This Week in Geopolitics

The Catalan Revolt of 2017

October 30, 2017

Catalonia is vying to become Europe’s newest nation-state, but this is a battle Catalonia ultimately can’t win. On Oct. 27, Catalan lawmakers voted to declare independence—barely. Only 51.8% of members in the Catalan parliament supported the declaration. That means even Catalans themselves are divided over whether Catalonia should secede from Spain.

Spain has threatened to do whatever is necessary to maintain the rule of law in Catalonia, and it has both the will and the means to follow through on that threat. Catalonia also has very little international support it can depend on. Even so, the Catalan revolt of 2017 will have ramifications in Spain and in Europe that will be felt for generations to come.

For many observers outside of Europe, the Catalan issue came out of left field. Sure, the Catalan government said it would hold an independence referendum, but it held a similar referendum in 2014 and nothing came of that. Surely, all the Catalan government wanted was a bargaining chip it could use in its negotiations with the Spanish government over taxes and other issues related to the region’s political autonomy. Catalonia has more to gain economically by remaining a part of Spain, so why would it want to embark on the arduous and violent process that usually accompanies declarations of independence?

But no one should be surprised that Catalan independence has become a major issue—it has been for many centuries now. It is a product of Spain’s geography and Catalonia’s unique history. The geography of Spain is immensely diverse. The northwest is rainy and faces the Atlantic. The center has historically been dry and poor. The northeast—where Catalonia is located—is fertile and faces the Mediterranean. The south has its own unique climate and spent many centuries under Muslim rule. These realities helped create unique cultures and political economies that have proven remarkably resilient over centuries, despite best efforts to subsume them under Spanish nationhood.


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The Catalan declaration also came out of Catalonia’s history. There has been a uniquely Catalan political consciousness since the Middle Ages. When Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile married, their rule was not absolute. It was a bargain between the monarchs and the regions comprising their dominions, many with their own constitutions. Taxes might well have flowed to the crown, but the crown in turn respected the autonomy of its regional subjects. The players often changed, but “Spain” was always a grand bargain between disparate regions and distinct peoples, not a coherent national entity.

Greater Autonomy

The grand bargain did not always hold, especially in Catalonia. Catalonia has periodically sued for greater autonomy and even independence. In the 17th century, for instance, the Spanish monarchy tried to extract more money out of Catalonia because Castile was carrying too great a share of the tax burden and because the Spanish crown needed money to pay for its wars. The result was the Catalan revolt of 1640–1652. In 1932, Catalonia once more tried to seize greater autonomy, only to be crushed by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco after the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939. The 1978 Spanish constitution once again returned autonomy to Catalonia, recognizing that Spain could not hope to claim legitimacy among all the people it aimed to rule if it did not also respect the diversity of those very people in the first place.

At first, this seemed to work sufficiently well. But over time, the same issues that for centuries had divided Catalonia from the rest of the country began to crop up again. Even as Spain’s economy grew after 1978, Catalonia remained significantly richer than the rest of the country. Today, the region’s gross domestic product accounts for 20% of Spain’s GDP, and its GDP per capita is higher than the EU-27 average. The 2008 financial crisis hit Spain particularly hard. Youth unemployment spiked to over 50% in 2014 and remains around 40% today. Overall unemployment has been declining but is still over 16%. Catalonia wants more control over its economy and less of its tax revenue going to the central government. And it began reinstituting cultural markers such as teaching the Catalan language in schools. The grand bargain that was reached in 1978 has failed to hold up in a post-2008 world.

Pandora’s Box

This explains why Spain has reacted with such force to the Catalan regional government’s moves—even though only 42% of Catalans showed up for the vote, not exactly a ringing endorsement for the separatists. Catalonia is just one of 19 autonomous communities in Spain. Basque Country, with its own language and unique culture, has also been vying for independence, and as recently as the 1990s, Basque separatists carried out terrorist attacks in Spain in support of their cause. If Spain does not crush Catalonia’s independence movement now, it could open a Pandora’s box, with other regions demanding more autonomy or even separation, and Spain can’t allow this to happen. Madrid, therefore, needs to assert direct control over Catalonia; anything less would give the appearance of Spain abdicating its responsibility to its people and its constitution.

