Trying to assemble the Catalonian puzzle

Tiago André Lopes

The latest regional elections on Cataluña (28th of September 2015) were supposed to bring some light into the secessionist question. Instead of that things are now even more complex than they were before the scrutiny. So what can happen next and why?

Schrödinger’s Results

Cataluña’s electoral night had a strange combination of multiple results. Artur Mas, president of the Generalitat (Cataluña’s regional parliament) called the elections with a double intention: to strengthen his political position on Cataluña and to do an informal referendum (regarding the plan to make Cataluña independent) since the formal referendum (scheduled to happen on November, 9) was suspended by the Constitutional Court of Spain.

To meet his two goals Mas needed an absolute majority of elected deputies at the Generalitat and more than 50% of the votes. Artur Mas knew since the beginning that his platform Juntos por el Sí (Togheter for a Yes) would not be able to reach the ambitious goals and so the discourse, in the last days of the campaign, was always made with an expectation on the results of the other pro-independence party:  Candidatura de Unidad Popular (Candidature of Popular Unity).

Arturo Mas needed to conquer, at least, 68 seats out of 135 mandates available in order to ensure the beginning of the secessionist agenda and his own political survival. The joint results of Juntos por el Sí (62 seats) and Candidatura de Unidad Popular (10 seats) granted to the pro-secessionists 72 mandates, and with that magical number one of the two goals was accomplished.

The problem is that Mas was unable to reach even 48% of the electorate, with the pro-Union parties claiming slightly more of 52% of the casted votes. And since this was the election with the highest turnout since the Second World War (more than 77%) this can only be understood as a major defeat. So the pro-independence parties were able to win and lose their electoral goals in the same night.

The victor comes in second?

Electoral nights are always about victories, conquests and achievements. All political leaders try to find that number that will give them, at least, a moral victory. This is not the case! The party Ciudadanos (Citizens) led by Inés Arrimadas was indeed one of the biggest achievers of the electoral night of September 28, 2015.

In the previous elections (November 25, 2012) the Ciudadanos (Citizens) came in sixth place, with 9 mandates and 7,6% of the casted votes. Less than three years later, Ciudadanos climbs to become the second most representative party with 25 mandates and almost 18% (17,9%) of the casted votes.  Although Europe is still speaking about the “SYRIZAPodemos (We can!) effect”, it is interesting to see that it is Ciudadanos the one reaping the benefits of a well-structured civil society movement. Something to keep in mind…

The day after

The regional elections on Cataluña have now reached the negotiation and forward planning momentum. Juntos por el Sí and Candidatura de Unidad Popular need to agree on the composition of the coalition government, in order to ensure political stability. The road ahead will be tricky especially knowing that the agenda on the table was not sanctioned by 52% of the active-citizen-voters across Cataluña.

Artur Mas promised that in 2017, Cataluña would be fully set to declare its independence but he promised that under the premise that he would have absolute majority and more than 50% of the votes. The million dollar questions are: 1.) How can he stall the process without dangerously frustrating almost 48% of Catalonians? or 2.) How can he make any progress with more than 52% of Catalonians unwilling to break-up from Spain?

This murky moment, is the right time for Madrid to show its political capacity to do “backstage diplomacy”. Mariano Rajoy, Prime-Minister of Spain, already lost some trump cards to appease the secessionist drive of almost 48% of Catalonians due to the apparent inability of Madrid to establish fruitful dialogue with Barcelona.

Devolution and/or reinforcement of executive powers to Cataluña’s Generalitat, something similar like Cameron did before the Scottish referendum, might not be possible at this point since it would encourage some political forces in Galicia and in the irredentist Basque Country to also stage regional elections (with a secessionist agenda on the table) in order to get more power from Madrid. Federalism doesn’t seem to be on Rajoy’s agenda.

An increase of Senators appointed by Cataluña’s Generalitat to the Senado (upper house of Spain’s Parliament) could have been negotiated in advance. It would have been tricky to get but now it is more than tricky: it’s pretty much impossible. Any increase of Senators, by another set of reasons besides population’s dimension, would imply a revision of the Section 69 – 5 of the Spanish Constitution, which would only be approved by a broaden consensus, that does not exist in Madrid, especially now.

Despite all these setbacks Mariano Rajoy can still answer, mostly on a symbolic level, to some of the reasons that led almost 48% of the voters but Catalonians but he needs to play its cards wisely and timely. To show some inclusiveness Rajoy could propose the creation of a State Secretary for the Autonomous Regions, under the direct supervision of the Deputy Prime-Minister.

The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science could also gain a State Secretary solely responsible to promote and protect the specific sociocultural features of the Catalonians being them language, historic events, celebrations, historic figures, symbols (traditional costumes, flags, crests). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs can establish as a mandatory rule to have a Catalonian representative in all diplomatic delegations.

King Felipe VI also has a role to play. All elections marked by secessionist diatribes tend to leave societal marks and scars that need to be taken seriously. King Felipe VI needs to be able to show to Catalonians that the Royal Family is listening and understanding the grievances behind the vote of 48% of active-voting-citizens. King Felipe VI also needs to appear as the one providing the bridging solutions to Rajoy, in order to diminish the appeal of Republicanism.

The need for Leaders and not Masters

Brussels worst nightmare is happening. Now besides having to deal with the ripple-effects of the Sovereign Debt Crisis still tormenting the European Union member-states and with the influx of migrants creating new pockets of tension, they also have to be watchful for what seems to be a re-emergence of pro-secessionist tendencies across Europe.

Knowing that the Scottish referendum will almost surely go, in a few years, for a second round, Brussels needs to be careful in the way it deals with Cataluña’s events in order not to instigate secessionist agendas like the ones still brewing on Corsica (France), Flanders (Belgium) or Venice (Italy).

The harsh statements of Brussels saying Cataluña, or Scotland, would be “expelled” from either the Eurozone and the European Union might play, at some point, in favour of far-right movements and against Brussels. What Brussels needs to realise is that only with dialogue, instead of fear and imposition, will the European idea progress.

The current incapacity of Brussels to abandon its pre-judgemental positions and its imposing-normative style only erodes the European Project adding a new layer of complexity to an already complicated political landscape. If Cataluña’s independence results in an expulsion of the European Project, Brussels might unintentionally create a destructive wave impossible to contain.