On the Front Line: The ‘Catalan Problem’

On the Front Line: The ‘Catalan Problem’

Juan Enrique Ordóñez Arnau

The philosopher Ortega y Gasset was an MP of the Second Republic in 1932 when the first Catalan Statute of Autonomy was debated and passed. In his parliamentary speech, he commented that the “Catalan Problem” was impossible to solve and would require continual revisiting and collective work. The current events urge us to once again question how to approach the conflict. Indeed, one could call it the “Spanish Problem” as much as the “Catalan Problem”. However, it is a blind adherence to a 19th century idea of nation on both sides of the debate that prevents us from moving towards reconciliation.

The Popular Party has constructed its political identity on the basis of an outdated conception of the nation and its defence. Mariano Rajoy has claimed that Spain is ‘the oldest nation of Europe with more than five hundred years of history’. This nationalist narrative was also sustained by Spanish fascism under the Hegelian-esque formula ‘Spain is a Unity of Destiny in the Universal’. This vision of Spain requires an exclusive national identity, and denying the existence of a Catalan nation is at the core of the conflict. There can be only one nation, Spain, and all the other political entities are lesser. Although factions of other parties such as PSOE share this view of the Spanish nation-state, the Popular Party has monopolised this narrative and has managed to use it to garner much electoral credit. When their economic policies have failed, the population has been lashed with austerity, and corruption cases have appeared on a daily basis in newspaper headlines, the cry that ‘they want to break apart Spain’ has kept many voters loyal to the party, seen as the best defender of the unity of the Spanish nation.

Likewise, the Catalan independence movement relies on the same essentialist notions of nationhood. The vast majority of members of the PDeCAT, Puigdemont’s neoliberal conservative party, the left wing ERC, and, ironically, many in the anti-capitalist municipalist CUP, hold a narrative of Catalonia as an ancient nation oppressed by the Spanish state. Joan Tardá from ERC asserts, for example, that Catalonia is a nation with more than one thousand years of history. Considering that Catalonia is one of the richest regions of Spain, we should not forget that many in the Catalan nationalist parties resent paying more taxes than poorer regions of Spain and they justify the need for independence because ‘subsidised Spain lives off the productive Catalonia’.

Just like the PP, these parties, coming from various positions on the political spectrum, have benefited politically by maintaining an entrenched nationalist position. The Spanish nationalist PP party and the various Catalan nationalist parties have supported each other over the years. On the one hand, they have each played the same role to the other of being Carl Schmitt’s ‘enemy’ necessary to construct a nation. On the other, their mutual support has involved Puigdemont’s party propping up the PP in government during Jose María Aznar’s presidency in an agreement similar to the current DUP-Conservative pact in the UK. This did not raise any eyebrows at the time, as both parties are conservative and neoliberal. Indeed, there have been accusations that the latest patriotic outburst from both sides has been engineered to cover up the many corruption cases affecting both the Popular Party and the PDeCAT. However, it would not be correct to reduce the crisis to a smoke screen; the conflict is real even when it has been used to cover up other events.

The situation currently making international headlines is the second part of a chapter that started in 2006. In that year both the Parliament of Spain and the Parliament of Catalonia voted in favour of a new Statute of Autonomy. The legal structure of Spain, that follows Roman law, has the Constitution as the highest law. Under it there are the regional Statutes of Autonomy, which have to comply with the Spanish Constitution. In 2006 the people of Catalonia voted yes in a referendum with a landslide majority in favour of a new Statute of Autonomy, which declared Catalonia a nation. To be clear, this Statute of Autonomy had already been passed by both the Catalan and the Spanish parliaments before the referendum. The Popular Party, then in opposition, having failed to stop it democratically, decided to take it to the Constitutional Court arguing that it was noncompliant with the Constitution. It is worth noting that ten out of twelve magistrates are political appointments in the Constitutional Court, and the PP managed to recuse a progressive Catalan magistrate, resulting in a conservative majority. The tribunal made extensive changes to the Statute, essentially retracting it to a watered down version closer to the original 1978 version. There were massive protests in the streets in response to the verdict, and subsequently the independence movement has had an unprecedented growth, going from 14% in support to 47% in support in the latest polls.

This tactic is typical of the Popular Party, both in power and in opposition, and we have seen it again in the recent referendum. Avoid political dialogue and use the courts and the police to tackle any attempt to gain autonomy. The PP’s current passionate defence of the 1978 Constitution is ironic given their ambivalent position at the time of its birth. The PP, then called Alianza Popular, was split in its support to the Constitution with few members voting in favour. In the current situation, the PP presents itself as the one and only defender of a constitution that is set in stone for eternity. It is of course a fallacy, as the forty year old constitution can and should be adapted to the new context – especially since the original 1978 Constitution was drawn up under the pressure of fascist institutions, overshadowed by sabre rattling from the army, and continual terrorist attacks from right, left, and nationalist factions.

