Observations, lessons, and predictions for the Catalan situation

[cross-posted, slightly updated, from Pearls and Limitations]

Observations:

  1. About 40% of the population of Catalonia and its capital Barcelona was not born there, but largely comes from the rest of Spain.
  2. Internal migration is high, with about 0.4% of the population moving from one region in Spain to the other every year. This means that over the centuries, the Catalonian population is ethnically mixed with many other groups in Spain and outside, with no more than a fraction attributable to the population of centuries ago. All stories of ‘we Catalans’ had this or that done to us over centuries ‘by others’ are myths that impose a constant group on a fluid population (which is true for most national myths).
  3. The best polls available mid 2017 said only 41% of adults living in Catalonia supported independence. This is a bit higher than the proportion that reportedly has voted in the quasi-referendum of this week so it’s a fair bet that even now, a majority living in Catalonia is not pro-independence.
  4. The Catalan language, suppressed under the Franco regime that ended in 1975, first became an option in Catalan schools in 1983, and is now for several years an ‘immersion language’ wherein all children are forced to become fluent in Catalan, with Spanish in second place (a non-tuition language).
  5. Catalan history education was reformed shortly after Catalan nationalists became important in regional government (1980), with a shift away from the hundreds of years wherein Catalonia was a ‘normal’ part of Spain, towards those periods in which something resembling the current region (usually incorporating bits of France) were more autonomous. The celebration of the ‘conquest by Spain’ in 1714 is a case in point of a now strongly-remembered event. The bitter 1936-1939 civil war in which Barcelona fought alongside Madrid against Franco has been less favoured in the new history dispensation. In the new history telling, the repression by Franco is equated with Madrid.
  6. The vast majority of trade from Catalonia goes to the rest of Spain; the Catalonian economy is likely to collapse if it were suddenly no longer in the EU.
  7. Corruption is high in Spain and Catalonia, leading to politicians eager to whip up other stories. The Catalan leaders have thus knowingly violated both the Spanish constitution and several Catalan laws to get their referendum on track, without even a majority in their own parliament. A high-stakes but also imaginative strategy.
  8. Nationalism in the rest of Spain is fairly strong and sympathy with Catalan leaders is very limited. The EU has openly committed to staying out of it and supportive of national unity, so the Catalan issue will be an internal affair.

Lessons and predictions (over the fold):

  1. Ethnic nationalism can be engineered via a simple procedure: teach a language and a history at school in the version of ‘us’ being the victim of ‘them’ and after a generation you will have succeeded in breeding a new generation that believes you.
  2. Mixing population is a counter-measure to regional governments that promote ethnic nationalism: in Catalonia it is a race between the power of the regional government to indoctrinate at school versus the power of the economic and social system in the whole of Spain to mix the population around fast enough to prevent a majority of nationalists emerging in Catalonia.
  3. The Catalan government has been on collision course with the rest of Spain for a while now and a collision is now nigh inevitable: both sides are committed so it is likely that we will see a take-over of the Catalan institutions by the centre. Elections might come before or after this, and a key question for the centre is whether they would try for a cooling-off period before having regional elections in Catalonia.
  4. Changes in personnel might come quickly now, on both sides. Rajoy hasn’t played the media angle smartly so far, so someone more switched-on might well take over quite soon, perchance after a snap general election. On the Catalan side, it seems quite possible that elections will have to be held, either because the Catalan leaders will be arrested or when the parliamentary coalition in Catalonia breaks down.
  5. I don’t see a quick resolution to this issue. The Catalonian nationalists have managed to create an independence-oriented machinery within the Catalonian state. Such things are not easy to dismantle, and changes to that machinery will be fought tooth and nail. Yet this machinery of ethnic nationalism will lead to more violent confrontations eventually, so the Spanish central state might try despite the road blocks.
  6. If Catalonian nationalists get away with their strategy, central governments throughout the EU are going to be much more careful when it comes to regional languages and history teaching. And they might wake up to the importance of population mixing as a counter-strategy.

The strategy of the EU and the Spanish government has been to isolate the Catalan nationalists from the rest of the Catalan population, a task they have failed spectacularly at so far. Doing that better requires imagination. They will be looking to inject a different dynamic into the situation. Yet, the Catalonian nationalists have shown in the last few years that they are more organised and have their eyes firmly on their prize.

What would I do if I were the centre? I would insist on following the law, which means arresting the Catalan leaders for their illegal activities. I would do that first and see whether the leaders then taking over in Catalonia are a bit more stupid, meanwhile using EU leaders to talk of their disapproval of the actions of the Catalonian government. I would of course push for stories to come out on the ‘hidden instigation of violence’ in Catalonia and the victimisation of non-Catalans in Catalonian schools. If the new leaders are not stupid and also do illegal things, I would take over the region (article 155), replace most of the top of the civil service apparatus with local boring competent people, announce an independence referendum in 2 years’ time and new regional elections in 6 months. The tricky bit would be the Catalan media.

