How fed up are Spaniards in the rest of the country with Catalan separatism?

Analysis: There is a general election next month: what message will ordinary voters send to the elites who govern the kingdom?
By Matthew Bennett
Mar 30, 2019, 11:40 am

Journalism is often a privilege. It allows one to visit all kinds of places and talk to all kinds of people at all kinds of social, economic or political levels. One realises how big and complex a country is or how little the various groups that make up a society talk to each other, which is normal because there are only 24 hours in a day and we all have things to do. Each reporting trip broadens the vision one has of the whole a bit more.

Take the Catalan issue, for example. With the trial, the court will decide whatever it decides in terms of criminal responsibility for the accused, and there are several months of hearings still to go. Inside the courtroom, the Spanish flag that stands just to the right of Judge Marchena gives him the legitimacy and the authority he has to exercise justice in the name of all Spaniards and their Constitution, which is in force across the whole country including, of course, in Catalonia. Although, as we saw in 2017, that was nearly not the case.

If the Police and Civil Guard had not acted on that October 1 morning, having verified, as Colonel Pérez de los Cobos testified, that it wasn't until the early hours of that morning that they received "conclusive confirmation" that the Catalan Police performance had been "non-existent"; if judges and prosecutors had not acted with their court orders and instructions; and if, finally—although it was too late for many—Mariano Rajoy's government and the Senate had not acted, Puigdemont, Junqueras, Forcadell and all the rest would already be in their independent republic and Spanish GDP would have fallen by 20%.

They were off and, over those several weeks, the Catalan conflict broke through the confines of the north-eastern region to become, as a result of what was happening, what was broadcast in the media and the emotional reactions it all caused, a problem for the Nation, and for Spaniards in the rest of the country.

Now a Constitution, in addition to being the legal maximum in a territory, distributes power in that territory in a certain way. It enables and channels the claims of different groups who wish to hold power: the Constitution gives them legitimacy and authority, and more than anything else, it prevents that territory from being ruled only by the law of the jungle, subject only to the wishes and strategies of the strongest or most cunning. It also sets out a certain hierarchy for the nation and deals with the separation of powers, linking the parts into some coherent whole. If life unfolds and changes within its limits, there should be no major problems.

Power is occupied by different elite groups, who compete among themselves to be allowed to direct the affairs of the nation or of the subordinate territories or spheres in the way they see fit. It is not possible, from one day to the next, for a plumber from Torre Pacheco (Murcia) to become Prime Minister, or for a National Police officer in Mieres (Asturias) to suddenly preside trials at the Supreme Court. In each area of national life, several elite groups compete to hold power: the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) and the Popular Party(PP)—and now Podemos, Ciudadanos or Vox—wish to govern the nation; in Catalonia, there are separatist and constitutionalist trends and, within each of those, the PDeCat competes with Esquerra, or the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) competes with Ciudadanos.

To a certain degree, the trial of the Catalan separatists at the Supreme Court in Madrid, then, is a trial for those elite groups, among elite groups, and, even though it might surprise the ordinary citizen, a country's elite groups do not speak to each other as much as one might think from the distance of everyday life on an industrial estate in Seville or a factory in Bilbao. That is where the problems come from, not only due to a lack of interaction and communication at key moments, but also because belonging to one elite group or another determines—and often limits—the range of possible responses available to deal with such major problems.

Just as a worker in Badajoz or a housewife in Alicante has a necessarily limited vision of the national whole, the same is true for a judge, a doctor or even a minister. Each has a different perspective, but they are all limited.

Each elite or group, representing a trend or an option or an authority, comes with a certain morality, a certain focus on the internal affairs of the group itself and a certain way of conceiving the whole. Just as people are self-centred, moral groups prefer and defend their own options, for themselves and for everyone else. Each usually believes their solution is best. At the national level, the Constitution, statutes and the law regulate these at first seemingly incompatible differences between grown-ups who disagree or even argue about some matter, in an approximately equitable manner, and in order to avoid the aforementioned jungle.

Which is why, when someone tries to bypass that fundamental law, we are faced with a major problem. This particular problem—whatever the Supreme Court decides during the trial—requires a big solution because it is a very complex problem that affects multiple areas (political, legal, economic) and multiple layers (state, government, regions, society, towns, even families) of the national whole. The situation in Catalonia turned negative from 2012 onwards, and there are still two million Spaniards who do not want to be Spanish.

First Mr. Mas and then Mr. Puigdemont forced the constitutional machine to, and then past, its limits. Mr. Rajoy took his own time to react after several years of refusing to accept that what seemed to be happening did in fact, in the end, happen. Mr. Torra, like his predecessors, is trying to be cunning, and Mr. Sanchez, like his predecessor, has not been able to solve the problem. In 2019, separatist demands are even more impossible than they were in 2017: now they not only want independence but also the release of the prisoners. Mr. Sánchez's "dialogue" has had the same effect as Mr. Rajoy's "not dialogue". We are now in the seventh year of the Catalan independence issue.

Quit logically, much of the debate about the Catalan crisis has focused on Catalonia itself: separatists or constitutionalists, the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) or Ciudadanos, Mr. Puigdemont or Mr. Mas, Ms. Arrimadas or Mr. Domenech, the CUP, the CDR protest groups and all the rest. Two national governments have tried in their own ways to solve the problem. Judges and prosecutors are doing their bit, but the problem is still there and Spaniards in the rest of the country, not only in Catalonia and Madrid, are very aware of it.

In December, elections were held in Andalusia and it was the first time there had been elections in some other corner of the rest of the kingdom since the separatist crisis of 2017. All the seats that changed hands (24 of them) went to the two parties that have most openly stood up to the separatists: Ciudadanos and Vox, with Vox being the big novelty this year. Next month, on April 28, a general election will take place throughout Spain. What message will ordinary voters send to their elites, especially with regard to Catalonia? What will workers in Badajoz or housewives in Alicante say? Will the plumbers in Torre Pacheco or the national police officers in Mieres vote in favor of a bit more PSOE or Ciudadanos, another subtle shift, or will they decide that enough is enough, and that if no solution has been found for Catalan separatism for the last seven years, another, much broader, suspension of home rule, as proposed by Vox and the PP, is now in order?

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