Both sides have been hurling accusations of illegal conduct at each other. The Spanish constitution is silent on the issue of independence referendums, but the Spanish government and Spain’s Constitutional Court view the Catalan regional government’s activities as illegal. The Catalan government viewed the violent Spanish response to the vote as illegal. The Catalan government also thinks what it is doing is in keeping with the spirit of the European Union, founded as it was on the idea of national self-determination. The situation has progressed to the point that the legalities and illegalities are irrelevant. The rule of law exists only in a political community in which all, or at least the vast majority, accept it. When there is a fundamental disagreement about what the law is and who gets to enforce it, the stability that law imposes breaks down, and life goes back to being nasty, brutish, and short, with victories determined not by persuasive argument but by monopoly of force. 

This is where things get complicated for the European Union. On the one hand, the EU remains steadfastly in support of its member state, Spain. But Spain will now have to use force to maintain its writ in Catalonia. That will put the EU in a lose-lose situation: It can either support a member state using force to quell a political rebellion that seeks the very thing the EU was designed to protect—national self-determination—or it can support the right to self-rule for the people of Catalonia but, in so doing, completely undermine the position of the Spanish government.

Eighteenth-century Irish statesman Edmund Burke famously said that Spain is “a great whale stranded on the shores of Europe”—as if, at the end of the day, there was something fundamentally un-European about Spain. That may have been true back then, but the 2017 Catalan revolt shows that Burke’s view of Spain no longer holds. Spain will now be a model for Europe. Catalonia is the first major secessionist movement to take concrete steps toward achieving independence in post-Maastricht Western Europe, but it won’t be the last. How Spain and the EU respond to Catalonia will set the tone for how the EU will respond to separatist or autonomy movements in places like Scotland, northern Italy, or other regions with dormant nationalism that may bubble to the surface.

2017 will be the year that the EU supports a government in putting down a movement for national self-determination on the European continent. Most, if not all, EU countries will support the use of force this time, since no country wants its own territorial integrity challenged. But condoning the use of force in this context takes the EU to a dangerous place. The EU was built around economic prosperity and was designed to ensure peace for Europe’s nations. If the EU can guarantee neither of those things, it will become irrelevant or unrecognizable. Slowly but surely, Europe is returning to history—and the suppression of Catalonia is a recurring chapter in that history.

George Friedman
George Friedman

 

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ajobpd@gmail.com

Oct. 31, 8:19 a.m.

Dear Mr Friedman,

thank you for your article. I am a Spanish citizen living abroad, with no particular attachment to any part of my country.

In your article below I notice a few aspects that, in my view, are missing, so, for whatever they are worth, I submit them to your consideration.

But first, a few items we should agree upon, to ensure that we mean the same things.

The meaning of “republic” and “democracy” should be made explicit – everybody is entitled to his opinion, and in my case a republic is a system of government that relies on the respect of laws – and a democracy is a method to create and modify these laws by a majority, direct or representative, voting procedure, which may differ in details, according to the importance of the laws being voted upon.

Finally, a modern constitution may be understood as the top law that all other laws should respect and that, itself, may be modified according to specific democratic procedures contained in the same constitution.

After the Franco dictatorship, in 1978, a constitution was drafted in Spain by the reinstated party system, with no restrictions for any type of party, including the most extreme Communist ones.

Once approved by the new Spanish Parliament, that constitution was submitted to a national referendum and approved with 87.9% in favour, out of a national turnout of 67.1%. In Catalonia the result was 90.5% in favour, with local turnout of 67.9%. (Source: Statistical Office of the City of Barcelona.)

The Spanish Constitution is a comparatively very “open” one, meaning that most if not all of its provisions may be subject to modification according to specific procedures – there are no intrinsic limits to amend even the territorial aspects.

Now to the issue at hand:

1.  Catalonians, like the rest of the Spaniards, live in a modern democratic state – I see no serious facts contradicting this statement.

