Friday, July 28, 2017
Photo of Benito Arruñada ,

The real conflict in Catalonia is between those who make their living selling goods and those who make their living selling illusions.

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Catalonia’s Dangerous Illusions

BARCELONA – Catalonia’s upcoming parliamentary election could turn Spain’s wealthy northeastern region into the European Union’s first secessionist state. But, as the possibility that separatists will win a majority of seats becomes more likely, opponents of secession are becoming more vocal. Ordinary Catalans have begun to realize that it is they who would foot the bill for independence, while any benefits would accrue to an increasingly powerful intellectual elite.

Catalonia’s radicalization seems puzzling. In 1978, an overwhelming 90.5% of Catalans (three points higher than the national average) voted in favor of the Spanish constitution, which grants individual regions self-rule over major areas such as police, education, health, and broadcasting. Over the last 37 years, Catalonia has enjoyed unprecedented economic prosperity. Why are the Catalans now willing to break with Spain and risk it all?

Most analysts believe that separatism stems from economic factors. Wealthy Catalans, who are reluctant to subsidize poorer Spanish regions, have allied themselves with left-wing radicals espousing the nationalistic populism that economic crisis and malaise have fueled on the EU’s periphery.

Catalonia’s separatists claim that a small, open state within the EU and NATO is not only viable, but also optimal in terms of economic performance and social cohesion. But transition costs would be immense, and there are serious doubts about whether such a country could remain in the EU, or even re-enter it in the short term, if it had just seceded unilaterally from another EU member state.

Moreover, Catalonia’s experience with home rule suggests that its chances of becoming a top-performing country are slim. Indeed, the quality of governance in Catalonia – where countless corruption scandals pervade cornerstone institutions – is more in line with that of Portugal. How can one expect that Catalan leaders, having missed the opportunity to build a better administration in every policy area that they controlled, would be more successful at running an independent state?

Clearly, there is more to the story of Catalan separatism. Beneath ostensibly pragmatic motivations lies dubious rent-seeking by the group Samuel Coleridge referred to as the “clerisy” – those who live from creating, preserving, and disseminating the national culture. Indeed, it is this group, not the bourgeoisie or the radical proletariat, that has been behind past efforts to win Catalan independence.

To be sure, every modern society needs a thoughtful clerisy. But this group invariably has its own interests. As the economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey has noted, while the bourgeoisie provides the clerisy with a living, in times of crisis, the clerisy tends to promote anti-bourgeois fantasies, from nationalism to communism.

Home rule has been highly profitable for the Catalan clerisy, as it has subsidized the diffusion of all sorts of beliefs, such as that Catalonia enjoyed a glorious past before being “conquered” by Spain. At the same time, this has nurtured the vision of an independent future for Catalonia as the “Denmark of the Mediterranean.”

Decades of control over education and culture budgets have produced a formidable clerisy, including legions of political apparatchiks, civil servants, writers, academics, teachers, NGO workers, journalists, and TV producers, among many others. These people viewed the austerity and liberalization policies enacted in recent years by Spain (but often mandated by the EU) as a direct threat to their livelihoods.

Whatever the outcome of the current upheaval, the clerisy will not lose. In an independent Catalonia, they would be rewarded with high-level positions. If the process is derailed, most will retain their secure public-sector jobs. And if a compromise is reached – a so-called “third way” solution involving increased autonomy within Spain – the subsidies for media and cultural outlets on which they depend will be freed from the threat of austerity. This will place them in a strong position to mount a new sovereignty challenge in a few years.

For the rest of Catalans, however, turbulent relations with the rest of Spain create considerable uncertainty. After all, many of their investments, income, or jobs depend on customers, suppliers, and employers located elsewhere in the country. In short, there are clear winners and losers in Catalonia’s push for independence.

This situation is not new for the region. The historian John Elliott describes the Catalan clerisy’s role in spurring the 1640 rebellion against Spain. Only when tensions reached fever pitch did the nobility and merchants realize that the cure would be worse than the disease. Likewise, twice in the first half of the twentieth century, in response to an increasingly radical Catalan clerisy, the region’s industrialists ended up supporting authoritarian solutions from the Spanish government.

Now, as then, the real conflict in Catalonia is between those who make their living selling goods and those who make their living selling illusions.


