When Barack Obama told a CNBC interviewer last autumn that Wall Street ought to be “genuinely worried about what is going on in Washington” in reference to the US government shutdown he raised more than a few eyebrows. Normally political leaders try to calm and reassure markets, so this attempt to stir them up on the part of the US President was, in its way, something of a first.
Last May the Financial Times issued a similar warning in an editorial with a clear message: right now you should be more worried than you are about what is happening in Madrid. According to the newspaper, “secessionist demands have created a rolling crisis involving Catalonia and the national government in Madrid,” a crisis which it warns could end in a “head on collision” if the issues being raised are not addressed.
The issues have not been addressed, and there is now a provisional date for that woeful collision to occur: the 9 November this year, the date chosen by the Catalan parliament for the holding a popular (non binding, not a referendum) consultation under a new law which will receive parliamentary approval on 19 September. The original intention of the Catalan parliament was to hold a referendum on the region’s future authorized by Madrid. With that intent parliamentary representatives took a proposal last spring to the Spanish parliament. The reply was a polite but near unanimous “no” since Spain’s parliamentarians took the view any such vote could be considered “unconstitutional”.
As Mariano Rajoy pointed out, given the way the Spanish Constitution is currently worded neither he, nor even the Spanish parliament, have the power to authorize such a vote. The Spanish prime minister’s view was also endorsed recently by the country’s constitutional court, who ruled that the proposed referendum would be unconstitutional under the terms of the constitution as it stands. The court however added an important rider to the judgment, a rider to do with the political problem of legitimacy. If in a discrete part of the national territory, the court suggested, a significant majority of the population are not satisfied with the current arrangements, and these arrangements are not changed, then a constitutional crisis ensues.
Thus the issue moves from being a purely juridical one to a political one, and any eventual solution – even if this means accepting Catalan independence – needs in essence to be political. Effectively the court threw the ball back into the politicians’ court: if the constitution doesn’t permit a vote it can be changed, if there is the political will to do so. Amending the constitution didn’t seem to be such an insurmountable obstacle at the height of the sovereign debt crisis, when agreement was reach between the various parties in a matter of days to place constitutional limits on the level of government debt, a fact which does not escape the attention of those Catalans who feel themselves in urgent need of the right to a vote.
This is also what the FT had in mind when the editorial argued “it is disingenuous” for Mariano Rajoy “to hide behind the Spanish constitution”. Sooner or later democracy will out. This is why the newspaper argues the Spanish government needs to urgently formulate some sort of counter proposal, along the lines of the so called “third way”: an approach going beyond the current arrangements but falling short of full independence. The core of such a proposal, the paper argues, would be an improved fiscal arrangement, and more autonomy.
In the opinion of the present author these proposals look fine on paper, but arriving at any sort of agreement on them seems highly unlikely. In the first place, Spain’s ongoing economic issues make the financing of any new fiscal agreement extremely problematic. The economy may be showing signs of recovery, but it is a weak and fragile one, and the aftermath of the country’s property bust will cast a shadow of at least a decade over the country’s economic future. In addition there is no easy “win-win” solution available, since letting the Catalans keep more of their own money will undoubtedly mean someone else will receive less. Who will that someone else be? A glance at the political arithmetic shows that the major Spanish party closest to considering the third way is the socialist PSOE. But PSOE relies on votes from the country’s most populous region – Andalusia – and this would surely be one of the areas most negatively affected any substantial fiscal change.
More autonomy sounds nice, but what exactly would it look like? Would it allow the region, for example, to opt out of laws which are highly unpopular in Catalonia like the recent abortion one or the proposal to make bullfighting form part of the national heritage? And what about the identitarian issues which are really what lie at the heart of the current tension? From the Spanish point of view, the most contentious of the Catalan demands is their claim to have their identity as a nation included in any rewritten constitution. Any addressing of this long standing grievance would seem to open the door to solving another, that of having national sports teams to compete in international competitions. Are Spaniards – not simply Madrid politicians – ready for this?
Then there is the language. Far from the impression being given that Spaniards are getting more and more comfortable with linguistic coexistence the situation seems to be quite the opposite, with moves to restrict the use of the language in schools having taken place in the regions of Valencia, the Balearic Islands, and Aragon, in each of which there are significant Catalan speaking communities. Even in Catalonia proper the central government is currently trying to implement an education reform which restricts the autonomy of the Catalan education minister to decide matters of language policy. It is hard to see in any of this a reflection of a will to improve relations.
It seems to me that such feelings of national identity affect both Spaniards and Catalans. They are strong and deep seated, on both sides, and far more important than the economic ones. The difficulty is they cannot be changed either in committee or overnight. I repeat, is there any real sign of a desire among the Spanish population to make the sort of attitude changes which a successful implementation of a third way would imply? President Mas visited Prime Minister Rajoy in the Moncloa in July to discuss the situation. He presented a list of 23 issues about which they could talk. To date the Spanish Prime Minister has not replied. He seems content simply to chant the mantra “there will be no vote”. But as the Constitutional Court pointed out you cannot generate political legitimacy by only explaining what won’t happen.
Naturally this “no” to the possibility of voting has come to the forefront in recent days with the publication of an opinion poll showing that the “yes” vote might win in Scotland.
As for the Catalans, we have yet to discover what it is they really want. This is what the demand for a vote is all about, so that the wishes of Catalans can be registered in a fashion which goes beyond the innumerable opinion polls. Determining what people actually want is a basic prerequisite so that the democratic process can then go to work. In the meantime they will simply look on in envy on the 18 September as Scots exercise their basic right.
What then happens next? The Catalan parliament will on 19 September pass into law a formula which will allow opinion seeking, non-binding consultations to be held under Catalan rather than Spanish law. It is not clear at this point whether the Madrid government will challenge this law. Possibly they won’t, since it is probably not unconstitutional. Then the Catalan parliament will pass as second decree law convening a consultation with an already announced question for the 9 November. Madrid have already made clear that they will not permit this question to be asked and will take the matter to the Constitutional Court.
Which brings us to 9 November itself: if it is not possible to have a vote then Catalonia’s President Mas has suggested he might call plebiscitary elections. The purpose of these elections would not be – as some suggest – to authorize the parliament to declare UDI, but to establish the size of the majority in favor of a vote. The newly constituted parliament will then have the responsibility for deciding what to do next.It would be a mistake to think that these elections – if held – would be the end of the matter. They will take the collision onto a new level and generate a very high degree of uncertainty about where things are going from that point on.
So although the world will not change on November 10, and even if there are elections instead of a vote on independence the outcome could well produce a definitive sea change about how Catalans view their relations with Spain. They may well mark a “point of no return”. So to go back to where we started. Right now global markets and most of the international press are being pretty sanguine about the situation, when – as President Obama suggested in the case of the US government crisis – perhaps they shouldn’t be. Perhaps they should be worried about the complacency in Madrid, and remember that one of the principal ways of letting something unexpected happen is to assume it won’t.