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Catalan secessionism: More than just the economy (Policy Network)

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Article publicat al bloc del Col.lectiu Emma

GUILLEM RICO & ROBERT LIÑEIRA - 25 JANUARY 2013

Catalan nationalism has been prevalent for a long time, but the current climate is strengthening calls for a showdown with central government in Madrid

The recent upsurge of the secessionist movement in Catalonia is liable to over simplification. At a time when Spain’s economic situation is making the news day in, day out, the easy answer to the calls for Catalan secession is that it’s all about the crisis.

Indeed the crisis pervades the reading of every single political episode in the country these days, and it definitely has something to do with the sudden rise of the pro-independence movement. Yet the full story is much less straightforward – and probably much less compelling, too – than is usually heard from improvised accounts of the matter.

The recurrent argument goes like this:

As the country undergoes a severe economic recession, a growing number of Catalans –whose regional government was among the first to introduce harsh austerity measures in Spain – have become convinced that the negative imbalance between the region’s contribution to tax revenue and the public funds received from the state poses too high a burden on the region’s prospects for economic growth. Should Catalonia, by way of independence, be freed from this fiscal deficit, it would be much better off. Indeed, this rhetoric is openly endorsed by at least a portion of today’s separatists. The argument’s bottom line, thus, is that the crisis has undermined Catalans’ solidarity toward poorer regions, and so secessionism is mainly driven by economic concerns.

Even if there might be some truth to this, and rapid impoverishment has indeed moved some citizens to the independence camp, we feel that the economic crisis is less of a cause than it is a trigger, whose effects are as much felt for economic reasons as for political reasons.

On the one hand, Catalan nationalism has been around for a long time. Nationalist parties –some of which embraced secessionism well before the current climate emerged – have enjoyed substantial support since the advent of Spanish democracy. Indeed, Catalan nationalism’s flagship force, the centre-right Convergència i Unió (CiU) party, has obtained a plurality of seats in all regional elections to date, and currently hold more than twice as many seats as any other party, following the most recent election on November 28th last. Clearly, nationalist discourse has dominated regional politics for decades. As such, the potential for a separatist challenge was already there.

On the other hand, scholarly research has shown that, as well as on any other issue, the public’s preferences concerning the territorial organization of the state are to a great extent shaped by the positions taken by the political parties. Although voters’ general attitudes about this controversial issue appears to be closely related to deeply felt territorial identities acquired early in life, the relative support for specific territorial models is powerfully influenced by contingencies of the political process. For one thing, that support for secession is larger now than at any point in recent history has much to do with CiU’s sudden switch from a position of calculated ambiguity between incremental advances in self-government and empty gestures about self-determination, to (a no less ambiguous) commitment to the creation of Catalonia’s “own state.”

This move has allowed CiU to again be perceived as the party that best defends the interests of the region. The nationalists’ image as the champions of Catalonia’s interests suffered in the early 2000s, when they had to rely on the Spanish conservatives to sustain their minority government in the regional chamber. The marked centralist profile of the conservative government in Madrid seriously damaged CiU’s nationalistic credentials while at the same time fuelling Catalans’ support for enhanced self-government. When new elections brought the Socialists to office both in Madrid and Barcelona, an ambitious statutory reform was launched with the aim of taking Catalan autonomy a big step forward.

However, this project would bring the territorial question to the forefront of the Spanish political agenda, inaugurating a period of fierce political controversy between and within parties and regions. Finally, the attempt to channel the last unresolved problem of the Spanish polity ended with a contested decision of the Constitutional Court that substantially diminished the region’s newly acquired powers and appeared to bring the Spanish territorial model to a dead end, while causing a strong feeling of frustration among the Catalan citizenry and political elites.

The Catalan Socialists failed to get re-elected in 2010, partly because of this unsuccessful attempt to enhance self-government, but above all on account of the dramatic consequences of the economic crisis and the erratic policies of president Zapatero. It would soon become apparent that the major political effect of the crisis was to be the collapse of the Socialist Party – and that of its political projects. If the statutory reform killed many hopes in Catalan society, the economic crisis killed the main advocate of territorial reform within the Spanish constitutional setting. No credible alternative to secession seems to have survived the crisis.

So how does all this speak to the European Union?

What are the future prospects for EU integration if domestic solidarity erodes?


The current independence fever is not as much a question of inter-territorial solidarity as is a matter of political trust and availability of alternative projects. Indeed, it is a well-known fact that economic crisis dampens trust towards political institutions. But not all institutions are equally affected. Whereas the territorial organization of the state has been a contentious issue in Spanish politics, there is a widespread consensus on the process of European integration.

As a result, even if trust in domestic and European institutions has severely dropped in Spain as a consequence of the recent events, support for the European project remains uncontested among elites and citizens alike. Neither proponents nor detractors of secession conceive a future outside of the EU, and both use the alleged odds of an independent Catalan state retaining or loosing EU membership as their key argument in the debate. By contrast, the idea of putting an end to the territorial model of the so-called “Spain of the autonomies” has always been a common aspiration of both Spanish and Catalan nationalists.

Robert Liñeira is Professor at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. His areas of research focus on electoral systems, public opinion and voting behavior.

Guillem Rico is a lecturer and postdoctoral researcher at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and Universitat Pompeu Fabra and author of Líderes políticos, opinión pública y comportamiento electoral en España.

This article is a contribution to Policy Network's work on The limits of nation state social democracy.




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