Five years of clashes: independence versus recentralisation

The flip side of the Catalan independence process is the homogenisation that the PP has been advocating from Madrid

Hundreds of thousands of members of the public converged on Barcelona today to patiently wait for 17.14 in order to send a message to the world: we are here despite the threats of the Constitutional Court, the public prosecutor and the Spanish police. They were hoping to show Madrid and the rest of the world that crushing the movement won’t be as easy as some people seem to think. The two million people who favour independence are like the dinosaur from the short story by Augusto Monterroso ["When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there"]. In spite of all the Spanish police and legal proceedings, they will continue their struggle. They and all their nuances and degrees of involvement, because the independence movement is multi-faceted and it is not one-dimensional.

With the clash having gone this far it is worthwhile trying to understand how two such diverse viewpoints could have been created in Catalonia and Spain. And the reason is that, in fact, over the last five years two opposing processes have been underway. On the one hand, the one which has garnered more media attention: the Catalan independence process that started on la Diada [Catalonia’s National Day] of 11 September 2012. And, on the other, a recentralisation process led by the PP from the instant it came to power, at the end of 2011. The outcome is that, five years later, the distance between Catalonia and Spain, which was already huge, now stretches for light years.

The phenomenon is down to two entirely different interpretations of reality. When the PP was in opposition, it came to the conclusion that Spain’s system of autonomous regions was getting out of control and it needed redirecting. The PP’s think-tank, the FAES [The Foundation for Analysis and Social Studies], commissioned a report by Gabriel Elorriaga, Towards a Rational and Viable Autonomous System, which later served as a handbook for Mariano Rajoy’s government. For example, the report advocated broader controls over the autonomous community’s budget, limiting their ability to borrow, and recommended overhauling the entire devolution model to avoid replication and the waste of resources. The report’s author, Gabriel Elorriaga, even suggested stripping less populated autonomies, such as La Rioja and Cantabria, of their powers and argued for the elimination of small municipalities.

Once Rajoy took possession of the PM’s residence, the Moncloa, he separated the objectives which were achievable (recentralization) from those which could upset his supporters (the elimination of autonomies and municipalities) and put Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría in charge of the undertaking. The Public Administration Reform Commission (CORA) was created to address "the comprehensive study of administrative reform". This subsequently led to the creation of the Office for the Execution for Administrative Reform (OPERA). One gave the orders, while the other carried out the work. A large number of regional bodies have been eliminated as a result.

Nevertheless, the great decline in self-government ultimately came with the launch of the FLA [Regional Liquidity Fund], which has reduced the financial autonomy of Spain’s regions to a bare minimum, with the excuse that the EU imposed an austerity policy in response to the economic crisis. While the recession lasted, the Catalan government was on tenterhooks, since it never knew if it was going to be able to pay its employees. These systematic attempts at asphyxiation appeared to have been designed by an expert in psychological torture.

As a result, while Madrid dreamt of turning regional governments into mere administrators of services, imposing the preponderance of state legislation, torpedoing all attempts to broaden self-government, refusing to hold bilateral commissions and drawing out the negotiation of a system of autonomic financing that damages the Mediterranean communities, Catalonia was engaged in the opposite process.

Even before the official start of the [Independence] Process with the 2012 Diada, the ruling on the Catalan Statute had already convinced one of the parties responsible for its drafting, Artur Mas’ CiU, that it needed to be replaced and that Catalonia ought to withdraw from the system of a common regime in order to negotiate an economic agreement similar to that which is enjoyed by the Basque Country. This was seen to be a means by which to break the impasse created by the Constitutional Court. When Mas was halfway through his term in office, the PP's recentralisation plan was already apparent, meaning the hopes of reaching an individual financial accord went up in smoke. As early as 24 December 2012, the head of Catalonia’s Institute of Autonomous Studies, Carles Viver Pi-Sunyer, unveiled a report entitled The Process of Recentralisation of the Autonomies by the State, in which he warned that "the process of recentralisation is in full swing and the evidence leads one to the firm conclusion that in the immediate future this tendency will increase significantly".

This recentralisation is largely based on the Constitutional Court’s new doctrine, which grants the Spanish legislator virtually unlimited powers, making the legal debate almost "meaningless". Aside from this report, we ought to recall the one the Catalan government published in 2015, Chronicle of a Premeditated Offensive, which recounted the effects of Madrid’s policies on its citizens. It took an exhaustive look at measures to eliminate self-government, together with other, more ideologically-based attacks, such as those aimed at the Catalan education model.

Meanwhile, following the 2012 CiU-ERC pact, the Catalan government began to build its so-called statehood structures, with the idea taking hold that the only way to escape the PP’s clutches is for Catalonia to have its own state. The two parallel realities, one of a unified state and the other of independence, have gone ahead without overlapping for five years. Even as recently as last week.


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