Open Letter to the Economist on Catalonia – J’accuse

Those who have interest in neither Catalonia nor the issue of journalistic standards will probably find this posting long, tedious, and not especially interesting. Perhaps you might like to stop at this point. Those of you who are interested in one or other of these, well, I invite you to read on….. 


To The Editors Of The Economist

I am writing this missive addressed to you as I am outraged, nay scandalized, by the level of your reporting on the Catalan question. The source of my discontent are two recent pieces – both signed by one GT – the first of which appeared on the Charlemagne Blog (Getting to “sí”, 19 September 2014), while the second was published under the rubric The Economist Explains (Catalonia’s independence movement,14 October 2014.)

Of the two, I consider the second much more reproachable since it purports to be an informative document, and not a mere opinion piece. My issue with your journalist is not his opinion – to which any journalist is entitled – but that he attempts to pass off opinion as fact.  My view is the that the level of journalism being demonstrated is  not what you should be seeking in a publication with your high level of international prestige.

At the end of the day, of course, whether this is the case or not is an editorial decision on your part. I fully understand why the Economist originally took the decision to publish non-editorial unsigned articles, but in the modern age I think this be a double edged sword as it leads to confusion about what is an Op-ed and what isn’t. Personally I think the practice is now more trouble than it’s worth, but again that’s for you to decide.

In order to try and demonstrate my case I have gone to the rather tedious lengths of re-reading the two offending articles and identifying what I consider to be factual inaccuracies (see below). 

 In a personal mail addressed to me, GT says he admires President Mas, and even describes the new Catalan “consulta” as a brilliant move. It is a pity he couldn’t have brought himself to express such opinions in the articles. My reproach is not related to any one phrase or statement, but to a long history of the same over many years.

My feeling is that in the present context, and with so much for the whole of Europe at stake here in Spain both politically and economically in the coming years, what GT does verges on the irresponsible, especially in an article with the header The Economist Explains. Curiously for an article with such ambitions it is striking that the ANC (Assemblea Nacional Catalana) which is the key civil society organisation promoting the independence drive) doesn’t get even a mention.

In his mail GT tells me he is critical of Mr Rajoy, but frankly in his last two pieces this criticism is hardly noticeable. My “j’accuse” is based not on this factual inaccuracy (or superficial assessment) or that one, but on the fact that quantity eventually becomes quality. Despite claiming to admire Artur Mas the sum total of GT’s “comedy of errors” makes the Catalan President look more like a character from Hotel Faulty, a sort of mediocre, run of the mill politician who was busying himself “ploughing another furrow” when the indy movement snuck up on him and forced him to try to “regain control”. He is seen as a politician who is almost permanently under threat from the “Manuel” (or Sancho Panza) type character (Oriol Junqueras, leader of the openly separatist ERC – “my name is Oriol and I come from Barcelona”) who is constantly threatening to wreak havoc with his best laid plans. Funnily enough there is a popular weekly satire programme on TV here which does something similar, but that programme, evidently, is just that, satire.

Getting to “sí

“On Friday Catalonia’s parliament passed a so-called “law of consultations”, with a view to allowing Mr Mas to call a referendum on November 9.”

This – that what the Catalan Parliament intended to enable under the “law of consultations” was the holding of a referendum – is just plain wrong. The law enables only popular consultations, and this was always its intention. Whether the vote called under the initial decree issued under the law was in fact a referendum is disputed, and vigorously so. The Catalan side argue it was an opinion-sounding vote, with no legal consequences, and have appealed to the Constitutional Court on just these grounds, against the Spanish government submission that it is de facto a referendum. The court has not yet ruled on this issue. When it does it is quite possible that it rule the law as such (possibly with some amendments) falls within the competences assigned to the Catalan Parliament under its charter, but that the question that was to be put is not covered by the law since it may be considered to constitute a referendum. But since the “with a view to”  words constitute an opinion about what was in the heads of the members of the Catalan parliament at the time of voting, all I can say is that there is no evidence to support this view.

