This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.
Last week, the president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, declared the region’s independence from Spain. Puigdemont claimed that 38.47% of the Catalonian electorate voted yes in a referendum–a vote that lacked transparency, a vote in which it’s clear some people cast ballots multiple times. The chimerical coalition that governs the Hispanic northeast is attempting to convince the world that the outcome of these unofficial ballot boxes is more than enough justification for Catalonia’s secession from Spain.
The day after the pseudo-referendum, the Spanish central government gave Puigdemont an ultimatum: Revoke your declaration by October 16 or risk your region’s autonomy and face your own imprisonment as specified by the Spanish Constitution. That day came without any repeal, the government extended the deadline, and a court ordered the imprisonment of two independence leaders for possible sedition after a judicial investigation found they had organized the harassment of court and police officers acting on search warrants the day before the referendum. Spain is now hanging from the edge of the cliff.
The Nationalist Agenda
Mr. Puigdemont and his partners argue that Catalexit is the right thing for Catalan people and companies. Supporting his cause are personalities like the pro-Brexit right-winger Nigel Farage, the xenophobic Dutch politician Geert Wilders, the leader of racist Austrian party Heinz-Christian Strache, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Julian Assange, and the same Russian propaganda machine that supported Brexit (and Trump). Many Western media outlets joined this party when TV footage showed Spanish police charging with batons, rubber bullets, and tear gas against people trying to vote. Countless journalists, as well as Facebook and Twitter users, quickly reacted to injury reports, bloody photos, and brutal videos–some of which were later debunked, even while the use of force was terribly real.
Those who support Catalonian secession by default support the official nationalistic myths, which have been taught in schools and broadcasted in government-controlled media for decades now: Catalonia, they say, was originally a singular nation that found itself beneath the boot of Spanish tyrants ever since Isabella, Queen of Castile, and Ferdinand, King of Aragon, joined their territories by marriage to form the Kingdom of Spain in the 15th century (in reality, Catalonia was not a nation under any standard, but a county that became part of the Crown of Aragon). Catalonia, they claim, tried to secede from Spain in a war for independence in 1714 (in reality, it was a civil war of succession that resulted in the end of the Principality of Catalonia for not backing the “right” heir to the Spanish throne). Much later, in 1939, General Franco established a dictatorship that hindered Catalonia’s soul.
That last part is certainly true. But the independence narrative loses yet another wheel with its claim that since the death of the dictator, the evil central Spanish government has continued his iron fist policy against the people of Catalonia, stealing their money and actively destroying their national identity, sovereignty, and democracy.
If you live in the United Kingdom or followed Brexit, these arguments may sound familiar. They bear great resemblance to the arguments that Brexit supporters–including Mr. Farage–used against Europe in 2016. These myths have been convincingly debunked by pro-European organizations. Still, perhaps you think that the reasons for Catalan independence are real and Spain is indeed a fascist estate with an evil government that exists solely to steal Catalonian money and suppress voting.
Facts say otherwise. In economic terms, the Catalans contribute less money than Madrid or the Balearic Islands to an economic system that redistributes funds from rich areas to poorer areas–much the same way that the European Union does. Data is stubborn and it shows that “Catalonia is not being robbed.”
In political terms, voting in Spain has been a regular thing since its people approved a democratic constitution after Franco’s death, the law of laws that broke almost four decades of dictatorship, arguably ushering in the most peaceful and prosperous period in the history of the country. At the time, on December 6, 1978, more than 90% of all the voters in all four provinces in Catalonia voted yes to the united Spain presented in the constitution. Since then, and since the approval of the re-establishment of the Generalitat–a regional government with as much power as the American states–the people of Catalonia have elected their Parliament a total of 11 times, the last one in 2015.
Spain’s Politicians: Shortsighted And Rogue
So what’s truly the problem here?
A coalition called Junts pel Sí, Catalan for “together for yes” (to independence) won that election. In that coalition there are two main parties. The first one is the now-defunct CDC–a conservative, nationalist party supported by the same Catalan bourgeois oligarchy that once rabidly supported General Franco. The second one is ERC, a historical separatist and republican leftist party that absorbed some of the former members of nationalist terrorist group Terra Lliure (free land). Junts pel Sí got 39.59% of the vote in the 2015 election, which was not enough to obtain the presidency of the Generalitat.