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Photo of Carles Boix

But the most important reason to support Catalonia’s independence is strictly political: within Spain, Catalan autonomy is far from guaranteed.

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Yes to Catalan Independence

PRINCETON – Catalonia’s regional election this weekend amounts to an indirect referendum on independence. Of course, Catalans would have preferred to have a direct vote on the question of whether to secede from Spain. But the Spanish government’s staunch refusal to authorize such a referendum has left Catalans with only one option: to demonstrate their will by filling their parliament with candidates who will push for sovereignty.

The de facto referendum, while imperfect, will send a clear message. I hope that the message it sends is one of support for independence, delivered through a victory for the “Together for Yes” slate of candidates. Indeed, there is no shortage of good reasons to support Catalonia’s independence drive.

For starters, independence would advance the cause of cultural preservation, by ensuring, for example, the use of Catalan in mass media, customer-service support lines, and product labeling. It would also enable Catalonia to take steps – impossible under the Spanish government, which collects more taxes from the region than it returns in spending – to protect those who have been worst hit by the crisis. And it would facilitate an effective response to the structural and technological challenges that characterize the twenty-first-century globalized economy, including by giving Catalonia control over investment in infrastructure and research and development.

But the most important reason to support Catalonia’s independence is strictly political: within Spain, Catalan autonomy is far from guaranteed. The Spanish government’s continuous interventions have proved that, at the end of the day, Catalonia is not really autonomous at all.

Catalans agreed to the 1978 Spanish constitution, after a century-long struggle for self-rule, precisely because it was supposed to transfer a meaningful set of powers to the Catalan government. But that is not what happened.

Instead, Spain’s central government has encroached on Catalonia’s decisions in virtually all policy areas. Given Catalans’ position as a minority within Spain, we lack any recourse when the majority interprets the constitution – as well as pacts between the central and regional governments – in a way that diverges from our rights or interests.

Just three years after the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia was first enacted, a law – entitled Ley Orgánica de Armonización del Proceso Autonómica, or LOAPA – was passed that eroded the nature and extent of the powers that had been granted to Spain’s regional governments. To secure the statute’s implementation, Catalonia’s government and political parties had to rely on pacts with Spanish parties that had yet to secure a parliamentary majority, and thus were willing to trade powers for votes. Once those parties obtained a majority in the following elections, however, they rushed to pass laws that revoked whatever powers had been granted. Catalonia, like Homer’s Penelope, has been forced continually to weave and reweave its autonomy.

In 2006, Catalans hoped that, finally, this exhausting political process was over, after the Catalan parliament enacted a new statute that aimed to protect, once and for all, the region’s authorities from central-government meddling. But the statute was heavily amended in the Spanish parliament, and, in 2010, Spain’s constitutional court struck down what little of importance was left in it.

The message is clear: Catalonia can no longer take the Spanish government at its word. A contract, no matter what promises it contains, has no value if one of the parties has the exclusive power to interpret and execute its terms. Given Catalonia’s size and Catalans’ minority status, Spain’s position will always prevail.

Aristotle defined democracy as a system in which citizens, or groups of citizens, take turns governing. But, in the Spanish political system, some always govern, while others never do. That simply cannot work for Catalonia.

Some have proposed a federal system as an alternative to independence. But such a system would be extremely difficult to establish, owing to the need for constitutional reforms that Spanish parties are highly unlikely to approve. More important, even if federalization were somehow implemented, it would not solve the problem. A majority of autonomous regions or federated states would still control the interpretation and execution of all agreements. And Catalans would not have enough allies to protect their most essential interests.

In short, Catalonia’s only option for guaranteeing its legitimate aspirations for self-government is to become a sovereign state. Only then would it have the authority to veto decisions that controvert its interests; the capacity to tackle the cultural, social, and economic challenges that it faces; and the ability to cooperate with neighboring countries from a position of equality.

In the impending election, Catalans should not be fazed by threats from the anti-independence camp. After all, following through on those threats – from a freeze on bank deposits to permanent exclusion from the European Union – would harm everyone, especially those who are making them. In this sense, they merely serve to highlight the deeply flawed nature of the current system.

A solid majority for the Together for Yes slate should erode Spain’s resistance, may crack Europe’s neutrality, and will open the gates to a road – difficult, yet traversable – toward dignity. Let us vote in freedom and with peace of mind. The effort is worth it.