The sardana is a Catalan folk dance in which those taking part link hands in a circle that widens as newcomers arrive, or shrinks as those tiring from their exertions leave to talk to friends or sit in nearby cafés as the dance continues. Lacking the passionate intensity of the flamenco, visitors to Spain often find it dull, but since the dance illustrates the way in which social harmony may be combined with the freedom of the individual it is possible to see the sardana as a metaphor for the open society. General Francisco Franco banned the sardana, along with other forms of traditional Catalan culture, because he regarded it as subversive; as a consequence, the dance, which Catalans continued to perform, came to be regarded as an act of defiance. “There was something silent and strong about it: the linked hands, always in a circle, the symbolic protest of an oppressed people,” wrote one historian of Catalan culture.

Catalonia is now among the richest and most successful regions of Spain, with a population of seven-and-a-half million, and a capital, Barcelona, which enjoys an intense rivalry with the Spanish capital, Madrid. It has its own parliament and, until the Madrid government took direct control of the region in late October, the Catalan Generalitat had control of education, health, and police, and also enjoyed a measure of fiscal autonomy, if not as great as that enjoyed by the Basques. Catalonia has its own public service TV station and its own anthem, and its street names, formerly in Castilian, are now in Catalan. Fluency in the Catalan language, the teaching of which was banned during the thirty-five years of Franco’s rule, is a necessary requirement for employment in the public sector and even for some jobs in the private sector. It is the language of the schoolroom and lecture theater as well as the bar and café. The Spanish flags outside public buildings have been greatly outnumbered by Catalan flags, which can also be seen hanging from the windows of apartment blocks, houses, and businesses in every village, town, and city in the region.

A large portion of Catalans still believe themselves to be oppressed and undervalued.

Remarkably, a large portion of Catalans still believe themselves to be oppressed and undervalued. This embrace of victimhood is intimately linked to an abiding conviction that Catalans are different from other Spaniards, which in some respects they are. How telling that Catalonia’s national day—the Diada—commemorates a defeat, not a victory. This occurred on September 11, 1714, when Barcelona fell to Philip V during the War of the Spanish Succession, a conflict in which Catalonia had backed the losing side. Their mistake carried a high price: the large measure of independence that the Catalans had previously enjoyed under the French was gone. It was not the first or the last time that Madrid and Barcelona found themselves on opposite sides of a conflict. As to the unique nature of Catalan culture, the truth of the matter is that all of Spain’s seventeen autonomous regions have their own distinctive cultural features, and three—the Basques and the Galegos, as well as the Catalans—have their own language. Yet the Catalans, acutely sensitive about any development that might erode their culture or identity, evidently believe that what they call the hecho diferencial—the differentiating fact—means that while all are different, some are more different than the others.

Catalan traditions and customs such as the sardana and the castell, the human pyramid on which a small child precariously balances on feast days, have been carefully nurtured, while the symbols of Spain have disappeared or are treated with disdain. When the Catalan parliament voted to outlaw bullfighting in 2010, many Spaniards concluded that this had less to do with concern for the welfare of bulls than with a desire to demonstrate the region’s cultural and moral superiority. Their suspicions are possibly well founded: the ban does not cover a form of bull running, the bou embolat, which involves attaching lighted flares to the horns of the bulls. In 2010, the Catalan Generalitat refused to back the bid to hold the Olympics in Madrid; when the bid failed there was a widespread boycott of Catalan cava, the Spanish bubbly wine, by other Spaniards.

“Catalonia is not Spain” was among the most frequent of the slogans used during the run-up to the referendum on independence, which was staged by the Catalan government on October 1 in defiance of the Madrid government, Spain’s Constitutional Court, and King Felipe VI of Spain, all of whom declared that the vote violated the Spanish constitution. As tensions mounted ahead of the referendum, Catalan’s President, Carles Puigdemont, announced that in the event of a simple majority a unilateral declaration of national independence would follow almost immediately. “Catalonia is Spain” became the slogan of those opposed to independence. It is the kind of disagreement that it is difficult to bridge.

It would seem that some in Madrid regarded the idea of an independent Catalonia as so absurd and improbable that they did not take the threat seriously. Spain’s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, had promised that the referendum would never take place and had ordered the Guardia Civil, the country’s national police—in Franco’s day the feared instrument of state control—to seize ballot boxes and voting materials and to take all necessary measures to prevent it from happening. Further, Rajoy made it clear that in the event of a declaration of independence, the national government would evoke Article 155 of the 1978 Spanish Constitution in order to take direct control of Catalonia prior to fresh regional elections. Madrid also took steps to bring the Mossos d’Esquadra, the regional police, under central control.

The Catalan leadership responded by enabling voters to download their ballot papers on their computers and encouraged their supporters to occupy the schools in which voting booths had been set up so that votes could still be cast, while insisting that the Mossos d’Esquadra must continue to take its orders from Barcelona. In the event, around 2.2 million (or 42 percent of those eligible to vote) took part in the referendum, of whom more than 90 percent voted to leave; it is claimed that a further 700,000 were prevented from voting by police action.