In 1978 the Catalonians approved their Constitution with an absolute majority of over 60% of all possible voters (90.5 x 67.9 = 60.1)

2.  As far as I am informed, the Catalonian region never did initiate a constitutional reform to separate their region from the Spanish state and become an independent one. A procedure exists to achieve it, but was never invoked – again, if I am well informed.

3.  This means that a normal constitutional amendment procedure, common to most modern states, was available but has never been initiated.

4.  What was, instead, initiated by the recently elected regional Parliament of Catalonia was a regional procedure, not contemplated in both the Spanish Constitution and the regional Catalonian Autonomy Statutes, that ended with the promulgation of a new law (the Law of Transition) which does not comply, in many aspects, with both the Spanish Constitution and the Catalonian regional Statutes.

5.  This Law of Transition ordered the Catalonian Government to carry out a regional referendum and to unilaterally declare independence within 48 hours if that referendum had a positive outcome. Let us forget about the “democratic security” of such a hurried procedure for this very significant constitutional change, one that usually has repeated votings in parliaments to be then followed by a referendum with quorum and qualified majority requirements, to ensure the stability of the change.

6.  This regional referendum was the first concrete act of a procedure carried out in violation of the Spanish Constitution, as an illegal “shortcut” of an otherwise more complex but fully possible constitutional amendment procedure. What should the Spanish government do while such a referendum was being organized in clear violation of both Spanish and Catalonian laws and whose possible positive outcome may have caused a severe Constitutional breach? Just watch? What are the democratic relevance and the safeguards of a referendum where most of the opposing voters did not even participate as they considered it illegal according to existing higher ranking laws?

Granted, the reaction of the Spanish government was clumsy, violent, whatever – but is this the main point here?

7.  For me, this is now the main point, far above anything written above:  what good can come out of a new state originating from such a “non-republican” process, in the sense of complete violation of a republican due process based on the respect of the laws?

What juridical security can a Catalonian citizen expect from its future national government after such a start?

The next probable act will be a takeover by a “strongman”, promising to cure the economic hardships created by this juridical insecurity; we have repeatedly travelled along such political paths in Europe and should have learnt the corresponding lessons.

8.  A final comment:  there is also quite a significance assigned to the change from a Spanish monarchy to a Catalonian republic. Let me add some details.

There is really no functional difference between, say, the President of the Italian Republic and the King of Spain: both have a strict constitutional definition of their roles as representatives of their states, the only difference being that the Italian president gets elected by the Parliament every seven years and the Spanish line of kings only once when the Spanish Constitution of 1978 was approved.

More interestingly, the President of the USA or the French President, with their wide executive powers, are definitely far more “monarchs” than the Italian or Spanish Heads of State.

I respect your views and I am grateful for them, because your and other articles by foreign authors prompted me into putting my thoughts in writing. Maybe you can give them some consideration, if they deserve it.

 

 

Willis Smith

Oct. 30, 9:17 p.m.

Please pass this comment on to John since I do not have a Facebook account and do not plan to get one.  It regards is latest From the Front Lines:

There are three factors that are not discussed in most writings on this subject.  One is that workers and professional create jobs for waiters, insurance agents, grocery workers, etc.  The equivalent jobs loss in these types of workers depends on the salary and thus disposable income of those losing their jobs to automation, but is about 2 for every 1 job lost in manufacturing.  Even if the manufacturing worker finds another job it will probably pay less and have fewer benefits so there is a residual job impact for the service industry workers.

The second point is that robots do not pay taxes, but the direct and indirect workers who loss their jobs to automation stop paying taxes if they do not find new employment.  This effect will starve government funding at a time when increased government expenses to provide an existence for these workers will be politically necessary.

The third point is that while we are all equal before the laws and the lord, the IQ curve demonstrates that there are a lot of people who do not have the intellectual horsepower to perform the more sophisticated new jobs that may be created.  Remember the guy who never understood algebra in high school.  He is not going to write software; in fact, it is likely that computers will soon write software.  About 37% of people have an IQ of less than 95 which was the level needed to get a high school diploma before grade inflation was invented.  It took about a 105 IQ to get a college degree before grade inflation.  Most people who write about the challenges of automation have high IQs and never recognize how challenged mentally a big fraction of our population is in learning do deal with complex problems.