Now, there is no harm in putting both sides of the argument, but I do think it is incumbent to put BOTH sides of the case. Also, it would be quite legitimate for GT to take the view it was a referendum by another name, but I do think he should make clear that this is his opinion. If you don’t mention that the Catalans considered their attempted vote a “consulta” not a referendum – one without any evident legal consequences – then it’s hard to make sense of everything that has taken place subsequent to the suspension, and especially it is difficult to explain how the new vote that has been called for the same day with the same questions differs from the suspended one. Apart from the legal framework in which it is to take place, to all appearances it doesn’t.

“If Mr Mas obeys and cancels the referendum, his minority nationalist government, propped up by the separatist Catalan Republican Left (ERC), may fall.”

Again, GT refers to “referendum” as if it was clear that this is what it would have been. As can be seen, President Mas cancelled the order authorizing the vote but his government didn’t fall. It was never going to, and I think only people in Madrid ever believed this to be a  possibility. In order to understand why this was always going to be a highly improbable outcome maybe you do need to be familiar with some very simple “game theory”.

“In the most extreme one, Mr Mas could stage an illegal referendum, with police moving in to remove urns and Madrid suspending the Catalan regional government’s right to rule.”

Well let’s imagine that President Mas was to call an illegal “referendum” (not totally ruled out, but unlikely since he has continually insisted on his desire to work within the existing legal framework, or at least within his legal advisers’ interpretation of it). The scenario GT depicts leaves me with one very basic question: where would these police come from? The number of Guardia Civil and Policia Nacional in Catalonia is very, very small. The vast majority of police in Catalonia are either local (municipal) police or belong to the body known as the Mossos de Esquadra, a Catalan police force under orders to the Generalitat de Catalunya. So this was a silly, unrealistic scenario. If the government in Madrid do move against the Catalan government, in my opinion,  it will be through the courts and through cutting-off finances. Maybe even trying to suspend the Statute of Autonomy under which the Catalan Parliament operates.However legal experts here question whether – despite the threats to do so that have on occasion been made – they in fact have the power to do this under the terms of the Spanish constitution. So it is possible that any hypothetical suspension of the “right to rule” may in practical terms need to involve some sort of suspension of the very constitution Mariano Rajoy declares he is determined to defend. That would be ironical, wouldn’t it?

“Catalonia cannot negotiate to win more such powers from Madrid, for the simple reason that it already has them.”

Well, again this is just an empty silly argument, since it is obvious there will eventually – as in the Scottish case – be third way proposals (maybe even a West Lothian question) as GT admit in his second article. There is no theoretical limit to the amount of devolution that can take place within a federal state. Especially if we start talking here about bi-lateral federalism for Catalonia. Again, he later points out, maybe many Catalans would vote for a new type of arrangement along these lines, and indeed this is why the consultation question is framed in two parts, so people can vote for the option of a (federated) Catalan state within Spain. If GT were to argue that maybe Artur Mas is ambiguous on this point, I would say that view is legitimate. As a democrat I suspect President Mas would go along with what he felt a majority of Catalans wanted. On the other hand I’m not sure I’ve seen any reference to the fact that there are to be two questions, or any analysis of the significance of this fact in any of his published material.

Catalonia’s independence movement

“The regional government of Catalonia ….. was planning to hold a non-binding referendum on independence on November 9th.”

Well again, this is a one side way of putting it (see above) the continual repetition of which brings into question GT’s independence on the matter.

“On October 14th the Catalan prime minister, Artur Mas, announced that some form of “consultation”, involving “ballots and ballot boxes”, would go ahead anyway on November 9th, regardless of the Court’s decision.”

Well exactly, this is simply the earlier consultation without any decree behind it, since President Mas is gambling that without a decree the Madrid government can’t go to the constitutional court to get a decree which doesn’t exist suspended. As GT says in his mail to me, it’s a brilliant stroke. Since the Catalan Parliament never considered the  9N vote a referendum, neither version could be considered to have legal consequences, the only force they can have is political, in demonstrating people’s opinions. At the international level these political effects should not be underestimated, hence, I venture to suggest, Mariano Rajoy’s desire that it not take place.

“The two motors of the new wave of separatism are Spain’s economic woes and a 2010 Constitutional Court decision to strike out part of a renewed charter of self-government that had been approved at referendum.”