Most members of the regional police force ignored the instructions from Madrid, while a group of Catalan firefighters intervened directly on the side of those seeking to vote. In clashes with demonstrators, masked members of the Guardia Civil fired rubber bullets and made free use of their batons. According to the Catalan government, more than eight hundred demonstrators were injured, although figures released by the Catalan health authority days after the police action had been widely criticized in the international media showed that figures had been somewhat exaggerated, and that only five people had been sent to the hospital.

In his first ever live television broadcast, the King accused the Catalan authorities of acting illegally by flouting the constitution and attempting to destroy the unity of Spain, while eroding harmony and coexistence within Catalonia. He made no mention of the police violence—for which the Madrid government issued a belated apology—despite the fact that it had led to a demonstration involving more than a quarter of a million people followed by a public-sector strike. The demonstration was quickly followed by demonstrations opposed to Catalan independence, in Barcelona and in other Spanish cities. The King’s words may have done nothing to diffuse the situation and may well have fanned the flames of republicanism within Catalonia, but they were evidently well received by many Spaniards.

At a session of the Catalan Parliament on October 10, President Puigdemont, a former newspaper editor, declared the Madrid government’s threat to invoke Article 155 of the Constitution to be “the great act of repression since Franco.” Although only 38 percent of eligible voters had in fact cast their votes in favor of secession according to the Catalan government’s own figures, he insisted that the result provided full democratic legitimacy for a declaration of independence. But he asked the Catalan Parliament to suspend the effects of declaration so that international mediation could take place.

Unsure whether the declaration had been made or not, Rajoy demanded clarification—which Puigdemont’s reply, long on rhetoric and short on clarity, failed to provide. The European Union, which the Catalan leadership naively supposed would provide a form of mediation sympathetic to its aims, showed no enthusiasm to get involved; it backed the Spanish government, as did the United States, Britain, France, and Germany.

On Friday, October 27, Rajoy got the clarification he had demanded: the Catalan Parliament supported a motion to declare independence by seventy votes to ten, with opposition MPs abstaining. Outside the Parliament, tens of thousands of Catalans celebrated into the early hours, drinkingcava and chanting “Viva la Republica Catalunya.” Some danced sardanas.

Within hours the Madrid government had fulfilled its threat to invoke Article 155 of the Constitution to suspend the Catalan government; replaced Puigdemont as President with Spain’s deputy Prime Minister, Soraya Sáenz Santamaría; sacked the region’s police chief; and called regional elections for December 21.

Puigdemont reacted by calling on his supporters to follow a campaign of “democratic opposition.” The world’s media then focused its attention on the offices of the Generalitat to see whether the displaced Catalan President, on record as saying that he would be prepared to go to jail for the noble cause of Catalan independence, would turn up for work as usual, and what would happen if he did. Puigdemont, having sounded the call for a massive campaign of civil disobedience, promptly fled to Brussels with four of his ministers. There he met separatist Flemish politicians and hired a lawyer specializing in asylum cases. At a chaotic press conference, Puigdemont denied rumors that he would either seek asylum or set up a government in exile, insisting that he would return to Spain to face the charges that he expected to be brought against him, provided that “certain guarantees” were given by the Spanish government and that he was treated fairly. Later, through his lawyer, he announced that he had no immediate plans to return to Spain and would prefer to be interviewed by the Spanish judicial authorities while remaining safe and at liberty in Belgium.

As Puigdemont addressed the Brussels press conference, a public prosecutor announced in Madrid that the former president and his ministerial colleagues may face charges of rebellion, sedition, and embezzlement (for the €6.2 million of public funds used to stage the referendum). The charge of rebellion, which has not been brought since the botched military coup of 1981, carries a maximum sentence of thirty years, but a government spokesman cheerfully offered Puigdemont and his colleagues a little consolation: they would be free to contest the December election—provided that they were not in jail.

The economic aspects of Catalonia’s grievance should not be overlooked.

Three days later, on November 2, Oriol Junqueras, the dismissed vice president of Catalonia, was remanded into custody along with seven other sacked ministers and charged with rebellion. Further charges are likely to be brought. According to the judge, Carmen Lamela, the eight accused had shown “a repeated history of criminal behavior.” Outside the Madrid Court where the hearing took place, demonstrators waved the Spanish flag and shouted “Traitors.” In Barcelona, demonstrators took to the streets to protest their imprisonment, and a spokesman for the Republican Left party, one of the three separatist parties that had formed the ruling coalition, declared: “They have jailed the legitimate government of Catalonia. Today they have jailed democracy. But they do not realize they cannot imprison freedom.”

At the time of this writing it appears likely that Puigdemont and his four colleagues will eventually be returned to Spain following the issue of a European Arrest Warrant.