Willis Smith

Oct. 30, 9:14 p.m.

There are three factors that are not discussed in most writings on this subject.  One is that workers and professional create jobs for waiters, insurance agents, grocery workers, etc.  The equivalent jobs loss in these types of workers depends on the salary and thus disposable income of those losing their jobs to automation, but is about 2 for every 1 job lost in manufacturing.  Even if the manufacturing worker finds another job it will probably pay less and have fewer benefits so there is a residual job impact for the service industry workers.

The second point is that robots do not pay taxes, but the direct and indirect workers who loss their jobs to automation stop paying taxes if they do not find new employment.  This effect will starve government funding at a time when increased government expenses to provide an existence for these workers will be politically necessary.

The third point is that while we are all equal before the laws and the lord, the IQ curve demonstrates that there are a lot of people who do not have the intellectual horsepower to perform the more sophisticated new jobs that may be created.  Remember the guy who never understood algebra in high school.  He is not going to write software; in fact, it is likely that computers will soon write software.  About 37% of people have an IQ of less than 95 which was the level needed to get a high school diploma before grade inflation was invented.  It took about a 105 IQ to get a college degree before grade inflation.  Most people who write about the challenges of automation have high IQs and never recognize how challenged mentally a big fraction of our population is in learning do deal with complex problems.

josepablo.feijoo@telefonica.net

Oct. 30, 7:07 p.m.

Is not easy to summarize 500 years in a newsletter that’s probably the reason why some of the statements can be qualified to some extent. But there are two plain relevant mistakes in your exposition:

1.- “The Catalan revolt” of 1934 (not 1932) was a declaration of independent. In fact it was pretty similar to the recent one and it was not crushed by Franco (the civil war started in 1936 and Franco did not take control of Catalonia until late 1938). This revolt was crushed in 6 days in 1934 by the Republican Government of the CEDA that had been rightfully elected by the Spanish people

2.- The Spanish Constitution is not “silent on the matter of independence referendum”. Article 2 establish the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards” and the process to modify that is clearly established in art. 168 thru a procedure that requires, among other things, the support of more than two thirds of the Spanish Parliament and the approval of the Spanish people thru a referendum. Is not difficult to see then why the procedure chosen by the Catalan government stands clearly against the Spanish Constitution.

Dallas Kennedy

Oct. 30, 6:44 p.m.

Provocation article. The only thing I disagree with is the claim that the EU is based on national self-determination.

That’s plainly not true. In its current form, the EU was designed to subdue and eventually dilute the national identities of each member country to the extent possible. Disease: nationalism. Cure: surrender of sovereignty to supernational institutions. That was the diagnosis and recommendation. With sovereignty goes national self-determination. The national self is part of the supposed disease to be superseded.

The situation with Catalonia becomes completely clear with that in mind. The EU must oppose it, as must all EU countries. There’s not much doubt where this will end up. Catalonia’s independence attempt will again be crushed, albeit now for a different constellation of reasons than in previous cases.

(I see in the meantime, others have made the same point.)

luisgilcasares@gmail.com

Oct. 30, 4:01 p.m.

Mr Shapiro. Most of your arguments on Catalan and Spanish history are wrong. I recommend you to read your compatriot Stanley G Payne. Catalonia was never independent. The EU was built to fight nationalisms and supremacisms like the one we suffer in Catalonia.

fallingman7@gmail.com

Oct. 30, 3:27 p.m.

“...the EU was designed to protect national self-determination”

That’s a good one, but I suspect you weren’t joking.

The truth?  The EU was designed to exterminate national self-interest and herd everyone into a superstate run by unelected Eurofascists out of Brussels.  In roder to accomplish that end, the right to self-determination has to be denied by force ... even as the hypocrites continue to proclaim their support for it.

But people aren’t blind.  Bloody a few women and old folk trying to vote and the message becomes clear.

By the way, the American revolution was a minority effort.  Did that make it wrong, unjustified, illegal?  That’s not a rhetorical question.  I’d like an answer.


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