To gain power, Junts pel Sí allied themselves with CUP, a self-defined Marxist-Leninist group. According to its political program, the CUP wants to establish the Popular Republic of Catalonia, putting it out of Spain, out of the European Union, out of the euro, and out of capitalism altogether by unilaterally canceling all the region’s international debt, nationalizing all banks and public resources, collectivizing all production activities, and establishing taxes for all bank accounts, all under the vigilance of political committees that will act as the guardians of the revolution.
CUP members don’t only excuse Stalin in the name of the alleged progress of the Soviet Union, but the party actively uses Stalinist practices, calling citizens to harass those who don’t support independence or copying USSR posters advocating the expelling of non-Catalans out of their nation. The CUP was also the promoter of the xenophobic movement that harassed tourists all over Catalonia and the Balearic Islands last summer.
They also harass journalists: Reporters without Borders recently condemned the multiple “insults, intimidation, and threats against journalists that oppose independence for the region.”
So how can the conservatives of the former CDC–a self-defined centrist-right middle-class party aligned with the Catalan Catholic church–be associated with the CUP, the antithesis of their own existence? The key here–and one of the drivers of the Catalan crisis–is in the word “former.”
CDC doesn’t exist as a party anymore. Spanish courts obtained material proof and testimonies that revealed an organized criminal system in which the party and its leaders, with its founder and president Jordi Pujol at its head, used their power to extort companies to pay an extra 3% out of every public contract, which went directly into their pockets. This giant corruption network was established in 1980, which Pujol and CDC won with its coalition partner Unió.
Despite the overwhelming evidence, CDC accused the Spanish government of political prosecution, but when the public opinion pressure became unsustainable, those still untouched by the investigation decided to fold CDC and create a new party called PDeCAT (Catalan European Democratic Party). It seems as if, for Pujol and his cronies, the only way to save their asses from getting into jail is by getting Catalonia out of Spain.
But ERC and CUP don’t care about CDC/PDeCAT’s motives. Polls show that ERC will destroy the last remnants of CDC in the next election, whether it is within Spain or in an independent republic. CUP just wants to advance its anti-everything agenda no matter what. Their motives are self-serving, to obtain power without really considering the needs of the Catalan people. None of them really care about CDC/PdeCAT’s corruption, which is the same corruption that they denounce in the central government of the Popular Party (PP) in Madrid, which also plagued the Socialist Party governments that came before and after the PP.
We now know that, for years, the Spanish left and right parties fueled nationalism in Catalonia (and the Basque Country, but that’s another story) by action and inaction. They needed the collaboration of the Catalan nationalists in CDC and Unió to grab Madrid’s throne, so they kept transferring competencies to the Catalonian government.
With education in their hands, Pujol and his crew established a system to educate kids in the nationalist narrative, using history books that distorted while not blatantly inventing events. In Catalonia’s government-controlled TV and radio, newscasts are obviously slanted toward the nationalistic cause and Goebbelsian portrait of prostitutes and evil characters as Spanish speakers while every other person speaks Catalan. Pujol and CDC also built a well-greased local journalist machinery, funneling institutional advertising money to friendly newspapers and radios–something that the Spanish central government does as well.
After the post-Franco transition period led by President Adolfo Suarez, all the presidents of Spain–Felipe González, José María Aznar, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and Mariano Rajoy–used the Catalan nationalists to their advantage without caring about the long-term effects of their actions. They didn’t care that children and adults were being given a slanted education through schools and media. And they tolerated the 3% corruption network because they needed Pujol’s support to access the government and maintain their own corrupted individual and party financing networks.
Ultimately, leaders on both sides of Spain’s political spectrum have always focused on the short-term grab for power, argues Matt Qvortrup, a politologist, Brexit expert, and author of Referendums Around The World. Qvortrup says that Brexit was supported by the hatred of the European Union fueled since the days of Thatcher, David Cameron’s stupid ambition, and the leave side’s reckless lies to the public in a bid for power. Talking to the Spanish newspaper El Independiente, Qvortrup said that the same is happening with Catalexit: “[The politicians] are not working for the interest of the nation, but to make their loyals happy […] It’s the Donald Trump syndrome.”
Indeed, Spain’s current political clusterfuck could have been avoided by capable leaders on both sides of the board. Most recently, the indolent President Mariano Rajoy–who I certainly would argue is the worst president in the history of Spain–could have avoided the use of police force, during this month’s unofficial referendum vote, to maintain the legality and respectability of sanctioned elections as protected under the Spanish constitution.