This is undoubtedly true, but maybe it would have been helpful to have mentioned WHICH part of the charter was struck down – the declaration that Catalonia is a nation. This is especially relevant since it is at the heart of the current issue, and also in the light of his next comment. The fact that this little word was struck out following an appeal from the Partido Popular to the constitutional court after a “popular participation” protest which involved the collection of a large number of signatures is possibly also relevant. President Mas is simply repeating this performance in reverse.

“Many Catalans, who speak their own language as well as Spanish, believe their taxes pay for poor, lazy southerners to live off government hand-outs.”

As well as the fact that they speak that language maybe he could have said a bit more, especially about how the Catalans now feel their language – which was of course banned during the Franco years –  is once more under threat. Recent developments in Valencia, the Balearic Islands, Aragon (where there are significant Catalan speaking communities) are seen as a clear sign of an intention to limit use of and familiarity with the language. The most recent Spanish educational reform which attempts to influence the quantity of teaching in Catalan in Catalan schools is also highly contentious and important in understanding the current strength of feeling.

In addition, the second part of his sentence is little better than an Andy Capp type caricature. The quantifier “many” often hides a multitude of sins. Many Germans think something of the kind about Spaniards in general, but I doubt it is a majority. The same is true of Catalans. What Catalans want is to be able to decide what to do with their own resources.

They also want to be recognized as a nation and not continually told there is only one nation – the Spanish one – of which (under the terms of the constitution) they are all compelled to form part (whether they like it or not).

“Mr Mas has been caught unprepared by this wave of separatist enthusiasm. He responded first by demanding new tax-raising powers from Madrid.”

Well, this is one of the issues where I feel GT has things totally back to front. Artur Mas, like the ANC – who he somehow manages to avoid mentioning even once in what is supposed to be a background information article – and everyone else, was as he says surprised by the *size* of the 2012 demonstration, and this undoubtedly encouraged him to move forward more quickly with a project he was already working on – the Catalan “national transition” – and recognise the leaders of ANC and Omnium Cultural as legitimate leaders of Catalan civil society.

No man is an island, and President Mas himself had been evolving as part of this growing separatist feeling since 2006. It was around that time he first started talking about moving towards a “national transition”. This transition was already conceptualized as creating the institutions necessary to move towards independence.  A declaration of some kind of statehood was always going to be the end point. So he was himself fanning the flames. He was  not simply a late opportunistic add-on to the developing idea that Catalonia had gone as far as it could within the terms of the 1978 constitution.

On the isssue of the tax proposal GT is just plain wrong: President Mas’s tax proposal was not a hasty response to the arrival of a wave of separatism. It was an idea he had been working on all through his years in opposition. Certainly he seems to have been quite happy when Rajoy (perhaps foolishly) greeted this proposal with an outright  “no”, since this meant he could then move on to the next stage in the project. I think the size of the separatist movement lead him to accelerate his plans, and shorten the time scale of the “national transition”.That is all.

“When they [the tax powers] were refused he called a referendum, knowing it was likely to be banned. It has not been enough to convince voters:”

What is the insinuation behind “knowing it was likely to be banned”? That it was all part of a carefully calculated plan – just another step towards the “elections as a referendum move”? Mas as Machiavelli? Or is GT suggesting that he was simply trying to throw sand in the voters eyes, to stall for time. The general gist of his argument leads towards the latter conclusion, so if he wanted to make the former point may I suggest that there are better ways of doing so. Like saying “this was also brilliant”.

“Spain’s conservative prime minister, Mariano Rajoy of the Popular Party (PP), has refused to call a referendum, which has only stoked support for one”

Mariano Rajoy, to my knowledge, has not been asked to call a referendum at any point, so he has not refused to call one. The Catalan parliament in the spring of this year asked the Madrid one  to authorize them to hold one – as had happened with the earlier referendum which was held over the new charter in 2006  – but this time the Madrid parliament refused. Once a referendum became impossible the Catalan parliament decided to go for a “popular consultation” – the legal aspects of the two – as I keep saying – are rather different. I suggest that the fact that GT didn’t distinguish between referendum and “consulta” in the first instance leads to this kind of confusion. maybe he himself was confused.

“It [the Spanish government] also refuses to countenance the opposition Socialist Party’s “third way” approach, which would involve constitutional reform to give Catalonia still more power and make Spain more federal. Polls show such reforms could bring support for independence below 50%.”