The inevitable consequence of using the courts to block independence movements is the use of the police to enforce the legal rulings. However, the violence of the police against peaceful citizens on the day of the referendum created an unexpected international empathy with the Catalan independence movement and multiplied its support in Catalonia. Whilst the state can crush this particular bid for independence via the courts and the police, the government can, at the same time, be morally defeated, both nationally and internationally. Through the police brutality against peaceful protestors shown in the media it can lose the moral high ground, and in not condemning and distancing itself from demonstrations by fascists can be seen as condoning them. However the PP is trapped by its own logic; being guarantor of the Constitution and the unity of Spain, they cannot be seen as weak or compromising by their voters.

The solution to the current crisis proposed by the PP, and supported by PSOE and Ciudadanos, has been a legal takeover of the devolved powers of Catalonia. They have removed the leaders of the independence bid from power, taken over the control of the police, and intend to force new elections. This is not a solution but a displacement of the problem, it will encourage support for the independence cause in Catalonia, making the problem even more acute. PP and conservative sectors of PSOE’s insist on a dialogue ‘within legality’ meaning without entertaining the possibility of changing the Constitution, however the conflict is a political problem and it can only be solved, if it can be solved at all, politically.


The polarising narratives promoted by nationalist movements, both Spanish and Catalan, crush alternative narratives and identities. The 19th century conception of nation-state evoked by both sides is inextricably linked with empire and colonialism. Political movements in old Spanish colonies as well as pre-dictatorship anarchist and socialist Spanish traditions are giving inspiration to new ideas. Plurinationality has been used in Bolivia and Ecuador as an attempt to reconcile indigenous interests with the modern state, including a constitutional change to enshrine the rights of Pacha Mama. The anti-austerity party, Podemos, has borrowed this idea of a plurinational state, which has started to get support from some members of PSOE.

Pablo Iglesias has said that a ‘new plurinational Spain’ requires a project ‘associated with social justice and popular sovereignty’ with a ‘republican spirit’. Tapping into the Spanish libertarian socialist traditions of the early 20th century, experiments of participatory democracy have been successful all across Spain, but especially in Catalonia. Examples include the ‘Mareas’ associations, the PAH (Platform for People Affected by Mortgages) or indeed the Catalan coalition party the CUP. The CUP is an anticapitalist, socialist, feminist, municipalist coalition of parties and associations. It has a structure of assemblies constituted by participatory democracy rather than a traditional political party structure, and is a key agent for the independence of Catalonia.

As mentioned above, many members and groups within the CUP support the narrative of the oppressed nation and the idea of an independent nation-state of Catalonia despite their incongruence with the municipalist stance of the coalition. Other parties, such as Ada Colau’s Barcelona En Comú, agree on the necessity of a referendum; indeed more than 80% of the Catalan population agrees with this way to express the will of the Catalan people. However, they are much more suspicious of the benefits of an eventual separation from Spain and construction of a new independent nation-state. Their suspicions increase when they hear Catalan nationalist politicians speaking for the people as if everybody was supportive of their view and the Catalan people were a homogeneous and ancient entity. A unilateral declaration of independence by the Catalan government can be seen as an attack on the democratic rights not only of the Catalan people that did not support the referendum, but also those who support the referendum but do not agree with the nationalist independence movement and its aims.

Different governments since the transition to democracy have either ignored nationalist movements or chosen to fight them through the courts. It is time now for the government to address politically a problem that is eminently political. Mariano Rajoy and the PP are incapable of solving the conflict; either because of historical myopia or because of calculated political party gains. Likewise, some agents on the pro-independence side have become entrenched in a position, fuelled by their ‘oppressed nation’ narrative, that makes them incapable of dialogue with the Spanish state. It is important to differentiate between the current crisis of the referendum and the long-term issue of the place of Catalonia in or with Spain. In the first one, there can be winners and losers, in the second one we can either all lose or win. Sadly, the PP, with the support of PSOE and Ciudadanos have chosen to go down the route of dissolving the Catalan government, and forcing new elections. This will not resolve the situation but simply delay it, while increasing divisions.

A way out of the quagmire would be to create a space for dialogue, with mediators if necessary, between the Spanish and Catalan governments. What the Spanish government can offer in exchange for cancelling the bid for independence is to start a process that will end with a call for elections and the creation of a constitutional constituent assembly. This assembly is a parliament dedicated to debate the change or creation of a new constitution, which would then be presented in a referendum to all Spanish citizens. To be successful the assembly would need to recognise the right to self-determination as declared by the UN in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Only this would provide the necessary framework to allow a conversation about different notions of nation, the form of the state and the foundations for a future together.


Juan Enrique Ordóñez Arnau is a PhD student in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths University and a teacher of Modern Foreign Languages at John Fisher School in Purley.

Image: Kippelboy CC BY-SA 3.0