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20 October 2017updated 08 Sep 2021 1:08pm

Catalonia’s silent majority against independence is not being heard

By Antonio Roldán

The coming days will be crucial for Spain’s future. Catalan separatists have brought the country to the most difficult Constitutional crisis since the democratic transition. As a result of the decision by the Catalan government to announce a unilateral declaration of independence the Spanish government is likely to apply article 155 of the Constitution to suspend the Catalan political autonomy.

Catalan separatists have been effective at building their case internationally. However, many of their arguments are based on an over-simplistic, populist, narrative, which echoes that of the Brexit debate. A vote on independence would likely bring further fragmentation, rather than a solution to the Catalan problem and independence would surely lead to dramatic economic consequences. In fact, over the last two weeks, all the largest banks and more than 800 Catalan companies have already moved their registered offices outside of Catalonia.    

I would like to focus on a story that hasn’t been properly told and is not well understood outside Spain. It’s the story of the Catalan silent majority that does not support independence and that after years of public monologue from the pro-independence movement, has decided to finally come out to the streets in Barcelona.

They are silent because until the radical nationalist government decided to bring the country to the brink of collapse, they weren’t brave enough to come out with a single voice against the hegemonic nationalist narrative. They are a majority because according to the results of the last regional election in September 2015 they represented the majority of the votes. Their message is simple: They want to defend their threatened Constitutional rights and to speak for the plural, multi-cultural, multi-lingual, pro-European and open society of Catalonia.

Missing unionism in Catalonia

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For years, being a unionist in Catalonia was not easy. Showing a Spanish Constitutional flag in the street was taboo. Celebrating the Spanish national day was beyond unthinkable. Any party that did not accept a certain degree of Catalan nationalism was automatically accused of being anti-Catalan, if not fascist.

Years of repression of Catalan identity under Franco left deep scars on Catalan society. Afterwards, a nationalist agenda in schools and public media, after almost 40 years of nationalist governments, helped reinforce an anti-Spanish hegemonic narrative.

And yet there is something paradoxical about that hegemonic nationalist narrative: Catalonia, as the engine and industrial power house of Spain (19 per cent of GDP, 16 per cent of the population, today) had received over the years millions of migrants from the rest of Spain, mostly from the poorer regions of the south such as Andalucía, Murcia or Extremadura.

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These people, the “other Catalans”, did not sit on the boards of the strong multinational Catalan firms. They were not presenting TV programmes on television. They could not afford the expensive private international schools that Catalan elites brought their children to. Their Catalan language (if they spoke it at all) did not sound as refined as that of the native elites. They were mostly blue-collar workers, maybe working in a Seat factory, or in their small shops in the mid-sized unglamorous cities of the so-called Barcelona red-belt.  

Moderate nationalism and 30 years of success

In the period between 1978 and 2007, both Catalonia and Spain experienced the longest ever period of peace and prosperity. For more than three decades before the 2007 crisis, pro-independence support was only around 15 per cent on average. Catalonia became one of the wealthiest and most dynamic regions in Europe; Spain entered the EU and managed to catch up with the richest nations on the continent. 

Despite the progress achieved, Catalan nationalists were always dissatisfied. They looked towards the Basque Country, the only region in Spain with special “historical rights”, and a more favourable financing deal, and felt mistreated. However, they used their veto power in the Spanish parliament to get increased powers and autonomy.

Today Spain is a very decentralized, de facto Federal state, and Catalonia is one of the regions in the world with the greatest autonomy. According to the OCDE, the share of general government revenues and expenditure of the autonomous communities in Spain is the largest of the Euro Area (more than other Federal states such as Germany, for instance). Catalonia fully manages health, employment and education policy, and they even have their own police force.

Being one of the richest regions, they have also had a historically negative fiscal balance with the rest of Spain. Depending on the calculations, about €4bn a year on average went to Spain. The economic argument (“the fiscal plundering”) has been central for the building of the nationalist narrative. However, on average, financial transfers to the rest of Spain have not been larger than those of other rich regions, sch as Madrid or Valencia (see this paper, for instance).  

A crisis and the birth of populist nationalism

On the whole, this system worked well until the economic crisis hit Spain in 2007. All of a sudden, without economic growth, the regional game became a zero-sum game: the transfers that some poorer regions received became a net loss for richer regions such as Catalonia. With mass unemployment and public debt increasing, hospitals and schools had to be shut down, and discontent started to arise.

Two more things happened simultaneously. First, when the construction boom turned to bust while corruption rose spectacularly in Spain. Second, a ruling by the Spanish Constitutional Court cancelled some articles of the latest Statute of Autonomy (the law that defines relations between the central government and Catalonia). These things together became the perfect breeding ground for a renewed boost to nationalism.  

