Spain’s King Isn’t an Obstacle to Dialogue. Catalonia’s Separatists Are.
Repeated attempts by Catalan secessionists to break away are increasing polarization and preventing reconciliation.
On Feb. 25, Mark Nayler published an article in Foreign Policy arguing in favor of a political solution to Catalonia’s crisis. He suggests that the main obstacle to success for the recently opened political negotiations between Spain’s left-wing governing coalition and representatives of the Catalan government and secessionist organizations is King Felipe VI, whom he accuses of endorsing the previous central government, “whose actions have only radicalized Catalonia’s secessionist movement.” Nayler naively argues that the negotiations could ease relations between Madrid and Barcelona and find a way to “balance recognition of autonomy with national unity.”
Both assertions are misleading. The Spanish monarch does not have the political or legal power that Nayler attributes to him, and the negotiators do not expect to reach any substantial agreement given that both sides have red lines they are unwilling to cross. Catalonia already has a high level of self-government. Catalan nationalists are not interested in finding any balance between autonomy and unity. For them, the negotiations are only an intermediary step toward secession.
Nayler blames Felipe for hindering the solution to the political crisis, claiming that the king is standing in the way of negotiations and accusing him of inflexibility. He seems to ignore that the king always adopts a conciliatory role in national politics. By constitutional requirement, he never takes initiative without the prior consent of the Spanish government. All of the king’s decisions require approval by the head of the Spanish government or relevant ministers. The king cannot and has never stood in the way of Spanish governments.
The Spanish Constitution establishes that “the King is the Head of State, the symbol of its unity and permanence.” After the illegal Catalan independence referendum in October 2017, Felipe requested a firm and united response from public institutions and citizens to defend Spain’s territorial and political integrity. The king’s speech supported a decision that was also endorsed by now-Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who was then the opposition leader. The public intervention was part of his constitutional duty.
The Constitutional Court reminded the Parliament of Catalonia several times before the referendum that the contents of the constitution could be modified but that it was to follow the rule of law and not to attempt a unilateral bid for independence. Both the king and the Constitutional Court respected the law and their legal duty by stating that the constitution and Spanish legal framework must be followed. No European Union government can ignore the basic values of European integration: democracy, respect for the rule of law, and human rights. Moreover, the territorial integrity that Nayler seems to disregard is a shared principle among Western liberal democracies in Europe and elsewhere.
The negotiations, which exclude nonsecessionist political forces on the Catalan side, seem to be a political performance. So far, the secessionist leaders have followed a maximalist strategy, insisting that any outcome of the talks must include an independence referendum—which they know is incompatible with the Spanish Constitution. The separatists are not interested in solutions that seek a better fit for Catalonia within Spain. For example, they oppose a federal solution and multilateral forums involving all regions. They instead hope to organize a secession referendum, even though Catalonia is not a sovereign territory with the right to secede.
Instead of making hasty assessments and advocating unrealistic outcomes, as Nayler does, we must address the roots of the polarization of Catalan society. In Catalonia, as in the rest of Spain, the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis were severe, with high levels of unemployment and austerity. At the same time, the nationalist Catalan government was involved in several corruption scandals. In 2012, the traditionally moderate conservative party, Convergence and Union, made a radical shift and embraced secessionism. The party saw the opportunity to deflect attention from its mismanagement of the financial crisis. The decision came at the cost of deepening polarization.
Over the following years, nationalist governments in Catalonia have tried to break ties with Spain and ignored the majority of the population that opposes secession. A November 2019 survey showed that 47.9 percent of Catalans oppose independence, with 43.7 percent supporting it. Moreover, the nationalists’ obsession with breaking away from Spain has fueled paralysis in many policy areas and aggravated existing social problems.
The exclusion of nonsecessionist Catalans and opposition parties from the negotiations with the Spanish government, together with the uncompromising approach of the secessionist leaders, constitute the real obstacle to success for the current dialogue-based approach. The problem is not Catalonia but the secessionist minority, who have divided the population and ignored the basic rule of law—inspired by an outdated conception of nationalism. The historian Stanley Payne rightly calls the Catalan crisis “a rebellion of the rich against the poor,” and the economist Thomas Piketty suggests that economic competition is at the base of the territorial conflict.
The international principle of self-determination was not intended for the secession of wealthy regions in already decentralized democracies, as in the case of Spain. The coalition led by Sánchez cannot offer an independence referendum. The repeated attempts of the Catalan government and the separatist organizations to undermine Spain and its domestic and international reputation are more of an obstacle to reconciliation and prosperity than the king. Even in the middle of the coronavirus crisis, which requires national unity, the Catalan government has challenged, obstructed, and delegitimized the actions of the central government.
A political and democratic response to the secessionist challenge does require dialogue. However, it must be grounded at minimum in institutional loyalty. Any long-lasting solution must take into consideration the rights and views of the entire Catalan and Spanish population—not just those of a mostly privileged minority.
José Javier Olivas Osuna is a senior research fellow at the National Distance Education University in Madrid and a research associate at the London School of Economics. Twitter: @josejolivas
Rafael Martínez is a professor of political science and administration at the University of Barcelona.