To be sure, Rajoy’s heavy-handed tactics–regardless of fake viral images and videos–only gave ammo to the other irresponsible leaders, Puigdemont, Oriol Junqueras (the ERC boss), and their comrades at the CUP. They continued their confrontational path by declaring independence–no matter if Puigdemont suspended it right after, perhaps to avoid prosecution for treason–while ignoring the voice of more than half of the Catalan population, who were split on the issue during the last election. Hundreds of thousands of them finally took the streets in a massive march last Sunday.
Even more critically, by declaring unilateral independence, Puigdemont was showing blatant disregard for the law itself. Instead of breaking the law, he could have initiated a much slower but legal push for a change in the constitution, working with national parties that propose a federal structure for Spain.
That’s a major factor in this mess. Regardless of political positions, a democracy needs to respect its own rules in order to work. Without law there’s no equality and security for people and organizations. Without equality and security, there’s no ground for peaceful coexistence, trade, and innovation. And when a government abolishes the law to advance a political agenda, valuable companies and people run away.
Getting out of Spain would have devastating effects on Catalonia’s economy, even more so than Brexit. Despite nationalistic propaganda, the European Union has clearly stated that the territory would automatically be outside of the Eurozone’s political and economic space. Without the support of the Central European Bank and the Spanish government itself, Catalonia would probably default in no time. Borders would be closed too.
Fear of being left out of the European Union started to have a real effect last year on the region’s economy. The independence movement escalade over the past few days has opened the floodgates. Some of the biggest companies in Catalonia have abandoned the region to establish their legal base in Madrid and other Spanish cities.
Big industrial conglomerates like Gas Natural Fenosa and Criteria, controlled by former CaixaBank president Isidre Fainé, have left. Prompted by international funds and customers taking their money away, historical Catalonian financial institutions like CaixaBank and Banco Sabadell have moved their financial headquarters out of the region, too. Even cava manufacturers are moving out. These are true Catalan institutions in their own right, some with more than a hundred years of history.
But it’s not only big business that is fleeing. Hundreds of medium and small companies (almost 700 at the time of publication, 150 in the last two days) have left to other Spanish regions, helped by a central government decree that makes the process much easier.
Being out of the European Union means that these companies would have trouble exporting their products and services, as they would be subject to custom taxes. It would also limit their ability to hire people, something that is already affecting startups in Barcelona. While some businesspeople keep their faith in the future of the city as a main technological hub in the continent, no matter what happens, others feel that they may have to leave. Just today, it was announced that the Catalan situation has diminished the country’s growth forecast for 2018.
There are reportedly thousands of individuals taking their money out of local bank branches in fear of a “corralito,” a mechanism they worry the Catalan government would use to force citizens to keep their money in the region, even while CaixaBank or Banco Sabadell claim that this is not technically possible.
Some immigrants and natives are also abandoning the region because they are tired of the independence-movement pressure and its aggressiveness. For all their call to dialogue, the independence champions say, if you are not with them, you are a fascist. Even recognized fighters against the oppression during the Franco years, like singer Joan Manuel Serrat, are classified this way by the independent movement.
The Constitution Is The Way
Like Brexit, with a stalled negotiation in which Theresa May and her mariachis seem to think that everything will get resolved to their favor, this confusion and fear doesn’t seem to have an end in sight in Catalonia. Last week, Puigdemont declared independence using the results of a referendum that didn’t follow the (illegal) law that his own coalition approved. Then he immediately suspended the application of something that has no international consequences (his unilateral call for indepenence) to call for an international mediation. It’s as surreal situation as the art of Dalí or Lorca.
Some may agree with Puigdemont’s call for international mediation, but the fact is that you can’t call for “mediation” in a democracy because democracy is mediation by definition. External mediation is something that needs to happen when there are no rules for engagement between two parties. By nature, democracy already has a set of rules that guarantees peaceful negotiation between people with different ideas. It’s the basis for modern civilization.
And democratic dialogue can’t happen from an illegal position. First you need to re-establish a legal frame and then you can talk and vote about anything you want. The dialogue has to happen first in Catalonia’s society, without tricks or manipulation from any side. This Thursday, Puigdemont should become a responsible politician, revoke the independence, and call for the 12th Catalan election if he really wants to get Catalonia out of an internal civil conflict that is ripping apart the region’s seams.
That internal conflict, and no external factor, is the true enemy of Catalonia’s society and economy right now. If Puigdemont doesn’t back down, the radical pro-independence position will only cause more turmoil in Catalonian society, and lead to the destruction of this beautiful region’s economic fabric and innovative spirit.