The traditionally moderate nationalist party, CiU (now PdCAT), historically a crucial stabilizer in national politics, asked in 2012 for a fiscal deal “à la basque”. The timing was unfortunate, given that the country was in the midst of an unfolding massive banking crisis. Rajoy did not accept the deal and this led to a radicalization of the nationalist narrative. While Spain became a perfect scapegoat for nationalists, it also helped to distract the attention from economic mismanagement and booming corruption which was also taking place in Catalonia.

The narrative of the new Catalan radical nationalism wasn’t very different from that of other populist parties in Europe: Spanish people are lazy; Spain is taking our money away; Spanish politicians are all corrupt; and, of course, we would be much better off on our own.

Very much like in the Brexit debate, the costs and risks of independence were continuously and deliberately understated, and the advantages oversold. Catalan leaders promised that an independent Catalonia would be immediately accepted as a member of the EU, despite evidence to the contrary.

The building of an unbeatable narrative: the right to decide

Nationalists realized that focusing the efforts on the so-called “right to decide” rather than independence was appealing to much larger audiences. The two large pro-independence parties, ERC and CiU, formed a coalition, Junts pel Sí, to run on a plebiscitary regional election in 2015. They won the election and managed to form a coalition.  Even together, however, they fell short on votes with 47  per cent of popular support. Even though nationalists had assured that a majority of votes was a necessary condition to continue with the “process”, an 18-month path towards independence was the next step.

Last September, the Catalan parliament approved two laws, overruling the Constitution and the Statute of Autonomy. On the basis of that legislation, a referendum on independence declared illegal bu the SPanish government (with no democratic guarantees whatsoever) was organized on 1 October 1. As result of terrible management by Rajoy’s government, the vote tragically ended in violence.

A vote to solve all problems

A large majority of Catalans support the so-called “right to decide”. However, many of us believe that a referendum is unlikely to be the solution to the Catalan problem. First, Spain, like Germany, France or the US, has a written Constitution that recognizes the sovereignty of all Spanish people over the territory (thus, regions are not considered a sovereign entity).

The right of self-determination (i.e. the right to decide) is in fact not recognized by any Constitution in the world, besides Ethiopia and Saint Kitts and Nevis.

The UN only recognizes such right for oppressed minorities or authoritarian states. So, if a vote to fragment the sovereignty of the Spanish people was to be allowed, the Constitution had to be changed first, or, alternatively, the rest of Spaniards (after 500 years of common history) should be allowed to vote.

Second, given the existence of different “nationalities” in Spain, such as the Basque Country or Galicia, opening the Pandora’s box of a referendum could end up in a balkanization of Spain. Moreover, the same demand for referendums would likely extend to other countries in Europe, with lethal consequences for the European project.

Third, Catalonia is almost a fifth of Spain’s GDP so a potential separation would certainly reopen a deep economic crisis in Spain with dramatic consequences for the populations on both sides. Brexit would look like childs’ play, compared to the mess of dividing the rights and obligations between Spain and Catalonia.

Fourth, and more importantly, many of us think that a binary vote could not express the variety of political views, preferences and identities existing in Catalonia after so many years of co-existence. Jean Charest, the former prime minister of Québec in his visit to Barcelona in 2015 said: “Referendums are no panacea, they offer an answer but they also divide, create tensions, and leave scars”.

In fact, when Catalans are given more options to choose from than the simple yes/no to independence, a different reality emerges. For instance, when Catalans are asked to choose between “an independent State”, “a State within a federal Spain” or “an Autonomous community within Spain”, pro-independence support falls consistently below 35 per cent.

One single people?

Looking at the data on independence support, there are also sharp geographical, economic and cultural divisions. According to analysis by Kiko Llaneras of El País, there is a strong positive correlation between income and support for independence. While only about a third of Catalans earning below €900 a month want independence, the number goes up to 53% of those earning €4000 or more.

The family origin is a key driver of those divisions: while 75% of Catalans with all their grandparents born in Catalonia support independence, only 29% of those born in Catalonia but with grandparents from another autonomous community support it.

The same story is reflected geographically. Pro-independence support is clearly majoritarian in rural areas, while in places such as the capital, Barcelona, it is not – in the last election support for pro-independence parties was 44.3%.

Going forward

While Catalan nationalism has tried to picture Catalonia as “one single people”, the reality is very different. Catalonia is a diverse, dynamic, multi-cultural society with a wide variety of identities and complex political preferences.

The rise of Catalan radical nationalism has contributed to deepening social divisions on the basis of Catalan identity. Unionists have lived for years in what the German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann calls a spiral of silence: when a group of people, for fear of isolation, remains silent instead of voicing its opinion.

A vote on independence would bring further fragmentation rather than a solution to the Catalan problem. In fact, subjecting the less-politically mobilized silent majority to the dramatic economic costs of independence would be deeply unfair. A solution can only come from Constitutional reform and a new economic deal between Catalonia and Spain. Any reform, however, will necessarily have to take into account the voice of all Catalans, including that of the Catalan silent majority.  

Antonio Roldán, MP for Barcelona in the Spanish Parliament, Ciudadanos Party.