For the last 130 or 150 years, the Catalan issue —that is, Catalonia’s socioeconomic, cultural and political specificity and the demands that stem from it— has been many different things in Spanish politics: a headache (the Count of Romanones once wrote that if every Spanish province had posed as many worries for Madrid as Barcelona constantly did, Spain would have become ungovernable); a problem (which, as Ortega y Gasset noted in the Constituent Parliament of the Spanish Republic, “cannot be solved, but merely withstood”); an enemy that must be crushed and defeated by military force (Franco’s 1938 decree during the Spanish Civil War mentions “the advance of our glorious troops into Catalonia’s territory”); or, in the best case scenario, an oddly-shaped reality for which “a proper fit” must be found.
In the last few days of negotiations and parliamentary debates to elect a new Spanish president, the Catalan issue has been rebranded a nuisance (“estorbo”, in Spanish). In other words, if Catalonia did not exist, Spain would have had a stable, mostly coherent government for weeks now.
It should be noted that if Catalonia did not exist —rather, if the Catalan issue did not exist— the vow of a self-determination referendum for Catalonia would not have featured in Podemos’ election manifesto. Freed from such a constraint, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias would have been able to agree on a progressive platform with the PSOE, where the only difficulty would be to decide how sharp their turn to the left ought to be; in other words, deciding what to do with fiscal pressure, with the demands of austerity emanating from the EU, with Spain’s employment laws and so on. In all likelihood, they would have clinched a deal without mentioning quicklime (1).
If Catalonia did not exist as a political reality that demands sovereignty, Ciudadanos would merely be a young, pro-reform, centrist, Spanish political party, eager to free the judiciary from the grip of politics, to scrap the Senate and judicial immunity for elected officials, keen to get rid of Spain’s provincial administration and so forth, but without its current trademark obsession with preserving Spain’s national sovereignty and rejecting any kind of self-determination vote, as well as opposing Catalan-medium teaching in Catalonia’s schools in the name of their crass trilingualism policy. Therefore, not only would Albert Rivera be able to reach an agreement with the PSOE —which he has already done— and coexist with its Catalan branch without the present discomfort, but he would also be in a position to find some common ground with Podemos.
If Catalonia did not exist —or if it were like any other Spanish region, such as Extremadura, Castilla y León or Aragón— the PSOE would not feel morally bound by the PP on all issues and every debate to do with the defence of the Nation’s unity. Likewise, they would have had no need to side with Rajoy’s government in its judicial response and appeals with the Constitutional Court against the political initiatives of Catalonia’s pro-independence majority. Nor would they have forced their Catalan chapter, the PSC, to drop from their election platform any mention of a mutually agreed referendum on the future political status of Catalonia. To sum up, if there were no Catalan issue, the PSOE would become a true government alternative to the PP rather than —as it is nowadays— merely a watered down version whose only distinguishing features are a friendlier, less aggressive demeanour and a more gentle rhetoric.
If Catalonia did not exist as a strong political identity with a powerful separatist pulsation, Catalonia’s current pro-independence lawmakers in Madrid’s parliament (Esquerra Republicana and Democràcia i Llibertat) would be very like Coalición Canaria or —in the past— the Partido Socialista de Andalucía and the Partido Aragonés Regionalista, albeit more numerous. In this scenario, the seventeen MPs of Esquerra Republicana and Democràcia i Llibertat would be —together or separately— perfectly acceptable political partners for the PSOE and even for the PP, with a view to securing a parliamentary majority to get a president elected or to support the Madrid government. Instead, these Catalan representatives are treated as some sort of political pariahs, isolated behind a cordon sanitaire, and their active support (as well as their abstention) on occasion of Pedro Sánchez’s frustrated investiture had to be emphatically rejected so that the PSOE leader would not have to bear the stigma of being called the traitor who dared to pawn the “unity of the fatherland”.
Despite the crisis of Spain’s bipartisan system and the complex parliamentary arithmetic arising from the elections of December 20; despite Mariano Rajoy’s worn-out leadership and the fragility of Pedro Sánchez’s; despite Albert Rivera’s limitless ambition and the fact that Pablo Iglesias and Podemos hope to gobble up the political space occupied by the PSOE since 1977; in spite of all that, I would like to emphasise that, were it not for the Catalan nuisance, Spain would have had a president since the end of January and certainly no later than early February. It is one of the great paradoxes of the last few days: while it is nowhere to be found in the 66 page long agreement between the PSOE and Ciudadanos, even though it was only mentioned in passing during this week’s debate, the “Catalan challenge” is the greatest hurdle on the road to the formation of a government in Spain.
In 1993, once communism had collapsed and the Czechs felt that the Slovaks were a burden and a nuisance, they pushed for a friendly separation. But Madrid is not like Prague at all.
(1) N.T. In a recent parliamentary speech Pablo Iglesias hinted that former Spanish president Felipe González might have been ultimately responsible for the murder of Basque militants in the 1980s, whose bodies were buried in quicklime by Spanish death squads.