A sneaky possibility is for the Spanish military to try to engineer the return of openly violent Catalan nationalism. That would spell instant success from a media point of view. It would have to be believable and real, so the strategy would have to be to incite some hot-headed Catalan students into doing something violent.

What would I do if I were the Catalan nationalists? Given that they have broken so many laws, there is no going back for them and their only means of personal survival is to hide behind their populations, so their strategy has to be to make take-over as difficult and media-painful as possible whilst moving towards declaring independence. I would disband the Catalonian parliament and arrange new elections within 3 months on the promise that a vote for me would be a vote for independence. That in one stroke takes the wind out of the sails of the central government (why arrest leaders who stepped down?) and builds on sentiment to win the true referendum (the regional elections).

An alternative is to offer the centre a full referendum in 18 months’ time as the price for taking it slow, hoping that other issues will distract the rest of Spain, meanwhile ramping up the internal push towards independence whilst studiously avoiding violence.

To appeal to the migrants, I would also reform the Catalan nationalism-story to be more inclusive and less ethnic, which is pretty much exactly the strategy that the Scottish nationalists have adopted in the last year.

Let us hope the more peaceful possibilities materialise.

Paul Frijters is a professor of Wellbeing Economics at the London School of Economics.

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4 Responses to Observations, lessons, and predictions for the Catalan situation

  1. Moz of Yarramulla says:

    From down here the whole “breaking the law” angle seems weird. Of course the independence movement is breaking the law, that law specifically excludes any possibility of independence, ever. It’d be like letting the English vote on Scottish independence (the Basque experience surely informs both sides here).

    It feels like condemning the Timorese or Papuan independence movements for breaking Indonesian law in the past. Or Rohingya for breaking Myanmar laws today. Obviously modulo the relatively low level of violence at the moment, but the point is that when there’s no prospect of lawful success, of course people are going to break the law.

    • Paul Frijters says:

      Sure, the birth of a nation by design replaces something else that calls it illegal. That does not take back that that is the nature of the Law and that the previous entity will resist. Until a new nation emerges, those trying to make it come about are terrorists. When they succeed, they are founding fathers.

      I think the point about Catalonia though is that even in their region, the pro-independence group is not the large majority but a vocal and strident minority. Do you really want to structure your country so that every vocal minority can succeed via a simple majority in one poll chosen at their leisure to break up a country? That would seem too low a hurdle.

      There is a legal way in Spain to become independent, but it first requires a change in the constitution, ie a two-third national majority, and then the new procedure. Maybe that is too high a hurdle.

      Where would you set the bar? If a majority in one house wants to declare a new state, I presume you dont think that would count as self-determination. A majority in a city/province? A two-third majority once a generation in a well-defined large area? A successful armed rebellion (which is the usual way)? It is tricky.

      • Moz of Yarramulla says:

        On the one hand I’m politically an anarchist, so I would set the bar at the personal level, even the glibertarian “sovereign citizen” should have the right to remove himself from government obligations, oppressions, services and protections (they’re almost always men).

        On the other I’m an anarchist, so I think that society is critically important and inherently can’t be atomised. My much stronger preference is to repair society so that it both works better (especially for groups currently excluded); and values consent more. Including the consent of those who can’t be bothered.

        The harshly pragmatic response that I favour is to sit both/all sides of the Spanish independence movement(s) down and speak to them very firmly. They need a negotiated settlement, and it needs to be one that they can persuade the rest of Spain to accept. It’s not my place to tell them what that is. Then they need a plan to implement it.

        My ideas mostly involve greater autonomy and more democracy, at all levels. I would very much like to see a long, tedious talking-up-and-down process that collected a whole bunch of ideas from the passionate people, ground those down in the concrete mixer of public discussion, then finished up with some kind of public selection process. The French presidential or Aotearoa voting system referenduhs (what is the plural of referendum?) strike me as a useful model: first a “rank the options” round, then a run-off between the first and second choices. That way you get a majority eventually, even if it is Macron (the biscuit or the punctuation, both work for me).

        But for independence you’d probably need an Australia constitution setup, where the proposal had to get approval from majorities in each affected area. I would do that by proposing something widely unacceptable as a motivational tool to prevent (pyrrhic) victory by delay. Viz, say “after two years Spain becomes part of the Palestinian Authority area unless you come up with a better idea”. (that would also possibly help with a second problem I would like to see solved)

  2. Chris Lloyd says:

    “The birth of a nation by design replaces something else that calls it illegal. That does not take back that that is the nature of the Law and that the previous entity will resist. Until a new nation emerges, those trying to make it come about are terrorists. When they succeed, they are founding fathers.” I do not agree that the previous entity must resist. If Tasmania really thought they would be better off as a separate country, we should try to convince them they are wrong, but ultimately we should not force them to remain, under the threat of violence. While I have not followed the situation leading to the present crisis in Spain, recently I have only heard Madrid make inflammatory statements and threats. I have not heard the king say “My Catalonian brothers and sisters, we want your hard work and uniqueness as part of our Spanish identity. we do not want to lose you. We will both be so some much better off together. Let’s talk about how you think being part of Spain is limiting you.”

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