The Catalan events pose a challenge to the sovereignty of the Spanish state as well as casting light on sovereignty in the EU. At stake is a redefinition of the concept and practice of sovereignty in Europe and much of the onus for that falls on both the Catalan and the Spanish radical Left.
The challenge to Spanish sovereignty
The Catalan struggle for independence became a mass movement in the 2010s partly as a reaction to the hostility of the Spanish state. The current political dispensation in Spain is based on the post-Franco constitutional compromise of 1978, which recognised and granted considerable autonomy to the Catalan, Basque and Galician people. In 2006, the Catalan Statute of Autonomy was approved by the Catalan Parliament, subsequently ratified by a great majority in a legal referendum, and an amended text was formally accepted by the Spanish Parliament.
Immediately after the Statute’s enactment, the right-wing Popular Party (PP) appealed to the Constitutional Court, which decided in 2010 that important parts of it were unconstitutional, especially those referring to the national identity and the rights of Catalonia. In 2011 the PP government of Mariano Rajoy was elected and has continued relentlessly to antagonise Catalan autonomy. Its actions have caused further humiliation in Catalonia, spurring the movement for independence.
Equally important was the decision in 2012 by the then president of Catalonia, Artur Mas, to embrace the cause of independence. Faced with a growing social mobilisation against his austerity policies and enmeshed in large-scale corruption scandals, Mas sought to escape by blaming Madrid for Catalonia’s ills. The independence movement drew on the popular mobilisations of 2010-2 and was led by the conservative PDeCat and the centre-left ERC, while also containing the radical, anti-capitalist CUP. It has inevitably posed a direct challenge to Spanish sovereignty, peaking with the referendum of 1 October 2017 and the subsequent declaration of an independent Republic.
The Spanish state’s response has been implacable, including large-scale police violence and the arrest of the elected Catalan leadership on charges of rebellion and sedition. Its actions have debunked the notion that “such things” do not happen in Europe. The Catalans have discovered to their cost that the ultimate sanction of sovereignty in Spain, and also in other European states, is physical, juridical and ideological violence.
They have also discovered that the sovereignty they seek, if it is to be more than a mere word, must rest on authority that can draw practically on new institutions of fiscality, law and security. These can be created neither by subterfuge, nor by gradual detachment from existing institutions. They must result from an open process that would establish an alternative centre of power, thus inevitably generating conflict with the incumbent Spanish state.
In sum, the Spanish state has just demonstrated that it is fully aware of the underlying reality of European statehood. In contrast, the conservative leadership of the Catalan movement has shown itself entirely unprepared for the demands of sovereignty, for instance, by failing to propose a new concept of citizenship, or be radical in economic and social policy. This is not truly surprising, since the leadership is neoliberal in economic ideology and believes fervently in the EU. The Catalan campaign has consequently failed to attract mass support among wage workers and the poor of Barcelona and other urban centres, who are in good part fairly recent immigrants from the rest of Spain and tend to be bilingual in Catalan and Spanish. The lack of political preparedness has given to the campaign an air of unreality, at times verging on the absurd.
Sovereignty in the EU
The light cast by Catalan events on sovereignty in the EU has been no less revealing. The prevalent discourse claims that member states have surrendered a part of their sovereignty to the EU, thus pooling it into a larger unit capable of confronting the demands of the ‘global market’, not to mention other large states, especially the USA and China. The crowning glory has been the creation of the EMU, which rests on surrendering national monetary sovereignty.
From this perspective, the nation state in Europe appears to be a historical anachronism. This view often takes an economic veneer, sometimes with reference to Rodrik’s trilemma on the impossibility of globalisation, national sovereignty and democracy. The nation state is either a source of transaction costs, thus forfeiting the putative benefits of globalisation, or a mere pawn confronted with the power of the “market”. Pooled sovereignty in Europe is presented as a shield against market pressures as well as a guarantor of democratic freedoms.
In truth, sovereign power in the EU has always been far more complex, and there is no simple tussle between the nation state and EU institutions. The conduct of EU institutions is largely determined by nation states as well as by the ceaseless lobbying of giant enterprises and big banks with a permanent presence in Brussels. In the course of the Eurozone crisis the role of some nation states has been strengthened, as has the role of governments sitting together in council. Dominant in the EU is a hierarchy of “core” nation states, above all, Germany and France. The process, however, remains fluid since the Commission has also acquired fresh powers as part of the Excessive Deficit Procedure and by policing the compliance of nation states with the Six Pack.
The EU has been absolutely indifferent to the transgressions of the Spanish state regarding democracy and the right to self-determination. It has mattered not at all that the Catalan leadership is staunchly Europeanist, conservative in economic policy, and hoping to establish its sovereignty within the pool of the EU. The EU hierarchy of nation states, chary of further fragmentation in Belgium, France, Italy, and so on, has turned a deaf ear to Catalan pleading. The presumed pooling of sovereignty in the EU has offered no democratic advantages to the Catalans when confronted by the Spanish state.
A fresh perspective
In the coming months tensions are likely to rise again. The Spanish state has squelched the first inept challenge to its sovereignty, but its actions have worsened the impasse rather than resolve the crisis. If there are Catalan elections on 21 December, Rajoy’s government could face a defeat that would give a new boost to the demand for independence. It is also likely that there would be a rebalancing within the independence movement as support for the centre-right PDeCat is waning in favour of the centre-left ERC, while the radical CUP is also making headway. That would present a fresh opportunity to reshape sovereignty in both Catalonia and Spain.
The starting point must surely be the right of the Catalan people to self-determination. However, its content ought to be carefully worked out with a view to reshaping sovereignty in three important ways. Namely, sovereignty in the Catalan Republic ought to be, first, radical in economic, political, and social terms, second, potentially open to federation or confederation with Spain and, third, free of any lingering illusions about the EU.
To put it differently, Catalonia could offer to Europe a new and inclusive concept of citizenship supported by radical policies and resting on new democratic institutions, which challenging directly the Spanish constitutional settlement of 1978. Such a prospect could appeal to working people in both Catalonia and Spain. On this basis, independence for the Catalan Republic could be redefined, as it were, from the bottom up, leaving open the option of federating or confederating with Spain.
The only political forces able to put forth such a perspective belong to the Catalan radical Left – both inside and outside the independence movement – as well as to the Spanish radical Left. Their task is far from easy, particularly as the Catalan radical Left is split between CUP and organisations that have kept aloof of the independence movement, such as En Comu Podem, led by Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, or even organisations that defend self-determination, but do not support the demand for independence. But reaching an understanding among them is feasible, particularly as another shambles for the Catalan independence movement would probably lead to the resurgence of the Spanish Far Right – already waiting in the wings.
Creating nation states has never been a legitimate aim for the radical Left. Nonetheless, it has consistently defended the right to self-determination, participating in and supporting national liberation struggles, always with the aim of social transformation. If Catalonia and Spain are to break out of the impasse and to avoid further descent into violence and authoritarianism, this is the tradition on which they should draw.