How not to deal with separatist movements: “The Catalan Example”
Catalonia has one of the most prominent separatist movements in Europe.

Following the recent unexpected shift in momentum for the independence movements in Europe, particularly those of Scotland and Catalonia, EU policy makers in several states have too had to ask themselves one important question:

How do we reach a mutually beneficial, satisfactory, and above all peaceful solution to the issue of separatist movements?

For a prime example of how policy makers should not act in the sensitive matter of separatism we can look south to the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. The confrontational stance exhibited by Rajoy and the Spanish government towards the Catalonian region has helped to radicalize the Spanish political spectrum, thus creating serious democratic problems and heightened antagonism between the political actors at the regional level (Catalan) and the national level. The continued unequivocal refusal by Rajoy to allow a referendum on independence for Catalonia despite the wishes of several million Catalonian inhabitants presents him with a democratic problem, one which he has not handled well. His rigid legalism and lack of willingness to negotiate with separatists has effectively shut down dialogue between the government in Madrid and their regional counterpart in Barcelona, making Catalan frustrations rise further.

Although dominant at a regional level, the lack of separatist representation in national parliaments around Europe hinders their recognition as legitimate political movements and democratically representative actors. In the UK parliament for example, the regionally dominating Scottish National Party (SNP) currently holds no seats in the House of Lords and only 6 out of 650 seats in the House of Commons. In Spain, the second largest and most ardently separatist party, the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), holds 3 out of 350 seats, with the less radical CiU holding 16 in both the Senate and the Congress of Deputies. However, the vitality and democratic legitimacy of these parties can hardly be questioned. They dominate regional elections and in the case of Catalonia they manage to arrange pro-independence rallies of almost a third of their regions’ populations. Despite their lack of institutional power at a national level, they are a democratic force to be reckoned with – and should be recognized as a valuable partner in dialogue.

When I spoke to ERC politicians in 2011, before the mass demonstrations in Barcelona, they correctly foresaw the renewed rise of the Catalan independence movement stating that issues of independence tended to fall in the background when the government did not apply pressure on Catalonia. Whenever the central Spanish government acts in a confrontational manner, support for separatism surges. If they did nothing at all, activist Carles de Rosselló argued, “We’d only be four separatists in Catalonia in 20 years time”.

After the onset of the economic crisis the possibility for tensions between relatively well-off Catalonia and the rest of Spain has increased. Instead of calling for dialogue and understanding the PP government launched a political offensive against the integrated school system of Catalonia where teaching in Catalan is compulsory in public primary schools (though not private schools). Now the Catalan government must offer public education in Spanish to any student demanding it. This has effectively divided the education system into Spanish-language and Catalan-language schools and further causing tensions in a region that is already ripe with conflicting ethnic and linguistic identifications. “[They’re] (sic) creating ghettos”, Pau Vinyes from the ERC told me. “One school here chooses Catalan, another one Castilian. It’s going to be completely ghettoized”. A recent article in the Catalan newspaper La Vanguardia revealed that only four families out of a population of more than 7 million had demanded public schooling in Spanish, making this issue a highly symbolic venture for the Madrid Government rather than an expression of actual need on behalf of Catalonia’s citizens.

The Catalans have taken to the streets to show their frustration time and time again, most recently during the National Holiday “la Diada” on the 11th of September this year. In 2012, a pro-independence rally in the regional capital of Barcelona numbered upwards of two million people according to the BBC, such acts cement the mass appeal of separatism in Catalonia. Compared to Catalonia the Scots seem almost apathetic. By allowing a referendum on independence to be carried out the 18th of September, David Cameron’s government has kept the debate civil and effectively lowered the tempers of the Scots, preventing the type of protests seen in Catalonia.

After the Spanish transition to democracy following Dictator Franco’s death in 1976 many Catalan political actors expected a move towards a federal state – a move that for many reasons failed to happen causing many Catalans to feel robbed of autonomy. The ERC activists I spoke with had all favored federalist solutions in the past but now feel continually betrayed by the central government’s lack of dialogue and unwillingness to comprise in Catalan issues. As Alfred Bosch, MP for ERC has stated: “The federalist cause is very difficult for the federalists, because no-one wants to federalize with them anymore”.

This is perhaps most exemplified by the Madrid government’s outright refusal to accept the new Catalan Statute of Autonomy in 2006, a document both written by democratically elected representatives and approved by a popular Catalan vote.

By denying dialogue, and referendums the Spanish government are neglecting the frustrations felt by millions of Catalans and Rajoy is contributing to tensions and animosity in both Catalonia and Spain as a whole. Rather than uniting the population that voted him into office, Rajoy has shown himself to aggravate tensions between the Catalan regional government and the separatist Catalans on one side, and his own government and the people of Spain on the other.

Since federalist alternatives are no longer an option, and as the Spanish government staunchly refuses all dialogue and negotiation with the Catalan government, many Catalans see only one option: Take to the streets and (re) claim their autonomy and independence.

Such an outcome is more radical, less democratic and more prone to creating ethnic fault lines and tensions in both Spain and Catalonia than if the Spanish government had swallowed their pride, sat down to negotiate and recognized the mass popular wish for autonomy in the region of Catalonia.

EU policy-makers faced with separatist issues should take note.