When we consider the roots of the present political and constitutional crisis, the economic aspects of Catalonia’s grievance should not be overlooked. Spain’s system of fiscal transfers is complex, but it is evident that Catalonia puts considerably more into the national coffers than it takes out. While its population accounts for 16 percent of the Spanish population, it is responsible for 25 percent of Spain’s exports, produces 19 percent of gdp, and brings in 20 percent of the country’s foreign investment. To be sure, many similar inequalities exist in other countries without giving rise to quite the same level of resentment, but Catalonia’s resentment, it should be stressed, has deep historical roots and cannot be regarded purely as an economic matter. In his outstanding analysis of the causes of the Spanish Civil War, Gerald Brenan described the attitude of many Catalans to the Madrid government at the turn of the twentieth century: “We in Catalonia must sweat and toil so that tens of thousands of drones in Madrid Government offices may live.” According to Brenan, such complaints were common as early as the seventeenth century. Catalans are equally vehement in their denunciations of the corruption and waste which they allege characterizes the Madrid government, usually overlooking the fact that the Catalan Generalitat is deep in debt and has known more than its fair share of financial scandals. It owes €77 billion at the last count, or 35.4 percent of Catalonia’s gdp, of which €52 billion is owed to the Spanish government.

The dramatic developments described above, containing elements of farce as well as high drama, recklessness, brinkmanship, and obduracy, point to a contradiction in Catalan society. Catalans are generally regarded by other Spaniards as hard-working, calculating, thrifty, and down-to-earth, if somewhat prone to moaning about their lot. In the post-Franco period, Catalonia’s separatists have eschewed violence as a political tool—unlike the Basque separatists of eta, but this has not always been the case; indeed the historical record demonstrates that the down-to-earth quality which Catalans display in everyday life can give way to periodic bursts of intemperance and extremism. In the early years of the twentieth century, Barcelona hovered perpetually on the brink of civil unrest as separatists, anarchists, and communists all pursued radical agendas. In 1909 the Governor of Barcelona wrote: “In Barcelona there is no need to prepare the revolution simply because it is always ready. It leans out of the window onto the street and if the atmosphere is not right it goes back in again.” In the 1930s, immediately prior to the Spanish Civil War, Barcelona, or “Bomb City” as it was known, was the center of growing anarchist agitation and violence; assassination was frequently employed as a political weapon. The demand for Catalan independence gathered strength. In 1931 the left-wing Catalan leader Francesc Macià declared national independence, only to withdraw the declaration three days later under pressure from Madrid. He accepted a deal that gave the region semi-autonomous status, an arrangement which lasted until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, in which Catalonia again found itself on the losing side.

Following the regional elections of 2015, the fractious Catalan coalition of separatists led by Puigdemont, comprising left-wing and centrist parties, repeatedly demanded a referendum on independence, probably the only issue on which they could agree, suspecting correctly that Rajoy would not yield to their demands. Hardliners among them saw this as an essential part of a step-by-step approach to bring direct conflict with Madrid, thereby arousing the electorate’s deepest anxieties and fears and reviving the somewhat flagging public support for independence. Rajoy’s heavy-handed response, combined with police brutality, initially served their purpose. But as the crisis has worsened, more than one thousand companies, including two major banks, have announced their decision to move their headquarters from Barcelona and other Catalan cities. Those Catalans who oppose secession but who were reluctant to vote against it in an election that had been declared to be illegal point to the fact that extraordinarily little serious thought has been given to the many new laws and institutions that would be needed by a new Catalan state, and they have begun to organize themselves. The emergence of an increasingly integrated European Union may have once encouraged Catalans to believe that they could wean themselves away from dependence on the Spanish state, but now the assumption that Catalan membership of the E.U. could be taken for granted looks increasingly foolish. Hastily produced proposals to create a central bank and a new currency look more like the result of panic than of careful planning.

The future course of events is difficult to forecast, but it seems likely to contain the same elements of farce, risk-taking, and high drama as those of recent weeks. The news that all of Catalonia’s political parties, including those who favor secession, intend to contest the December elections is welcome news. If—despite the fact that their leaders may be in jail, awaiting trial, or holed up in Belgium—the separatists prevail, they will have increased leverage to demand a change to the constitution that would permit the legal referendum they have so long sought. In what may perhaps be seen as an olive branch, Alfonso Dastis, Spain’s Foreign minister has suggested that it might be possible to stage a referendum of all Spaniards on whether the constitution should be changed to allow regions to vote on secession. Rajoy, whose uncompromising and centralizing approach has alienated so many in the region, would be wise to make further concessions: while there is clear majority support for a plebiscite, no recent survey of opinion has shown majority support for independence. If, however, parties opposed to independence were to win office, there would be grounds for hoping that the tension between Madrid and Catalonia could be reduced through a new economic relationship. This would require pragmatism and a willingness to compromise, characteristics for which Spanish politics is not noted. The only thing that is certain is that what the philosopher and essayist Ortega y Gasset described as the “Catalan problem” is not going to go away. In a famous speech he declared:

It is a perpetual problem, which has always been, and will remain as long as Spain exists. . . . It is something that no one is responsible for; it [lies in] the very character of that people; it is its terrible destiny, which drags distress throughout its entire history.

Exorcising the ghosts of Catalonia’s past is not going to be easy.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 4, on page 40
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
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