Observations, lessons, and predictions for the Catalan situation

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


  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.

This entry was posted in Democracy, Economics and public policy, Education, Ethics, History, Immigration and refugees, Inequality, Life, Media, Politics - international, Social Policy, Society, Theatre. Bookmark the permalink.

13 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.”

  3. paul frijters says:

    The scenario above has been followed pretty closely, with Rajoy taking the smartest options I sketched and Puigdemont and his allies choosing confrontation. There will now be arrests, trials, and an interim period where direct rule will be attempted by Saenz until new Catalonian elections in December.
    Just how Saenz is going to rule is not a trivial issue. She holds the money reigns (most taxes are collected federally) and can credibly threaten arrests, loss of pensions, loss of salary, and loss of jobs. But she has almost no-one on the ground in Catalonia. Having lots of people come in from outside is not realistic, so a lot will depend on whether the state apparatus can be pushed to fall into line or not. That will require targeted, not mass, threats. If the 200,000 core Catalonian civil servants truly starts to act like an independent state and, for instance, start to set up new tax structures and new border protection (key powers), then we’re in civil war territory. If the civil servants reluctantly fall into line and are merely obstructionist, then the next set of elections will be interesting, particularly if the Catalonian nationalists lose their majority. I expect a record turnout.

    • Paul Frijters says:

      a minor note to self: a spokesman for the Spanish government, Inigo Mendez de Vigo, said today that Puigdemont and others were welcome to run for the Catalan elections in December. Seems like a media mistake to me to say this, which will hurt the Spanish government a bit: the judicial arm will go after Puigdemont and others, and there is nothing the central government can do to stop that. So unless there is some kind of amnesty imposed unilaterally, Puigdemont and others will be arrested or on the run, which will make the statement of today about being able to run for elections seem cynical and malicious. I suspect this was an f-up at the media department, or perhaps an issue with translation to English.
      A good sign for the central government today was the intention of more radical pro-independence parties in Catalonia not to stand for elections in December. That would be a huge mistake for the pro-independence movement. These coming elections ARE an independence referendum. If the pro-independence parties win this one clearly, they have a strong mandate to enact independence policies (taxation etc.).
      The issue of Catalan media (TV3) indeed is the tricky issue. Saenz reportedly wants to take control, but that wont be easy. She will have to fly in people for that.

    • paul frijters says:

      Matters have gone very fast today, but exactly as hoped for and expected above:

      – 5 or 6 of the Catalan independence leaders, including Puigdemont, have fled, apparently to Brussels were a Flemish politician hinted they might get asylum. Since such a decision is up to a particular committee and not those Flemish politicians, and since the decision would need the judgment that the Catalan leaders would not get a fair trail in Spain, asylum in Belgium is very unlikely to be granted. As a means of reducing tensions, it would be good if they could stay there for a while though.
      – the Catalan independence parties have announced they will run for elections on December 21st after all. This is an admission of defeat and of the legitimacy of central Spanish control. Their bluff has been called and they have folded, at least for now. The turnout this December will indeed be huge. It will get emotional. Maybe it would be better all round if Puigdemont and his co-conspirators were not yet back in Spain till after the election. Maybe the extradition request can be stalled long enough….
      – No serious problems have been mentioned concerning the central Spanish takeover. This means the local police indeed has chosen to cooperate and only a few of its leaders will face the consequences of defying central orders during the referendum. Targeted threats have thus worked like a charm. With the local police in place, the rest of the bureaucracy will be reluctantly following the line.

      So far, so good hence. Today and this week could have been much uglier. I wish Puigdemont and his compatriots a few comfortable months in Brussels. I bet the central Spanish government is happy to have them there too at this moment. The refugees can always try Russia or the Equadorian embassy later on. After a bit of wrangling though, I expect the majority of these refugees to return to Spain and face the music.

      • paul frijters says:

        There is a funny coming in this saga: the only realistic chance I see for Puigdemont and his 20-odd co-defendants to escape lengthy jail sentences (there is 15 years minimum it would seem for their actions!) is a Royal pardon countersigned by the PM.

        The Spanish Constitution, Section 62(i) says that the King can “To exercise the right of clemency in accordance with the law, which may not authorize general pardons.”

