count shows a majority, even if just by one, of
“yes” votes. The participation percentage is irrelevant.

So hypothetically, starting October 2nd, the Catalan government could
proclaim the independence of Catalonia after a process in which less than half
of the population voted, according to a list of voters that has not been
validated, with nobody knowing where the ballots, ballot boxes, and voting
locations are, and without there having been a campaign in favor of saying
“no” to independence (the “yes” campaign has, for three years, occupied an
omnipresent space in Catalan politics and the media, even though
advertisements and signs are now prohibited). There is not a country or supranational union in the world that could recognise the independence of a
territory achieved through such a poor democratic process.

The Catalan secessionists, whose ideological spectrum runs from the extreme
left to the conservative right, are perfectly aware of the imperfection of the
process. They say they’re left with no other option.

And they’re not wrong.

Because the conservative Spanish government states that a self-
determination referendum is impossible under the current Constitution of
Spain. They’re not wrong either. And the laws can be changed, of course, but
to modify the Constitution they would need the People’s Party to take part,
and they’ll never permit it: they would no longer be the highest voted power in
Spain (in Catalonia, they’re fifth). So we’re back to the starting point.

Those who want independence have it as hard as those who want to be able
to vote in order to remain part of Spain. Together they add up to 70% of the
Catalan community, and this statistic is important: the debate over
independence overlaps with the debate over the right to self-determination.
Secessionist forces have existed in Catalonia for a century, until lately as a
minority. In recent years, with the economic crisis and cuts in public spending,
the perception of fiscal and political abuses by other regions of Spain has
crystallized into an anti-Spanish sentiment that is just waiting for any
overreach in authority by the central government to justify itself.

President Rajoy bet on the soufflé theory: “We’ve had secessionist impulses
before. Let’s bear it shielded by the law, and it will soon deflate.” Being
inflexible and unchangeable has turned against him: now the crackling cocktail has turned Molotov. We’ve gone from the referendum being a cultural
construction to a sordid reality in which the secessionist mayors (more than
700, which represents 40% of the Catalan population) are justified in
persecuting them—before anything has actually happened—and the non-
secessionist mayors (essentially those in large urban areas) are dealing with
infuriated citizens harassing them in the street and online. Some judges,
excited about the open bar, are even prohibiting debates and support of the
referendum. It’s insanity in working order, with the central government
shielding itself behind the courts, and the Catalan government behind the
mayors. With every action of justice by the police, there’s more opposition in
the streets. The politicians responsible for organizing the referendum could
even end up in prison; that’s not a joke.

SOPA Images via Getty Images
The President of the government, Mariano Rajoy, King Felipe VI, and the president of the government of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, at the demonstration against jihadist terrorism in August 2017

Europe can’t believe what’s happening. Chancellor Merkel is very worried;
Spain has been the hardworking little girl in her austerity experiment, the proof
that her prescriptions work; this year, a decade after the outbreak of the
financial crisis in the US, the growth of the GDP of Spain could exceed 3%, higher than the European average. New employment is precarious, yes, but it hasn’t stopped growing. And just when Brussels and Berlin were breathing easy, thinking that the indignant Spaniards had been domesticated, they find that in Catalonia all the rage, the institutional disaffection, the surfeit against the establishment is now directed toward Spain. A black swan, an unforeseeable situation.

The Catalan conflict is both old and postmodern, and now the new laws of
populism reign, the game of inflaming emotions instead of delivering
arguments and letting fake news infect the environment. Look, for example, for a single Catalan secessionist who recognises that an independent
Catalonia would be situated outside of the EU: outside the umbrella of the
European Central Bank, of the structural funds, of the euro, of the decision-
making centers. Like it turns out to be inconceivable, they say it’s impossible,
that it won’t happen.

NurPhoto via Getty Images
Demonstrators celebrate the National Day of Catalonia

And the truth is that it’s not going to happen, because on October 1st there
may be ballot boxes, but no referendum, and in no way independence. What
there will be is the photo that some promoters of this farcical drama seem to
look for with all their heart and soul: agents of order trying to block citizens,
dangerously armed with ballots, from voting. They add the possibility that this
whole process could end with political prisoners… The sovereignist cause will
have won new followers, and all the Catalans and Spaniards who trust that
the future together is better than separate, we will have lost.

Manuel Chaves Nogales was a Spanish journalist in the 1920s and 30s who
narrated, as few did, the rise of fascism and communism in Europe, the
Second Spanish Republic, and the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1936, from
Catalonia, he wrote: “Separatism is a strange substance that is utilized in the
political laboratories of Madrid as a catalyst of patriotism, and in those of
Catalonia as a cementer of the conservative classes.” This is the origin of a
conflict that, 80 years later, is exceeding the limits of politics.