See my point above, this is the reason more autonomy could clearly be offered, as happened in the Scottish case. And is indeed one of the few occasions on which GT criticizes Mariano Rajoy.

“Mr Mas’s pseudo-referendum is still due to go ahead on November 9th, though it will have no legal consequence.”

Well, we’re back to the same old issue. What would have been the legal consequence of the suspended vote? None. What will be the legal consequence of the new vote? None. What’s the real difference? None.

Essentially the two votes are one and the same – same questions, same date, same ballot papers, same ballot boxes –  and serve the same purpose, to find out what those who want to vote think. “No” supporters would not vote in either case, so we are only talking about getting a rough idea of who would vote “yes-yes” in a full referendum.

The use of the expression “pseudo referendum” irks somewhat here, since it sounds remarkably like the Catalan PP leader Alicia Sanchez Camacho’s disparaging “refèrendum de costellada” (Sunday afternoon barbeque referendum). Pseudo (unlike say surrogate, or placebo) is normally used very negatively in English.

“The “no” side has either refused to engage or, where it has spoken up, been drowned out.”

I dispute this. Both parts. Plenty of people have come to Catalonia from Madrid and other areas of Spain to argue in favour of “no”. Both putting the constitutional case for “no” vote (rather than “no” in the vote) and arguing Catalonia is better off inside Spain. What hasn’t existed is a “better together” campaign since there has been no third way offer to campaign for, and an assumption that there will be no vote. I also see no evidence of people being “drowned out”. Plenty went to the Plaça Catalunya on 12 October (maybe 50,000) to show their support for staying in Spain. If  people think that more than a small minority actively oppose independence, then the best way to find out is to have a real referendum and see. Constant insinuation achieves nothing.

GT also misses the key point about the  elections as referendum proposal: this – in President Mas’s opinion – is the only way to get the “no” side to actually campaign and vote – a key point in his international legitimization strategy.


“Mr Mas may now be forced to call early elections.”

President Mas is not going to be FORCED to call early elections, as GT obviously knew since he explained to me he watched a video of the relevant press conference. The Catalan president is actively promoting them and sees these as the best way forward. In fact he is struggling with the other parties to get them to accept this idea and join a common list.

“The likely winner would be the radical ERC, which would lead a regional government encouraging civil disobedience, if the party sticks to its current position.”

So again no, the likely winner wouldn’t be ERC but the “yes-yes” vote. Mas has said he won’t call early elections unless a common platform is agreed to.  His mandate extends to November 2016. He doesn’t even need the support of any other party to pass the 2015 budget since he can simply extend the validity of this year’s in the same way he did this in 2011 with the 2010 ones he inherited when he came to office.

You could, like Oriol Junqueras suggest he has electoral purposes in taking this stance. That is a matter of opinion. Think again about game theory and the prisoner’s dilemma. The outcome of those elections wouldn’t, in his opinion,  be an immediate UDI, but hey, guess what, Artur Mas’s blessed national transition – which it is suggested would last 18 months – during which time an attempt would be made to create the institutional infrastructure necessary for UDI. In fact he has has an advisory body on the national transition at work since the November 2012 elections preparing all the documentation and strategy precisely with this in mind.

Naturally Madrid would probably not stand idly by – see comments above – but that is not what we are talking about here.

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About Edward Hugh

Edward 'the bonobo is a Catalan economist of British extraction. After being born, brought-up and educated in the United Kingdom, Edward subsequently settled in Barcelona where he has now lived for over 15 years. As a consequence Edward considers himself to be "Catalan by adoption". He has also to some extent been "adopted by Catalonia", since throughout the current economic crisis he has been a constant voice on TV, radio and in the press arguing in favor of the need for some kind of internal devaluation if Spain wants to stay inside the Euro. By inclination he is a macro economist, but his obsession with trying to understand the economic impact of demographic changes has often taken him far from home, off and away from the more tranquil and placid pastures of the dismal science, into the bracken and thicket of demography, anthropology, biology, sociology and systems theory. All of which has lead him to ask himself whether Thomas Wolfe was not in fact right when he asserted that the fact of the matter is "you can never go home again".

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