        And Section 64 says that “The King’s acts shall be countersigned by the President of the Government.”

        How ironic that Puigdemont’s main hope of living most of the rest of his life outside of jail now lies with the two people he has so far shown very little regard for.

        Let’s see how long it takes for the media to realise this twist is coming.

      • paul frijters says:

        “Maybe it would be better all round if Puigdemont and his co-conspirators were not yet back in Spain till after the election. Maybe the extradition request can be stalled long enough….”

        which has just been confirmed yesterday: the extradition request has been cancelled now that Puigdemont and his Belgium-fled conspirators have indicated they will go back of their own accord. No-one is in a hurry for them to come back, so it will indeed be until after the election.

        You wonder who pays the bills for their accommodation in Brussels, btw. Surely it won’t be the Belgiums and these guys are out of a job. Maybe the Spanish government is now footing the bill for their hotel on condition they dont come back till after the elections :-)

  4. Alan says:

    From the English edition of El País, Anglocondescension:

    The worst part of all of this is the condescending tone with which they orate on our “young” democracy, its supposed problems assimilating Francoism and, once again, the racist insistence in the temperamental character of the Spanish, and – here it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry – the nonsense that in our language the term “compromise” does not exist or has a shameful character, something that, of course, explains everything. It’s cheap orientalism applied to the south of Europe.

    All of this has shamelessly flowed from the United States and the United Kingdom, two countries that have committed collective suicide in the last year in the view of the whole world as part of a boorish, populist reality show, starring the most rancid elements of the right wing, the most mediocre politicians, and the most dishonest media outlets, all working together to bring a corrupt clown such as Trump to power, and prompting a folly on the scale of Brexit, something that not even they can find a way out of. Exemplary behavior.

    Sometimes a little snark, even Spanish snark translated into English, helps understanding.

  5. Paul Frijters says:

    quick update: the regional election indeed saw a record turnout; it did get emotional; and the pro-independence parties got a small majority but without 50% of the popular vote. They will declare it a mandate for whatever they want, and its better for them than previously predicted, but it wont be seen by the world as a huge endorsement of independence.

    All one should expect the coming months and years is theatrics from the Catalonian nationalists. The Spanish central government will have no option but to keep using the constitutional right to take over if independence is enacted. The court cases will keep going ahead. Yet, the logic of tensions between the catalonian nationalist parties is to go to the extremes. Apart from that, it is going to get dull quickly. Every topic is going to be read the same way in Catalonia for a while. Meanwhile, the pro-independence machine and media is going to keep doing its divisive work.

    Hard to know where that dynamic goes. There will be the question of whether the non-independence voters stick around in Catalonia or are gradually forced out by the nationalists. Also possible is that there will be some Catalan hotheads who eventually start being violent and that will reduce support tremendously.

    Most EU populations now recognise the ethnic strife in Catalonia for what it is.

  6. paul frijters says:

    quick update: all the above is still salient and happening. Puigdemont made the mistake of traveling through Germany rather than fly back immediately from Sweden to Brussels when Spanish courts re-issued the arrest warrant. One suspects the Spanish court’s timing of re-issuing the arrest warrant when he was outside Belgium was not accidental.

    He might have supporters in Belgium that were willing to push the rules to keep him from being sent to Spain, but the Germans are going to follow the law. It is hard to see that going anywhere else but extradition to Spain. His German lawyers will probably argue hat the Spanish judge showed bias when accusing Puigdemont of rebellion (and hence a violent crime, which extends the arm of the Law), but the issue for the German courts will not be whether the accusation is true, but whether he can expect a fair trial. Once in Spain, the Spanish legal machinery will simply kick in, so the theater will keep going.

    As flagged above, the only real chance of the Catalan nationalists is a pardon by the Spanish King (and the Spanish PM). The media has still not picked up on this.

    Otherwise, the main news really is that support for independence has dropped and for unity with Spain has increased. That should be considered good news for the stability of the region because it suggests the Catalan population is tiring of the hot-heads. It might also show that the corruption probes against the Catalan politicians are beginning to erode their support and that the story of the independence push is starting to be challenged.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.